Youthwork Summit Reflections

23 May 2012 — 4 Comments

Well I finally made it to the Youthwork Summit. After 2 years of near misses, it was good to be at the event and participate along with 1,000 other Christian youth workers. The following is some of my notes and observations from the day, but is no means comprehensive. The official summit website will be posting videos of the talks (along with previous years), so keep an eye on that to get a better taster of what it was like.

What is great about the summit is the format. Because everyone only speaks for between 5-15 minutes, and they all cover a diverse range of topics, it means there really is something for everyone. If you don’t like or agree with one presentation, you’re only a few minutes away from something different that may be more relevant to you! There were over 25 different presentations ranging from neurology, sex, and mental health through to media, technology, culture and discipleship! Honestly, if you went for the day and didn’t find something that interested you, I’d be checking for your pulse!

Highlights for me were:

The Kingdom of God in 5 mins

Marc Williamson and Steven Mitchell argued for better understanding and use of feature films in youth ministry. As they say:

“Cinema is the new church. People gather, share life, and God is there with them!”

I was challenged by the suggestion that we need to stop cherry picking scenes from movies that back up our message. They made the point that if we endorse one clip from a film, then we’re effectively endorsing the whole film.

“Cinema is scratching the itch the church isn’t scratching”

Bearing this in mind, they suggested 5 modern feature films across a variety of genres and ratings that say something about the Kingdom of God (with a disclaimer that they don’t necessarily endorse showing these)! The films are:

  • The Muppets – A simple story of redemption with a group of people trying to get back to their promised land. They can’t do it on their own, but an outsider steps in as saviour and brings them home.
  • Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn part 1 – Teens understand the angst of love for eternity. It focuses on the conception & birth of a baby. A miraculous birth that eventually unties warring factions and brings peace and reconciliation.
  • Thor – God’s walking amongst men! Story of a God sent to earth, stripped of his majesty but desperately seeks to be reunited with his father. He learns to put aside his pride and heritage in order to find his way back to his inheritance.
  • Brides Maids – Tackles theme of happiness and what it is. How do we deal with change? what do we do when bad things happen? How do we cope if we hit rock bottom?
  • Saw 3D – It may be “torture porn” but is not just blood and gore. The survivors of the gruesome tests are ‘reborn’ and start to live their life to the full because of what they’ve been through.

The guys have posted the full transcript of their talk on the Reel Faith website. It’s worth a read.

Going further with the joy of teen sex

Ruth Corden was brash and brilliant, highlighting the absolute need for youth workers to tackle the issues of sex and sexuality head on. She had people shout out slang names for genitalia which led to the confession from Phil Taylor:

“This is the only Christian conference where I get to yell out “bollocks”!”

In her few minutes on stage, Ruth pointed out that female terms for genitalia tend to be derogatory, but male ones are either comically innocent or bragging. She tasked us to listen to how young people talk about themselves and to challenge it when it’s offensive. She also explained that young people believe some ridiculous things about sex and we need to challenge these myths. Here are some headline stats:

  • On average 14-17 yr old teens watch 90mins of porn a week
  • 3 in 10 learn about sex through porn
  • yet 60% say porn gives them the wrong idea of sex

Ruth concludes that young people want to know about sex, but are finding out the wrong info through porn.

Your youth group is watching porn

Later on, Dr WIlliam Struthers continued with the porn theme, showing that the average age of exposure to porn is 11 for males and 13 for females, but this is decreasing in newer studies. Porn is widely accessible and younger kids don’t seek it out, but find it by accident or when it intrudes upon them (e.g. spam emails). Apparently 1 in 6 teens receives a sexual image of someone they know! He claims that young people are looking for intimacy in porn and we all assume that sex is about genitals, but sex is 99% about what happened between your ears. He explained the top 5 reasons that people use porn are for:

  1. sexual release
  2. curiosity
  3. boredom
  4. self-medication (e.g. from stress/anxiety)
  5. due to feelings of isolation

He asked what habits are young people developing and pointed out that youth workers don’t want to talk about it coz they’re doing it too, and don’t know how to handle it. He said we should combat this by encouraging sexuality that points us to God (he even used the legendary phrase “biblically sanctioned orgasm!”), generate appropriate intimacy – not just through sex, and encourage community as the response to isolation. He summarised that sex is about the 4 B’s: bodies, boundaries, babies, and bonding.

The alter call, born again

Kate John‘s presentation was simple, but practical. She started with the observation that in ministry, Jesus’ death is always accompanied by sad music! We tend to use the same tired illustrations over and over again, but only tell small part of gospel message because we think that teens can’t handle the full detail and overarching story from the Bible. She reminded us that the great commission wasn’t to make converts but to make disciples, so we should experiment with evangelism by playing with the message using:

  • cultural satire
  • big story context
  • broader theology
  • their imagination

We should also experiment with the medium using:

  • small units of time (5mins)
  • interactivity (e.g. texting)
  • creative effort

She explained how she did 2 hours of complex theology in this format with non-church young people and it was both fun and engaging. The challenge to us was to re-imagine how we present the gospel to young people.

This is my culture

A young Polish man called Janusz told his tragic story of moving to England as a boy and eventually being taken into care. Things changed for the better once he was settled with a family, and he connected with a local youth project which helped him to make friends and build confidence. It was desperately sad tale, yet he stood there on stage encouraging youth workers to keep going because we can make a difference for other young people like him. He stated:

“I’m here to tell you, you do so much for us. Thank you”

That was definitely a standout moment.

You’ve got nothing to say!

Rebecca Hamer told us about her listening project Space with a blunt statement:

“You don’t know what those young people are going through. It’s not your story. Stop talking and start REALLY listening; not waiting for your chance to speak, not defining the conversation but hearing and understanding.”

She explained that she got into youth work to help people, so initially shutting up felt like a straight jacket. But she found something amazing happened through the project: the young people started to hear themselves for the first time and it helped them to realise things they hadn’t noticed about themselves before.

Rebecca admitted that listening is hard work and you need to pick out feeling words. Also other’s pain is painful to us too and we naturally want to help, but we need to resist trying to do so. Have we forgotten to trust young people? Listening raises their self esteem as young people realise they can figure it out for themselves. She recommended Acorn Christian Healing for training on listening.

Let Go

Les Comee was great. In a slow and sincere presentation, he described his own story of getting stressed and burned out in youth ministry:

“I was exhausted, but I didn’t learn how tired my volunteers were either. What tires you out is listening to the hurt and pain of kids every day.”

His message was simple but important: self care. There’s no simple, easy solution to this. He stated that what keeps us from recovery is not sinfulness but speed! In addition to regular rest, we may need a mini-sabbath during the day to stop, be still and pray. It’s also ok to simply pray “help” over and over again! To finish his presentation, Les led us in a quiet, reflective time.

Choosing to be creative

Jamie Treadwell is an artist, coach and urban monk, but was brilliant at the summit! He started with the statement that everyone is creative, and sought to prove the point by engaging us in an impromptu performance.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality” – Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art

He claimed that as everyone is creative, our most important decision each day is to be creative. It’s your choice to do so, but you won’t have impact if you’re not creative. What is creativity? Two things:

  • Vision – clear mental image of what could be possible
  • courage – to step out

So how does this apply to youth work? What is youth work really about? To create a culture; create the whole way of life for those young people. They need a culture thats big enough and strong enough to help them grow and learn and develop.

Keeping the vision alive when the dream has died

Marko rounded off the event by telling his story of being sacked from Youth Specialties. He explained that he was devastated as so much of his identity was wrapped up in his role. Over those few weeks, he tried really hard to stave off a breakdown. On stage, he shared some of his journal entries from that time about fears for his role, future, family, etc. It was very raw and real. At that time, Marko wrongly assumed that hope was gone, but that situation him in a place to experience real biblical hope! Hope is not optimism or wishful thinking.

In Haiti just after the earthquake, Marko saw real pain and hurt and it was terrible. But he was surprised to find, and totally blown away by, the hope and positivity of those people. They were even praising Jesus in the street.

“I realised suffering and hope are 2 sides of the same coin. We’re obsessed with avoiding suffering and that is not right.”

Marko explained that God is well acquainted with suffering. So are our teenagers. But there’s a biblical pattern to hope. It starts with exile, moves to dissatisfaction, then to raw honesty and desperation. We need to name the fears and offer it up for redemption. If we push through it, we will find longing and hope.

God does rebirth! As youth workers, we should embrace pain & suffering (ours and others) to experience hope.

This was a slightly longer post than I intended, but there really were so many good bits from the day (and I haven’t mentioned Harry Baker, or Tim Vine)! You can see the ‘story’ of live tweets on the Summit Storify page.

Personally it was also great to finally meet some twitter friends who I’ve been talking with for a while. Thanks @emilyhewson @haysiegirl @youthleadersac @stephenpearson @raydriscoll. I think I also spotted @easyrew and @dancrouch from afar! Maybe we’ll meet next time…

Details of next year’s event are now live and you can book from 1st October. It will be Saturday 18th May 2013 in West Bromwich, Midlands so put it in your diary now!

Did you go to #yws12? What were your highlights? Let us know in the comments!


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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

4 responses to Youthwork Summit Reflections

  1. My reflections on #yws12:

  2. Hi again,

    loved this long post with break down of youth summit. Awesome!!!!! Love the way it is all so real and uses modern language and ideas youth can connect with! Praise God for this work! Woooo hooooo Jesus is so good!


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