Youth Workers or Youth Ministers?

1 July 2011 — 16 Comments

On Monday I presented at the Youth & Policy Young People and Faith conference. It proved to be a really interesting experience with time and space for debating the nature of faith from a variety of traditions and how it applies to youth work practice. I’ve come away with much food for thought!

I had been asked to speak from my practical experience of Christian youth work, looking at current issues in the work. This is the synopsis that I gave in advance:

“From its early beginnings as a response to social need, Christian youth work has been concerned with the well-being of young people. This has most commonly been outworked by an army of volunteers, yet in the last decade there has been a huge growth in professional training and qualifications for employed youth ministers.

In this professional environment, what is the distinction between ‘youth ministry’ and ‘youth work’, and what impact has this had on practice? Is this work effective in transmitting the Christian faith or simply instilling common values? Additionally what problems and opportunities arise for Christian youth work now that the statutory sector has been decimated?

Using examples from face to face work with young people, this session will explore the key issues affecting current Christian youth work practice in the UK through stories and discussion.”

I gave my presentation in three sections, using stories from my work and keynote slides on the screen to highlight points and ideas. At the end of the first two sections we broke into discussion groups to debate some of the topics raised. This discussion was the most useful part of the presentation and I was really pleased with the amount of debate that occurred. The audience was a good mix of faiths (and none) from academic and practice backgrounds. I’ve tried to summarise the content I covered below, but I know there is a lot more I could have included. I’d love to hear your feedback!

‘knock out!’ by andi.vs.zf on Flickr


The purpose of this presentation is to highlight some of the issues around Christian youth work practice. Due to the wide diversity of the Christian faith, I will talk in general terms and must be clear that there are various nuances and different opinions that won’t be covered here. I am also talking from a practice perspective – this is not a rigorous academic study.

1) Youth Work VS Youth Ministry

I believe there exists a tension between ‘youth work’ and ‘youth ministry’. From a Christian perspective, both terms are used interchangeably and could refer to anything from a formal Bible study with young people through to a community youth club. No-one really knows what it means.

Many churches employ ‘youth workers’ when they really want someone to systematically teach the Christian faith to young people, whereas some youth ‘ministers’ end up doing some excellent community-based educative youth work. Both the terms are problematic and don’t adequately describe the activities undertaken. Worse, when people talk of youth work in a Christian context, it raises the suspicions of non-faith workers who assume we are seeking to convert young people to faith, or simply involved in bad practice that is not considered youth work.

Professional Development

The huge growth in professional training for Christian workers hasn’t helped things in this regard. You can do a fully validated JNC course in youth work, or choose one with a ministry/theology module, or do a theology degree with added youth ministry. All these options have a different focus and methodology, yet everyone can call themselves a youth worker!

While I fully advocate professional training in youth work (it’s helped develop a better quality of practice & more rigorous theological framework), it has had some side-effects:

  • The general understanding of youth work by churches and employers has been mixed and often very poor, leaving workers with little or no managerial support or supervision. It has also led to conflicts with church leaders who expect the focus and results of the work to be more young people in church services.
  • As the focus has moved to employing professionally trained workers, there has been less focus and recognition of volunteers who have historically done most work.

So how do we define youth work and youth ministry in a Christian context?

Outside In / Inside Out

Pete Ward (1997) proposed a helpful, if crude distinction between Christian youth work and ministry. He termed it ‘Outside In’ and ‘Inside Out’. In basic terms, ‘Outside In’ involves working with young people outside of the church community often through an informal education approach. ‘Inside Out’ involves working with young people already connected to the church, around issues faith & spirituality.

This is great up to a point, but it has polarised the issue between those who favour one of these ways of working. For workers who wish to draw new young people into church (outside in), it can often put them in conflict with the church leaders who may prioritise those within the established church (inside out). It also assumes that the purpose of Christian work with young people is to draw them into church, or rather, faith.


All this raises the question about what is Christian youth work actually for? The answer probably varies depending on who you ask. Many people do youth work simply as a response to their faith because they want to help inspire, develop and resource young people, but their is no denying that most Christians believe the ultimate best for someone would be for them to come to an understanding of faith and become Christian. Does this mean that Christian workers are seeking to convert young people? Is this ethical and is it at odds with the wider values of respect, dialogue and democracy in youth work practice?

Youth Work and Ministry

Danny Brierley (2003) suggests that youth work and youth ministry are not opposed and should be seen as one coherent whole. He points to historical context for this and outlines in great detail how an informal educational approach is consistent with a Christian theological one (e.g. the ‘voluntary principle’ in youth work is similar to the idea of God providing people with free will).

“If youth work is the broad discipline involving all informal educators engaged with young people, then youth ministry is a ‘specialism’ within it.” (Brierley 2003,)

He suggests, that perhaps Christians should use the title ‘youth work and ministry’ to describe the range of work they do. It has never really caught on, but I would agree with his statement that youth ministry is a specialist discipline within wider youth work practice.


  • What experience do you have of Christian youth work or ministry?
  • How would you distinguish between the two?

2) Transmission of Faith

I’ve found that churches are not very good at being self-critical. Often they continue doing the same things in the same way, without really assessing how well things are going. In ‘The Faith of Generation Y‘, the authors unpack the world view of the young people they interviewed. Crucially, they found that young people today have:

  • ‘benign indifference’ (Collins-Mayo et al 2010). They have no ill intent towards, or much interest in religion.
  • ‘immanent faith’ (Collins 1997). They rely on themselves and a close circle of people around them rather than any ‘other’.
  • ‘vicarious’ faith (Davie 2007). When their own resources are not enough, they access religion through the few who have a ‘chain of religious memory’ (Hervieu-Léger 2000).

It’s not an encouraging picture overall.

So assuming that the ideal result of any Christian youth work is to engage young people in the Christian faith (whether that is explicit or not), how is it actually doing? What impact is it having on these young people who are involved?

Transmission in Christian youth work (outside in)

There are a great many community-based youth clubs and activities that are run by Christian churches, organisations and individuals. Large numbers of these will encourage the exploration of the faith, so what changes are they seeing? In a lot of cases (including my own), not much. The reason proposed by Silvia Collins Mayo and her co-authors (2010) is that Christian youth workers have been so effective at relating to young people, that those young people’s beliefs have simply been validated rather than challenged. Often Christian youth workers are not willing or able to share their own faith, rather they rely on ‘doing good things’ and expect young people to ask “why?”.

“For young people… who either do not realise or else do not care about the youth worker’s motivation, love is not enough. They need to know what the love is about if the youth workers’ behaviour is going to mean anything more to them than the fact that youth workers are simply nice people.” (Collins-Mayo et al, 2010)

If young people are to engage with the Christian faith, they need to be introduced to it. So why is it that Christian youth workers and ministers have not been able to convey the passion and motivation for their work? Why do many young people simply not get the importance of faith to these people?

Some are arguing that it’s because youth workers are uncritically accepting the ideology prevalent in much youth work training and adopting a “strategic liberalism” (Collins-Mayo et al, 2010).

“Proselytism (or evangelism) of any kind, whether overt or otherwise, is very difficult to justify within this strongly relativist ideological framework and so the idea that mature and sympathetic adults can work with young people to share an absolute value-set with them in order to equip them for a fruitful and happy adult life, or to share their faith in such a way that young people might accept it for themselves and benefit from it both temporally and eternally, is consigned to the past and replaced by a strange blend of postmodern relativism and progressive, neo-Marxist, so-called “liberal” Utopia building.” (J W Rephael)

So while in theory, informal education and Christian youth work share many values, in practice there has been some conflict.

Transmission in Christian youth ministry (inside out)

But what about youth ministry within the church? Are workers doing any better at teaching the faith to young people in the relative safety of the church and retaining them? Not really. We have known for a long time that young people have been haemorrhaging from our churches. The nineties were particularly bad. But the long-term trend is also worrying. It is suggested based on research data that churches are seeing a ‘Generational Half Life’ – that is for every generation that passes, church attendance halves.

“If neither parent attends [a religious denomination] at least once a month, the chances of the child doing so are negligible: less than 3 percent. If both parents attend at least monthly, there is a 46 percent chance that the child will do so. Where just one parent attends, the likelihood is halved to 23 percent. What these results suggest is that in Britain institutional religion now has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay.” (Voas & Crockett 2005)

Church attendance has been declining for decades but churches are only just waking up to it. Although there is some evidence that decline is slowing, there’s been a sharp downward trend. One of the possible reasons has surfaced in the National Study of Youth & Religion from the USA. Although 3 out of 4 teens in the US say they are ‘Christian’, they show great ambivalence towards faith. It is suggested that this is because what they have been taught and modelled is a weak and feel-good version of the Christian faith dubbed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (Smith, Lundquist Denton 2005). It’s a challenge-free Christianity based on being ‘good’ and feeling ‘good’. The result is that:

“…young people possess no real commitment to or excitement about religious faith. Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life.” (Dean, 2010:6)

While the culture is different here than in the US, the issue is the same.


  • Is Christian youth work and ministry compatible with informal education methods?
  • Why have Christian churches largely failed to retain people?

3) Moving Forward

So where does this leave us? Firstly, I need to state that while I have painted quite a desolate picture of current Christian youth work, I am actually very excited. Although it is true that the church in the UK faces the above issues which urgently need to be addressed, there is also a great deal of creative, innovative and passionate youth work that buck these trends. Now, more than ever, there is a need for good quality youth provision by Christians.

Post-State Youth Work

With the recent decimation of the statutory Youth Service, the government’s Big Society agenda is pushing youth provision back to the voluntary sector with little or no funding. For the first time in decades, voluntary youth services and charities are being asked to lead the way forward as the state no longer has the resources or inclination to do so. While it is a tough environment, it is also a big opportunity for Christian organisations to develop new and creative work with young people who are losing many other means of support. Churches particularly are best placed for this as they usually have the resources to make something happen; buildings, volunteers, motivation, and often finances from a tithing congregation. Additionally, there is still funding out there:

Two-thirds (67 per cent) of the youth associations and clubs surveyed said they or their members had been affected by cuts…  A further 27 per cent said the impact of spending cuts on youth clubs in their area wasn’t yet clear… But almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of respondents said they had been able to access alternative sources of funding to help plug the shortfall. These included providing services to the Church of England, bids to trusts and foundations, and donations from corporate partners and local businesses. (Children & Young People Now, 14th June 2011)

But even if churches pick up the slack from the state, how will that change the faith of young people? What will make a difference to encourage them to explore Christianity?


A big theme that has arisen out of recent studies on faith is the need for authenticity. The term has occurred in relation to Sikhs, Muslims and Christians: Young people are looking for the real deal. The diet of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not substantial enough and young people are willing to engage in something meaningful and worthwhile:

“The primary challenge that Generation Y makes to the Church is to maintain its collective identity as the people of faith living out the stories of god.” (Collins-Mayo et al, 2010:106)

I believe that more than anything else, the key for Christian youth work and ministry is to rediscover its authenticity and to stop being ashamed or apologetic about its mission. Obviously this needs to be done with sensitivity and respect, paying attention to the values of youth work practice, but faith should be honest about its intentions, and secure enough to discuss them openly.

To Summarise

  • There is great confusion and division over the distinction between youth work and youth ministry.
  • If the purpose of Christian youth work & ministry is to explore the Christian faith and encourage young people to commit to it, then it has been largely failing. We need to re-evaluate why we do what we do and ask honest questions about our motives.
  • There are great opportunities in the current climate for Christian youth work and ministry, but it must have a clear and authentic identity.



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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.

16 responses to Youth Workers or Youth Ministers?

  1. Lil Georgia Peach 5 July 2011 at 5:52 am

    One thing i am confused about, what is the difference between Moralist Therapeutic Deism and Pandeism? I have been hearing a lot about both lately. I hear about MTD from my Christian friends, and about Pandeism from a lot of non-Christians. Are they the same? Should i be worried about Pandeism?

    • Hi Georgia, thanks for the comment.

      Although I’m not an expert on either of these things, as I understand it Pandeism is a mixture of Pantheism (that “God” is the universe around us) and Deism (belief in a creator God who is no longer around or accessible). Pandeism therefore is the belief that ” the Creator of the Universe actually became the Universe, and so ceased to exist as a separate and conscious entity” – Wikipedia. Pandeism is not usually associated or compatible with the Christian faith.

      Conversely, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is simply a term given to describe the apathy of many within the Christian church. The beliefs and theology are no different to other Christians (within the same denominations), it’s just that the life-giving message of Christ has somehow been distilled to a feel-good mantra.

      So no they’re not really the same. Personally I wouldn’t be worried about Pandeism, it is simply a belief that some people hold. I’m more concerned about those who think and assume that they are followers of Christ, yet miss the call to action that is demanded in his teachings.

      I hope that helps a bit.

  2. I have worked in local authorities for 10 years. Mostly because I kept applying for churches/church projects at the beginning of my youth work career and kept getting knocked back. This became more and more apparent as I started getting work with local authorities and was still looking for work in churches. In the end I stopped looking and took it that God actually did want me to work within a local authority setting. I now realise that I’m in between the secular and Christian ‘sectors’ and can work between them both in this situation where the cuts have had a severe impact on provision, forcing youth workers to re-evaluate how they ‘do’ their work. It means that there will be more partnerships forming locally, where my new project will be able to be a key player. I can confidently take on partnership working with churches and colleagues can take on other areas of work.

    The term ‘ministry’ or ‘minister’ used to put me off applying for certain jobs, as I always saw myself as a ‘youth worker’ and didn’t see myself as spiritual enough for a youth ‘pastor’ or ‘minister’ title. There’s room for both, but I know what you mean about distinctions. In my head, youth drop-ins or youth cafes which are very informal and about a safe place for young people, can be very similar to local authority youth club sessions. These are your general outreach sessions and would be rightfully called “Youth Work”. Specific discipleship, small groups, Sunday schools and more evangelistic sessions I would call “Youth Ministry”. Hope that makes sense…

    • Hi Ems, although I’ve worked mostly in a Christian context, I would also describe myself as a ‘worker’ not a ‘minister’. Personally, I don’t think there is a conflict between the two though, it is all about the methodology of mission (or missiology)! Im still exploring my position on this so I may post about it at some point. Essentially I believe Christian youth work/ministry is totally compatible with general youth work/informal education principles.

  3. Finally leaving a reply . . . ! Good reflections, good comments, but I think we can get hung up on terminology, is what we call ourselves the “defining” feature (it describes what we do) or is our actual “practice” what defines us? I do not see, under the new covenant and Jesus’ own practice that there is a sacred and secular divide in terms of working with people. Good practice in a youth work context, IS also good Christian practice, the values of empowerment, choice, participation . . . all reflected in Jesus’ dealing with his disciples, with those he met on the road . . . WE have created walls and barriers because we lack confidence in God’s redeeming work for ALL creation, and where that migth actually take us if we were to completely trust Him above all others . . . an open youth club is an opportunity to shine, it is one of the places to be salt and light as Jesus commanded us to be – not through preaching or bible study, but by being . . . something we continue to struggle with – how do you “be” with young people? Contemplative Youth Ministry helps us think about this . . . if we are Jesus’s people, first. Then it is ALL ministry.

    • Brilliant Ali, I totally agree.

      One of the reasons I raised this whole point i because I don’t think it’s a valid divide, yet sadly I’ve seen so many workers hurt because they don’t have the ‘expected’ focus the church wants. Obviously blame can be attributed both sides, but I think we need to get to a point where we recognise what you are saying: good youth work IS goodChristian practice across a variety of settings! 🙂

  4. I finally blogged a response to this. Sorry for the delay! While I was probably slightly more reasonable on my blog in how I said it, I just don’t buy this youth ministry is a subset of youth work thing.

    • Thanks for this Mark. I loved your summary, and like the alternative viewpoint too. Not sure I totally agree or disagree though! It’s been interesting to put this out there and ask some questions, so I appreciate you responding. I guess you’d opt for the youth ministry side of this debate though!

      As I said to Emily above, I think the two are not exclusive and can/do sit together. I’m exploring what this means missiologically though. Watch this space…

      • Yeah, I mean I’d disagree with Brierley’s idea of youth work AND ministry which you agree with. Apart from some skills (child protection policy writing, how to start a discussion with 14 year old boys, etc…) I don’t think the two are actually that close. Or rather I think authentic Christian ministry is fundamentally different to youth work and so while might look similar in places won’t function like it at all. Even in the skills that are transferable, because the fundamentals are different, the skills will work out different. So a child protection policy that comes from authentic christian ministry will ring out about the self-sacrifice of a worker for the safety and protection of a child, will look at ways of loving giving ourselves over to their care and safety as Christ cares for his church and the Father for his children, knowing that their Father will protect them and their Saviour care for them. One that does not come from that place will struggle to ask that from workers, and also provide the motivation and promises to enable that to be carried out.

        I realise I’m saying something that goes against the grain a bit here, alas blog comments aren’t a good as forum to discuss this as the pub or something so the to-ing and fro-ing over this is lost and everything comes over more blunt than I’d like.

  5. Jon

    Pleased you’ve posted this – have only had time to skim it, but it raises all manner of issues for all youth workers about the relationship between the work and ideology. I hope to have time to gather some thoughts from the perspective of a revolutionary, who was a youth worker. In theory we should all be more open about our ideological intention. My major dilemma relates to the place of doubt in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. From my point of view all thinking remains provisional. There are no certainties that let us off the hook, which is why many years ago I ceased to at first to be a Christian and at a later date ceased to be Marxist.

    Yours in doubt [ if this makes me the relativist post-modernist, neo-Marxist liberal referred to in your summary, I will go into denial!] Thanks to all for the Comments too.

    • Hi Tony, thanks for the comment. I’m glad you feel it raises issues around ideology as I believe it’s something not discussed very often. Although we’re often an easy target, I don’t think faith groups have the monopoly on this, it’s just that non-faith workers don’t always recognise their own position when it comes to their practice.

      It’s interesting you raise the point about doubt, as Bernard based his presentation at the conference on that theme. Personally, I see doubt (the questioning, exploratory kind) as an an important part of the Judaeo-Christian heritage, though I admit it’s not a popular subject (and I will of course, come back to God in the end, even if I’m not sure of quite how ‘he’ is defined)!

      Anyway, as always I appreciate your input! If you have any further perspectives, please share.

  6. Hi

    This chesnut comes up time and again.

    Part of the problem may have inadvertently been caused by the ‘Christian’ providers offering the JNC qualification (Rightly so). However, in doing that – what I call the parity of esteem between faith and secular bodies have inadvertently caused this issue around identity of function.

    Your employer should make your function known within the job description. It is from there that the definition of task begins, however in the Christian Faith Community context, this gets a little blurred.

    Working with Young People should engage the principles of youthwork practice and be enhanced further in a faith context which looks at Missional (sharing faith) and Pastoral (supporting faith) aspects of the tasks required (please excuse the jargon other esteemed colleagues).

    I think sometimes we try to do the right thing in engaging with wider communities sometimes complicating things and not necessarily being clear for those who are working through the implications, particularly students and those who manage them.


  7. Am a bit late so this post may not get noticed. Thanks for your blog Jon. Brierley’s book ‘Joined Up’ is excellent on this matter. There can and should be overlap. So many good statutory values are in Scripture. There’s nothing new under the sun. Same with good management texts that last the distance, e.g. ‘From good to great’ by Jim Collins that highlighted the humbleness of so many top company executives (to many folks surprise).

    A related Q to youth work / ministry training: Why do so many professionally qualified youth workers not last long in local church youth work? At least that’s the observation I’ve made after many years, and it always bothers me they so often get burnt in the process. Other than supervisory issues and job/church expectations I wonder if statutorily trained Christian youth workers are being adequately equipped for local church youth work in terms of:
    A. Dealing with the politics of the church family (logically, not present in statutory work), and B. Theological rigour (a necessary trade off for field placements given time constraints?).

    • Hi Fraser, thanks for taking the time to comment. You raise a good point regarding professional workers not lasting in church environments. I’ve trod that path myself and can testify that sometimes the chaotic organisation and unclear expectations can be a huge frustration. I also think balancing ‘good practice’ and political correctness against biblical teachings can be very difficult although necessary!

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