On Monday I presented at the Youth & Policy Young People and FaithÂ 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,Â 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 inÂ 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?Â Is this work effective in transmitting the Christian faith or simply instilling common values?Â 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!
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 teachÂ 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.Â Worse, when people talk of youth work in a Christian context,Â 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.
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, â€˜Outside Inâ€™ involves working with young people outside of the church community often through an informal education approach.Â â€˜Inside Outâ€™ 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).
â€œIf youth work is the broad discipline involving all informal educators engaged with young people, then youth ministry is a â€˜specialismâ€™ within it.â€Â (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:
- â€˜benign indifferenceâ€™ (Collins-Mayo et al 2010). They have no ill intent towards, or much interest in religion.
- â€˜immanent faithâ€™ (Collins 1997). They rely on themselves and a close circle of people around them rather than any ‘other’.
- â€˜vicariousâ€™ faith (Davie 2007). When their own resources are not enough, they access religion through the few who have a â€˜chain of religious memoryâ€™ (Hervieu-LÃ©ger 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 thatÂ 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?”.
â€œFor young people… who either do not realise or else do not care about the youth workerâ€™s motivation, love is not enough. They need to know what the love is about if the youth workersâ€™ behaviour is going to mean anything more to them than the fact that youth workers are simply nice people.â€Â (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).
â€œProselytism (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 â€œliberalâ€ Utopia building.â€Â (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.
â€œIf 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.â€Â (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, thereâ€™s been a sharp downward trend. One of the possible reasons has surfaced in theÂ 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, LundquistÂ Denton 2005). It’s a challenge-free Christianity based on being ‘good’ andÂ feeling ‘good’. The result is that:
â€œ…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.â€Â (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,Â 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…Â 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.Â (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:
â€œThe 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.â€Â (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 beÂ honest about its intentions, and secure enough to discuss them openly.
- 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.
- Brierley, D. (2003) Joined Up: An Introduction To Youth Work and Ministry, Carlisle:Â Authentic Lifestyle
- Dean, K. C. (2010) Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,Â New York:Â Oxford University Press
- Children & Young People Now (2011) ‘Youth groups find alternative funding to make up for government spending cuts’, 14 June,Â http://www.cypnow.co.uk/go/youth_work/article/1074694/youth-groups-find-alternative-funding-government-spending-cuts/
- Collins, D. (1997) Young People’s Faith in Late Modernity, PhD Thesis, Guildford: University of Surrey
- Collins-Mayo, S., Mayo, B., Nash, S. (2010) The Faith of Generation Y, London:Â Church House Publishing
- Davie, G. (2007) ‘Vicarious Religion: A methodological challenge’, in Ammerman, N. (ed.),Â Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, New York: Oxford University Press
- Hervieu-LÃ©ger, D. (2000) Religion as a Chain of Memory, Cambridge:Â Polity Press
- Smith, C., Lundquist Denton, M.Â (2005) Soul Searching: e Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, New York: Oxford University Press
- Voas, D., Crockett, A., (2005) Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging,Â Sociology,Â 39: 11-28.
- Ward, P. (1997) Youthwork and the mission of God, London: SPCK