The following is an article I wrote that was published in Youthwork Magazine this month (November 2011). Its concept came from some posts and discussion that have appeared on this site, but I developed the theme directly for the magazine audience of Christian youth workers and ministers. Feel free to leave a comment at the end!
Unashamed Youth Ministry
Why Christian youth work mustÂ become more open about its purpose byÂ reflecting on its practice and not being afraid of its Christian voice.
Luke already had a broken collarbone when he came on the residential. We didnâ€™t think he could get into much trouble with his arm in a sling, but a few days later after a heated argument with another young person, Luke ran off into the surrounding fields. He later told us that his intention had been to take some time out, calm down and circle back to the camp but things went quickly wrongâ€¦ Initially he had a lucky escape by avoiding a herd of cows, then he had to fight his way one-handed through a field of crops. The next obstacle was a narrow stream, unfortunately Luke didnâ€™t see it as he burst out of the vegetation and he fell headfirst down the muddy bank into the water.
Hurt, wet and cold, Luke pressed forward refusing to acknowledge the difficult situation he was in. He would just keep going. So he got himself up and blindly pushed ahead to face the final hurdle: a small wire fence. He reached out with his one free arm to climb between the rungs, and received a sharp jolt of electric current through his body. After great effort and many shocks, he pulled himself through the fence. When he finally arrived back at the camp around half an hour later, he was covered in mud with ripped jeans and tears streaming down his face.
Lukeâ€™s misadventure is a true story. Sadly, many of the obstacles he faced could have been avoided and his tale now serves as a reminder of how important it is to pause and look at the bigger picture. Sometimes the church can be guilty of a similar attitude to Luke; we just keep going without properly assessing the seriousness of the situation we are in. If we took the time to look around us and reflect honestly, we might realize there are things that urgently need our attention.
We have known for a long time that young people are leaving our churches. There has been a steady decline in youth attendance for decades and research data suggests that institutional churches are seeing a ‘Generational Half Life’ â€“ essentially for every new generation that passes, church attendance halves. Perhaps even more worrying is the research that has come out of the US suggesting that while many young people identify themselves as Christian and regularly attend church, they have a great ambivalence towards their faith viewing it more as a leisure activity similar to music and sports than a radical way of life. This trait has been named ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ because it has the effect of people being ‘good’ and feeling ‘good’ through worshipping God. Author Kenda Creasy Dean calls it â€˜Almost Christianâ€™ because while it resembles Christianity, itâ€™s not the real deal. Although there are some cultural differences between here and the States that should be accounted for, there are enough similarities in these findings to make us in the UK sit up and take notice. The term â€˜almost Christianâ€™ will ring true for many youth workers struggling to engage young people in outworking their faith in meaningful ways.
For those of us working with young people outside of the church environment, the news isnâ€™t much better. Although there are a great many community-based youth clubs and activities run by Christian churches, organisations and individuals, not many are reporting significant converts to the faith through these initiatives. It could be argued that salvation is not the necessarily the aim of this work and it is about doing something of benefit for others (a perfectly valid approach), but I also think there is another issue at work: we have become so worried about offending others that we simply donâ€™t tell them about Jesus any more. Can it be that we now contradict Paulâ€™s words in Romans 1:16 and are actually ashamed of the gospel?
I know a fourteen year old who is extremely passionate about animal rights. Unfortunately his methods for raising awareness of the issues are confrontational and aggressive. He recently staged a one-man protest outside the local pet shop complete with megaphone and placards, which resulted in his arrest. Undeterred, he has gone back numerous times to shout at anyone who will listen (and those who wonâ€™t) about the cruelty of keeping animals in cages. While I admire the passion, his method for spreading the message has aggravated and alienated people who might otherwise be sympathetic to his cause. When it comes to sharing the Good News that we have, none of us want to be like that and so it seems that many of us donâ€™t say anything.
In the book â€˜The Faith of Generation Yâ€™, the authors researched Christian youth projects working predominantly with unchurched young people. Their findings suggest, among other things, that many Christian youth workers are not willing or able to share their own faith in these settings. Instead it was found that they prefer to rely on ‘doing good things’ and expect young people to ask them why. In 1 Peter 3:15 we are told to: â€œalways be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you haveâ€, and it is understandable for us to want to set such a good example that people are drawn to Christ in us. The problem with this as our only approach in sharing the gospel is that young people simply donâ€™t ask the question! Itâ€™s not important to them why someone runs the youth cafÃ©, just that it is open for them. For them to really engage with the Christian faith, they need to be introduced to it in a meaningful way and that is not always happening.
We are also guilty of using pretty sneaky tactics to get young people attending church activities. The old â€˜bait & switchâ€™ is a classic where young people are invited to a fun youth club night, but then forced to sit through a gospel presentation. Itâ€™s the same approach that salespeople use when trying to sell time-share!
But we must also recognize that while these problems do exist and should be addressed, they are not necessarily representative of every aspect or expression of the church. We only have to look at the thousands of young people attending Christian camps and festivals across the summer to know that young people are active and thriving in some congregations. It may well be that youth are missing from more traditional forms of church on a Sunday morning contributing to the Generational Half-Life, but that doesnâ€™t mean they are not present or connected to other forms of church throughout the week. The surveys are not counting the young people who attend Youth Alpha courses on Monday nights, or those who go to the mid-week Bible study. We may need to work hard to avoid them becoming â€˜almost Christianâ€™, but the youth of the church are alive and well!
It is a different story for young people in general. The recent cuts in government spending have absolutely decimated the statutory youth services across the country and derailed brilliant youth programmes that were relying on funding and grants. As a result, some areas now no longer have any coordinated youth provision and young people have been left with no support or places to go. Coupled with high youth unemployment, soaring university fees, and the demise of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), it is a difficult time to be a young person with many becoming angry or disillusioned.
But the good news is that we have the Good News! As the Christian church, we have something unique to offer young people who are being let down by society: a transformational hope in Jesus. Since the first disciples were commissioned in their duties to preach the gospel, the church has been compelled to defend the poor, the marginalized and the hopeless. Perhaps now more than ever we are needed to step up and help out in our communities and there is a big opportunity for us to develop new and creative work with young people who are losing other means of support.
Regardless of the political rhetoric, the Big Society agenda is pushing youth provision back to the third sector. For the first time in decades, voluntary youth services and charities are being asked to lead the way forward on their own terms rather than jump through the convoluted hoops of â€˜targeted and accredited outcomesâ€™ to justify their existence. While this brings certain challenges, practically it could mean that we see a rise in youth projects and services that unashamedly promote and explore the Christian faith. I believe that more than anything else, the key for Christian youth work moving forwards is to rediscover its authenticity and to stop being ashamed or apologetic about its mission. Working in this environment could be the antidote for those Christian workers who currently feel unable to share their faith, and will also provide compelling role models and positive examples for those young people who are ambivalent about living for Jesus.
Churches particularly will be best placed for this as they typically have the resources to make something happen. That may be vision, staff, volunteers, buildings, motivation, or simply finances from a tithing congregation. Imagine what might happen if churches decided to use these resources to work with young people in their communities! Already there are some very encouraging signs. There are stories of Churches linking up with other organisations to form creative and responsive activities. Some examples include churches taking on old youth club buildings, employing statutory youth workers, starting detached projects, and even forming a voluntary youth service with strategic partners to deliver work across an area where the council has pulled out.
What these pioneers show us is that it is possible to build partnerships with non-Christian businesses, organisations and individuals, yet still retain a clear and distinct Christian ethos. Of course any exploration of our beliefs must be done with sensitivity and respect to those around us, but our faith should be honest about its intentions, and secure enough to discuss them openly. As a result, when dealing with these partners, I have generally found people very respectful and supportive when we are clear about our methods and motivation. Conversely, the times where issues and misunderstandings have occurred are when we have not been up-front about our agenda. With this understanding, it is OK for churches to be running sex and relationships education in the community. It is possible to have sessions exploring Christianity run in statutory youth centres, and itâ€™s celebrated when crime is reduced as a result of young people engaging in a worship service! We have an important role to play and need not be embarrassed about our reasons for being there.
This is a time like no other. Yes, it is vitally important for churches to take a long hard look in the mirror and address some of the issues in our work, but it is also a time for Christians to get out there and run projects and services that support young people in an authentic and honest manner, while modeling our faith. This is a time for Christian youth work to shine.
 Voas, D., Crockett, A., (2005) Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging, Sociology, 39: 11-28.
 Smith, C., Lundquist Denton, M. (2005) Soul Searching: Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, New York: Oxford University Press
 Dean, K. C. (2010) Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, New York: Oxford University Press
 Collins-Mayo, S., Mayo, B., Nash, S. (2010) The Faith of Generation Y, London: Church House Publishing