Do We Really NEED Another Youth Event?

Do we really need another youth event?

I know they’re fun (if you’re an extrovert) and they’re cool (if you’re a faux-hipster) and an ego-bump (if you’re a youthworker) and they look like you’re doing something (if you’re a trustee) – but do we really need another one?

A big flash-bang-wallop youth crowd event is something like a rite of passage for a youth worker: ‘you just haven’t made it until you’ve done one!’ You haven’t properly broken in your adrenaline-soaked, caffeine-fueled, slightly-demented Youthworker brain until you scored over 100 on the attendee register.

It also needs to be big – with big names and big people and big broken guitar strings and big florescent jackets and big lanyards… oooo the lanyards. It needs to have an explosive name, like … explode! Or a cool revitalising, flavored water sounding name like … revitalise (spare no creative expense here).

 A big flash-bang-wallop youth crowd event is something like a rite of passage for a youth worker

How Long Can We Keep It Up?

After the dying glow sticks are cleaned away and all the lollypops have been swapped for fake email addresses; after you’ve had the requisite three weeks to sleep it off – and the requisite shouting match with your treasurer about your doctored event-expenses; after the event is done and dusted – what do you do then?

How many of those young people do you ever see again? How many ‘seeds’ were really planted? How long can you keep competing with the ‘youthphoria’ nights that the local nightclub keeps running? How long can you keep telling people, we really need this event! How long can you keep telling yourself that this is what successful Youth Ministry looks like?

Smelling The Rat

I was brought up in event-driven youthwork culture. My youth group was a youth church with full-on band, lights and comfy chairs. We regularly ran big nights with famous Christian bands and speakers. We got shed loads of young people there and had a whole bunch of leaders too. I eventually became a leader in this setup, carried on the tradition and furthered it by working with events across London. But somewhere the novelty wore off, and the young people started to smell the cheep, imitation rat.

How long can you keep telling yourself that this is what successful Youth Ministry looks like?

My Beefs With Crowd Events

Don’t get me wrong – youth events can do things that other programs can’t… with some thought. There is a place for them… sometimes. Some kind of crowd interaction is needed in a successful, healthy youth ministry… somehow, somewhere.

My big beefs though, are these:

1. They are often flat-packed, copies of something else with no evidence of any thought put into the local context at all.

2. They drain things: people, money, resources, time, effort, program shapes. You need to have a Godly approach to stewardship but crowd events tend to throw this out of the window.

3. They only cater to part of the young people population and psyche – often the popular-hungry extrovert. Whereas the solitude-seeking introvert is hiding in a corner wanting the floor to swallow them up.

4. They often don’t fit into a broader youth work strategy of followup and discipleship.

5. They often steal from from other groups without thought for their own programs or relationships.

6. They tend to present a dishonest view of the Gospel though the sugar-vibe. That’s lots of crazy, hyped up experiences that model ‘look, this is what Christianity really looks like’. Reality check: it doesn’t

7. They thrive off crowd-driven mentality, but they seek individualistic responses. Want to guess which overrules the other?

8. They can encourage passive ‘entertain me’ young people, rather than productive, participatory, experience seeking young people.

9. They often compete/dilute with secular consumerist culture which simply does it better.

10. They mostly simply don’t work. On their own, with no thought to context or strategy they fumble, burn out and die – taking people with them.

 

So Is There No Place For Them?

Of course there is. My problem with events is that most that I’ve seen advertised to my young people, and most that I’ve worked with are cookie cutter and haven’t come out of seeking to fill a real intentional need.

“The gathering of worshipers is an amazing missional tool – when done right.”

Crowd events can be amazing when they create safe space to develop family, mimic the celebration of heaven and seek to give secular culture a run for its money. The gathering of worshipers is an amazing missional tool – when done right.

 

So How Do We Do Events Right?

Start by asking the big questions:

1. Do we really need this right now? // Is this where we are in our Youth Ministry Journey?

2. Do we have a core group of developed relationships with young people to build out from? // Are our current young people going to grow though this in fellowship, worship, prayer, mission and discipleship?

3. Has God given us the resources needed to create this properly? // What other opportunities are we inadvertently closing the door on?

4. For what purpose do we want to run this // What need is it fulfilling?

5. Have we talked to local pastors and youth workers about potential harmony with their programs? // Is this crowd event genuinely serving the unity of those who are working with members of that crowd?

6. What else could we do creatively with the resources that we have? // Are their other, creative options that better fit the people and context that we haven’t considered?

7. How do we intend on doing followup? // And who are we doing that with (see 5.)?

8. Do young people here really care who these ‘Christian big names’ are? // What else could we spend the money on?

9. Are we trying to represent who we are? // Are we trying to use this as an opportunity to repackage/reinvent who we are?

10. Are there already things in the area that we can partner with? // What about other things that will be sucked dry if we don’t partner with them?

11. How will the Gospel be presented and how will other elements help or hinder this? // Whoops – did we think about presenting the Gospel clearly?

 

There’s obviously a bunch of other bits n’ pieces to throw in, but I felt a wee bit ranty – so this is all you get! Enjoy 😉

Writing A Youth Work Strategy From Scratch

Health Caution: Long and boring. If you’re interested in writing a youth work strategy, don’t know where to start but really don’t want to read though the 2-hour-knocked-out-nonsense below then get in touch at timgoughuk@gmail.com 🙂

Writing youth project strategy can be flippin hard work! I’ve been involved with writing about a dozen now and they’re all remarkably different. I don’t know what the best, most formal or most recognisable way into it is but I’ll have a stab here.

Remember that you as the youth pastor control the flow, but you need input from young people, volunteers, parents, teachers and church leaders to make a strategy viable. Otherwise you’ve got a cool document that hardly anyone will read and even less will follow.

What you’re looking for in a good strategy document is an easy, quotable and motivational top sheet backed up with a larger document that has a smooth flow from data, to values, to the whats and hows and whens. It should always end though, with a sense of openness and accountability.

There tends to be four main stages in putting together a strategy for youth work:

1. Research & Observation (with Results)

2. Values, Aims, Mission and Purposes

3. Implementation and Timelines

4. Review, Success Measures and Accountability

Each of these four stages needs to be structured enough so to be able to see clearly what’s happening, make changes and celebrate measurable positive change, but also organic and flexible enough to leave room for the motion of the Holy Spirit and the general messiness of people’s lives. And obviously each stage needs a good soaking in and checking against the Bible.

“Writing youth project strategy can be flippin hard work!”

This works like the classic hourglass… at the top you gather as much information as is possible without prejudice, you then zoom in at the middle by finding a simple communicable structure to process that data. Finally you spread out again at the end by implementation in the real world. A good strategy, like a good hourglass, doesn’t exclude or force change upon anything within it – it just slows things down enough to be viewed and processed properly.

Before digging into this any further, we must remember what the sand in inside the hourglass is: it is real people with real lives living in real rebellion or real relationship with God. As much as we sink into the often analytical world of strategy, we must never make the mistake of processing people as simply objects or numbers.

 

1. Research and Observation (with Results)

This all starts as you’d expect, by gathering data. I will do (and have already done a really basically here) more posts on how to do this. What we’re basically talking about is lots of interviews, group sessions, community survey projects and opinion gathering and observation noting while looking closely and honestly at what resources you have and what might become available. Good stewardship!

A good basic template is SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and Weaknesses are what in your internal preexisting project, place or resources are good and need to be kept or bad and need to be rejected/changed. Opportunities and Threats are external – out of your control – things could help or hinder the strengths of weaknesses with some thought or lack of.

It’s important to go broad and deep here, especially talking with lots of different people. This has the very important added benefits of making connections and making sure people feel heard. If they are not at this stage you can guarantee you won’t get them on board later!

“Remember: This is real people with real lives living in real rebellion or real relationship with God.”

It’s important to write up your findings; not in too much indecipherable detail, but in ways that naturally lead you to your values, aims and implementation. It’s far easier to answer the question ‘why didn’t you open a bigger youth group?’ when you’ve got data that says ‘we’ve got no volunteers!’

 

2. Values, Aims, Mission and Purposes

It’s likely that your data should start to reveal patterns. Maybe you’re in an area with open links with schools and you have able Christian teachers in your church? So developing schools’ mission might be right up your street! Or perhaps you’ve got a youth group that’s already thriving, but growing older and you’ve got no other volunteers stepping up? In which case you’ve probably got a training ground for young leaders and a youth mentoring project.

Values

The big discussion here is what has you data told you that 1. you care about and 2. God is resourcing you for. What keeps coming up, what is available, what are the big needs in your area, what can you uniquely offer? These form your values. Values are what you care about, not what you are going to do about it. Your values are passive ‘we care about this’ or ‘we believe God has called us to that’ statements.

I usually have between 10 – 30 short value statements if that is of any use?

Aims

The next step is your aims. Still staying away from the specifics or implementation you start to group values together somewhat and change them to active language. For instance, if you have these three values:

– ‘We care about the increased homelessness of young people on our streets’
– ‘We’re passionate about young people taking a stand against injustice’
– ‘Our heart breaks for the lack of specific community support for poor young people’

Then bringing them together an aim might be:

– ‘We aim to equip our young people to bring support and care to other young people more needy than themselves’

“You should end up with less aims than values.”

Easy see? You should probably end up with far less aims than values. It’s worth saying that you will feel guilty if certain things don’t come up – don’t! Ephesians 2:10 is very clear that God has prepared good works for each of us to do, without treading on each others toes or suffering burnout. As long as ‘worship Jesus’ and ‘preach the Gospel’ is clearly in there somewhere!

Mission

Your aims should then be simplified and run together into a few short paragraphs, or even just one. This is your mission, what you are striving to thrive at! It’s not forsaking all other tasks, but it is an aim driven, value soaked war-song that comes straight from the information you gathered and meeting head on the needs you discovered. It’s specific, it’s personal and it’s powerful.

Purpose

This is a great midway checkup to see how you’re doing. Purpose is the why to mission’s what. Why is it you believe that you are here to do this? Are you in line with the Bible and with your governing body (church/charity)?

The Rick Warren Purpose Driven stuff says we should derive all we do from 5 areas, namely worship, mission, ministry, prayer and fellowship. It’s a reasonably good check list. Purpose for me is where we have dialogue with the Bible and the governing body that brings explicit language in from both. Write a couple of small paragraphs on this too – or work it into your mission statement.

“Your mission should be specific, personal and powerful.”

3. Implementation and Timelines

Now for the fun bit! You know your resources and what you do well, you know what to look out for, you’ve got a handle on your values and passions, you know actively what you’re aiming to accomplish, you have a clear mission and purpose – so what are you going to do? Let’s mix the ingredients!

This has always been the easiest, funnest and most creative part. The question is how are you going to do what’s in your mission and aims? What changes are you going to make to your project(s) or what new project(s) are you going to start?

It may be worth looking at a few youth ministry models to get some ideas and see what best fits with where you’re at – and to make sure you’re not falling into any pitfalls like segregating young people away from the rest of the church.

Here’s some good questions to consider when starting new / changing existing projects:

– Are you (or someone you are connecting with) leading young people on a journey that includes ministry, mission, fellowship, prayer and worship?
– Are you developing room for young people to grow as servants and leaders or each other?
– Are you seeking to integrate them into the lives of the church community?
– Are you starting with people or obsessing over places?
– Are you thinking about where young people are or scheming over where you want them to come?
– Are you starting with the faithful core or pandering to the fledgling fringe?

With these in mind, there are no limits to what you could do. I’ve run everything from a quirky sport related alpha courses, to tea drinking clubs, to regular night time walks, to high street youth cafes, to camps, to mentoring programs, to fire building workshops. Go for whatever works with your strategy so far!

Mostly these ideas will come directly from the discussion’s you’ve already had. Try as you might to avoid them, lots of ideas will have already floated around your conversations and obvious things will have surfaced. Other than that I can’t really help you! There are no real rules with this – have fun and come up with something cool.

A good reminder here is that you don’t drop what you’ve learned in the first half of the process. I’ve seen a couple of groups that I’ve walked through these parts come up with ideas completely off kilter from their findings… it was just a pet project they really wanted to do which they tried (and failed) to shoehorn in.

“Set realistic goals that allow you space and time to gather resources.”

Remember when writing up project ideas to be broad enough so there is room for volunteers to adapt and take ownership, but specific enough to show how they flow from your values and aims and how they are meeting needs and maximising on your strengths while stewarding resources.

At this point – if you so wanted – you could write a neat and tidy ‘Vision Casting Statement’ drawn from the needs, values, aims, mission, purpose and implementation parts so far. This is a great thing to go on a top sheet, communicate to a church and bob in a wee little frame for the youth office!

Timelines

It’s important to set realistic goals that allow you space and time to gather resources to start things out and build momentum. If you’re planning on starting a funnel model set of projects for instance, then you’ll need tie to build credibility with the crowds you haven’t met yet and you’ll need time to develop something worthwhile for them to come to.

I usually have a three year strategy that gets tweaked in a big way annually and revisited somewhat every 6 months, so all my implementation is healthily spread out within that kind of time-frame.

Remember to leave room not just for implementation, but also for selling the strategy to trustees, congregations, parents and young people – and also for recruiting and training volunteers, and supervising them properly – and finally for collecting and stewarding resources.

 

4. Review, Success Measures and Accountability

Review

Many in the United States of America Marine Corps have adopted the motto, ‘Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.’ This is at the heart of review and accountability.

For a strategy to still be successful in ten years time it must adapt constantly to overcome problems and changes that culture and the projects will face. A process for accountability and review needs to be in place.

John Losey, who wrote the immensely helpful ‘Experiential Youth Ministry’ handbooks talks about strategy as a praxis in three parts; theory, action and reflection. Reflection he breaks up further into ‘reflect -> re-view -> inform -> apply. I.e. You reflect on the success of a project, you review it and make changes, you communicate this to others then implement them. Then you do it all over again! He calls it “The Amazing Learning Loop of Depth”, which I always misread as the Amazing Loop of Death, but never-mind.

We need to set a time to go over what we’ve decided strategically and tweak and adapt and improvise. Usually I do this every 6 months, then go over the basics of the research values and aims every year.

Measuring Success

To do this properly, we need to decide how we’re going to measure success. This is always a trixy little topic in youth-work circles as we’ve all heard that ‘its not about numbers’ so much that we’re even getting afraid of doing headcounts – awkward when you start loosing young people on trips to the zoo!

How you measure success will depend on your aims and mission. If it’s your mission to make connections with a school and establish a Christian Union there then success will depend on whether or not you made significant headway with that in the time allotted. If your mission is to see each of your young people bring a friend to Jesus than success will be based on how you’ve taught, supported and worked with them on that… not on their success at doing so. If your mission is to start a crowd event, then keeping a check on numbers (and particularly returning numbers) will be important.

The main thing to say here is do write down specifically what you want to achieve so that you can check it specifically at review time. Even if it is just ‘seeing young people grow deeper as disciples’ – then you will be able to list the fruit and evidence of this happening.

Not being successful is not a problem necessarily, its just motivation to make some changes and keep moving forward. Improvise, adapt and overcome!

Accountability

Final section is to make sure this document is accountable and available. It should at least be available to be read by church members, leaders, parents, team and young people. However, to get other objective thoughts, send it to people you trust outside your circles to get their feedback. Other youth leaders, pastors and friends who might have spotted something from being outside the circles and discussions that you all missed by being immersed in them – wood for trees jumps to mind!

 

Concluding thoughts.

I sat down with a couple of books and a bunch of old notes and started writing about two hours ago. It might be that no-one ever reads this and it might be that plenty more (and more accessible) articles and books do a better job. John Losey jumps to mind again!

Maybe though there is some helpful stuff in here – at least it’s come from practice and I’ve seen it work.

If you go this far… well done! And God bless you loads. Also – if you got this far you’re probably thinking about writing a youth strategy yourself (or you just have nothing better to do… sorry!). If so, get in touch. I’m sure I’ll be more use in person and contextual having a chat than trying to squeeze ten years worth of thoughts into a general 2500 word post! I’m always happy to chat with youthworkers and people passionate about young people! timgoughuk@gmail.com

 

 

Youthwork in Wales… some thoughts

Youthwork in Wales. After just 3 and a half years working in Wales I’m anything but an expert! I am, however, a learner, and I’ve put together these quick thoughts as a result of my own growing observation and conversations in the Welsh-ministry world. I would of course heartily welcome any feedback from experienced Welsh pastors and youth workers in order to grow and adapt these thoughts. I am holding them loosely and (I hope) with an open hand.

Most of my experience is in North Wales… creeping into Mid Wales, with very little in South Wales (other than some epic holidays and knowing some amazing people). So I guess I’m mostly talking about the North here.

I’m an Englishman living in Wales. My ancestry is Welsh, I became a Christian in the town which I now work, and I am in love with the culture here and never felt more at home. I am, however, definitely English (watching the World Cup proved that!) – so do take my observations lightly.

 

Big, Whopping Preliminary Thought:

– Wales really is a whole other country! Let’s treat it that way. I have another post on this topic here.

 

What We Have

– Wales is beautiful! I have a friend who has been working in Wales for a long time who once said ‘when God made the Earth He started with Wales.’ I think my friend was right! Wales is gorgeous, rich, and diverse – and perfect geographically for outdoor pursuits! There is lots available (mountaineering, canoeing, climbing, surfing) within easy driving reach of each other and easy reach of town bases. This is one of the key reasons that Welsh Youth Camps are so successful.

– Legacy. There is a proud and broad Church and missionary history in Wales. There are many countries (such as India and South Korea) that still view Wales as their spiritual home. Don’t forget the epic Welsh revival(s) just over a century ago, and the founding of charities like Scripture Union and The International Beach Mission. This gives people huge pride in – and openness to – ministry, particularly with a view to mission.

– Unity. Another friend I’ve made here settled in Wales after working for years globally with people like Billy Graham. He told me just last week that he hasn’t seen such an unprecedented level of churches and charities working together anywhere else in the entire world… Go Wales! There are disagreements and factions of course, but when it comes to mission there is a huge willingness to pool resources and march forward. I spoke at a camp last week that had people involved from Young Life, Urban Saints, and YFC which was attended by a huge range of denominations. There was no ‘look at us’ and a whole load of ‘look at JESUS!’

– Multicultural… but not like what you’re thinking. Wales’s as a culture is split several ways, but what you really notice is the incredible Celtic heritage bleeding through the older Welsh communities, particularly from the West Coast. This heritage is spiritually aware, open and ready to hear about the mysteries of God in a unique way. The Welsh language is also incredibly rich, broad and adds a whole host of considerations for ministry.

– Community driven. Much of North Wales still feels like a village community. This bleeds through into Church and School culture and makes community projects and particularly events that cross the age spectrum work really well.

– Love of creative arts. Wales has an ancient history with art and creativity, and this forms many of the foundation blocks of its culture. Art galleries, poetry, folk music, architecture, sculpture and theater are mainstays of just about every Welsh settlement – and should be taken seriously for Welsh ministry.

– The highest poverty in the UK. Almost a quarter, 23% against England’s 22% and Scotland’s 18%. When you consider population sizes that’s huge! About 700,000 people in Wales living under the breadline. Further, the cuts have damaged the Welsh working poor more than the rest of the UK. By 2015-16 tax payers in Wales will be paying £900 million a year for benefit reforms.

– Highest Child Poverty in the UK. About 15% live in what’s described as severe poverty in Wales. Read more about poverty in Wales here and here.

 

What We Don’t Have

– Clinical resources and support groups. There are, for instance, no clearly advertised self harm support networks across the whole of North Wales. Waiting lists for NHS counsellors are huge, and there are few local competitive free-lancers. There are a lot of emotional needs that go unaddressed in North Wales because of the lack of support.

*edit (2015) – Mind, the Mental Health Charity, are pushing hard to make inroads to remedy some of the above.

– Up-to-date First Language Welsh Resources. There are groups like SU who are working hard to remedy this, but much of the Welsh resources for young people are old! Google Translate and Babblefish simply do not work for Welsh! There is a huge need for properly translated modern songs, Bibles and youth resources. This is a need, but an incredibly niche huge market, so good luck trying to convince the publishers!

– Crowds. For some perspective, North Wales has the same population as Sheffield. I once tried to run a crowd event just for Christian young people in a North Wales town where I had only 20 or so show up. This was really disappointing until I realised that those 20 constituted about 80% of the Christian youth in that town! If you want to run crowd events across a larger area though, you are plagued by geography. We need something other than standard crowd events to build wider community here.

– Large school districts. The largest areas of North Wales only have a couple of Schools serving them, and in some cases these school populations have been coached in from miles away. Cross-school based projects are going to struggle, as is any group or project that depends on multiple feeder schools.

– Cities. OK so we’ve got a couple… 6 of them. In the North we’ve got two: Bangor (population 17,575) and St. Asaph (population 3,491). Both of them are 20 minutes away from my base in Llandudno (population 20,710 – almost bigger than both cities put together.) Considering that there are 51 cities in England (average size about 200,000), it should become instantly clear that this is a totally different world! City ministry models in England are not going to help us much here.

– Motorways. So this sounds like a small thing, but in order to get from North Wales to South Wales the quickest, easiest way is to leave the country, travel down the M6 then come back in… Yeah. The lack of mobility infrastructure (& the fact that mid Wales is incredibly sparsely populated) really makes Wales two countries.

 

What We Don’t Need

English City Driven Youth Strategies. Even in the few years I’ve been here I’ve seen several English City youth workers come to the area, try to start a big event only to see it pop and fizzle. Then they move away. I’ve come from 7 years working in London and I’m still saying it! We don’t have feeder schools, we don’t have several key massive youth groups, we don’t have mainstay youth projects and we don’t have the resources available to English cities. We also have a very different geographical town structure than City clusters. Please think contextually. Think about Wales.

Events, projects and physical resources that are crowd-drawing, resource-draining, and lacking follow-up that are created without a proper understanding of the context are not going to make disciples here. They’ll only make even more church debt! It’s just bad stewardship.

 

What We Really DO Need

Methods and praxis for developing mission strategy in schools and a mechanism for rolling that out more widely.

More resources in terms of cash and people to invest incarnationally and intentionally in the area – particularly in para-church projects.

Welsh speakers working alongside veteran youth workers to come up with innovative, fresh and culturally relevant youth work resources and Bible translations.

Churches, cities and towns to pray for us intentionally as a country.

Churches and charities to step up with their resources and take risks by setting up counselling and support networks for emotional and mental health.

To maximize the use of our pre-existing, well established camps and to work them into our church youth strategies.

To keep working in partnership and unity with various other groups and to pool our resources – it’s about the name of Jesus after all!

Your First Question at Youth Bible Studies

So you’ve had some food, played a game, prayed and read your passage – now it’s time for the study. What do you do? What’s the first question? How do you start off in a way that sets a direction that will bring these young people on in their walk with God and their relationship with the Bible?

This first question should 1. draw them back into the passage not away from it, 2. leave room for misunderstanding and vulnerabilities, 3. give space for different opinions, 4. not be an excuse for the opening portion of a sermon and 5. simply get them talking as a group.

“This simple question is your chance to establish Bible, group, individuality and agenda – on their terms – in one swoop!”

My first question is always, without exception the same: “What did you notice?”

I might milk it a bit: “So what did you notice, anything at all, what did you like, not like, what sounds cool, what doesn’t make any sense … what jumped out at you, for any reason whatsoever?”

Starting with this question has often meant totally abandoning the rest as we have been jumping around the whole passage through what they noticed well into the evening.

There are some important followups that keep things moving and opening like: ‘why did that jump out?’ or ‘so what do you think that means?’ or ‘how would that look today?’ or ‘can you see anything else in there that points to that? And of course each time something is noticed, you can make it communal, ‘so everybody, what do you think that means?’ or ‘turn to someone else and explain that in your own words’ or ‘does anyone know the answer to that?

This simple question is your chance to establish Bible, group, individuality and agenda – on their terms – in one swoop. Don’t underestimate it’s power and always give it room. Youth Bible Studies are always worth it!

6 Ways to Train Teenagers to Read Their Bibles

(edited from an earlier post)

Youth work models need to firmly stand on the Bible. God’s word needs to be sewn into the very fabric of discipleship that we are developing. This means helping young people engage with the Bible for themselves. We need to train teenagers to read their Bibles fully.

Getting young people to independently open the Bible and read it is a great victory, but only half the battle.

The second half is to help them independently examine and understand the Bible for themselves – and this is frankly where most of us wimp out!

A Generation Bought Up on Spoon Feeding Notes

I was struck recently when reviewing some popular Youth Bible study notes by just how proof-text-with-explanation based they were. Spoon fed, on a plate with little or no reference to how, who, what, when, where and why. No need to think or examine the verses whatsoever. Really no need to read them. What they did most clearly was help young people examine themselves as a person and apply new things to their lives. This begs the question though; if that application is not being built from the Bible passage, where is it coming from?

“Getting young people to independently open the Bible and read it is half the battle, but this is far from the whole battle!”

This, of course, is the method of Bible study most of Gen Y and the Millennials have been bought up on; the soundbite and the blog. An interesting read that demands little if any independent thought.

My wife works in a Christian bookshop, and by perusing the Youth Bible studies section you can see that in the last decade this is a pretty standard pattern. For many of us this is Bible study, we’ve never known anything different. Our Bible study notes include a passage to read, a proof-text (‘key verse’) taken out of context and a basic thought from it explained and opened up – with a couple of challenges thrown in for good measure.

This isn’t Bible study though. Bible study is having a conversation with God through the text. Reading it properly, asking it questions, looking for patterns, relationships, correlations and hidden gems is Bible study. Exegesis (to use the proper term) is getting into the nitty gritty, learning how to read the Bible independently and hear it’s challenges without the need for supporting notes.

Why Is This So Important For The Next Generation?

Not training young people to exegete-read the Bible (that is seek to swim in it’s depths and find treasure) is like buying them a guitar in order to introduce them to Brit-Pop; it’s only going to go so far!

Young people need to know how to read their Bibles so that they:

  • Can develop a personal relationship with God that’s independent of their youth group, church community or Bible notes
  • Have more to offer in their youth group and church community life
  • Will grow in their personal holiness and faith and will challenge others to do so too
  • Can keep a growing check their own sin and personal habits
  • Will learn to recognize and discern God’s voice more clearly and notice when it’s missing,
  • Won’t fall victim to spoon feeding and won’t be dependent on fallible teachers and notes
  • Will know how to pick a healthy Church when they are at uni etc.,
  • Can survive when not able to find good Bible teaching.
  • Will simply live life to its fullest the John 10:10 way!

We need to teach young people how to read the Bible – not just to read it.

How do we do this?

For a basic way in I offer a mix of five random things to help us teach Bible study to our teenagers:

  1. Learn to do it ourselves!!!
  2. Model it in Bible studies
  3. Get them to do it in breakout pairs/groups when in Bible studies together
  4. Help them one-to-one
  5. Get them to read a book like ‘Dig Deeper’ by Nigel Beynon & Andrew Sach
  6. Teach them to get messy!

1. Learn to do it ourselves!!!

This is the key bit, and without it the other four bits won’t work. As I said before, many of us don’t realise that what we’ve been doing for the last who knows how many years isn’t really Bible study. It came as a huge shock to me when at 18 I went to Bible college and realised I knew spotty things about God without any reference to why, and when I discovered passages I had been using to prove certain ‘truths’ just didn’t teach them. I’m definitely not saying that we all need to go to Bible college, but we do need to make some serious effort – you won’t regret it!

– Find decent Bible teachers and stick to them
– Listen to amazing Bible unpacking talks (desiringgod.org)
– Find mentors or mini classes
– Read good Bible teaching/explaining books
– Read your Bible slowly with highlighters, pens, paper, margin mess… whatever you need

2. Model it in Bible studies

Leading decent Bible studies as a group has got to be the linchpin. It’s the key place that they will pick up and learn how to do it and it will give them the overviews and anchors they need, along with an accountability space to check up on how they’re doing.

“We need to teach young people how to read the Bible – not just to read it.”

– Teach and display where and how you made points from the Bible when you make them
– Ask questions that make them look at the text itself, even (sometime especially) if the answers are obvious
– Ask them to summarize main points, identify characters, examine the context etc.
– Print out copies of the passage for them to go through highlighting things like verbs, nouns, speeches, connectives, etc. that might be useful in the study
– Get them to ask their own questions of the text itself and answer those together first (my first question after reading every passage is ‘what did you notice?’)

3. Get them to do it in breakout pairs/groups

The next zeroing in step to independent Bible study after the small group, is getting them to help each other – without relying on you the teacher. This givens them a chance to adapt what they’ve learned, try their strengths, push their confidences, work on their community interaction and help each other out!

– Give each breakout pair/group a section of the passage to study together then summarize their findings to the whole group
– Make sure they’ve got space to write, scribble, & highlight (printed off passages are great)
– Give them specific questions to answer in their group from the passage like ‘what is the main point,’ ‘what shocked you the most,’ ‘what did you learn that you didn’t know before’
– Allow them the option of feeding back in creative ways (pictures, drama, song) as long as it communicates the actual passage itself
– Give them enough room and time to complete the task well, but not so much time that they can wander. Knowing that they will need to feed back is usually encouragement enough to stay on task

4. Help them one-to-one

The final step to independent Bible study after group and small group work is getting alongside them to mentor, teach and role model what’s in the word. This is important for a whole world of stuff – and teaching Bible reading (overtly or not) is invaluable for all of it.

– Get alongside them for 20-40mins JUST to read the Bible with them. Pick a book and go through it verse by verse, word by word
– Start each new meeting with them summarizing the passage from the last meeting
– Get them to delve into why specific words we’re chosen etc.
– Look at tools like ‘context’, ‘purpose’ and ‘order’ in the passages you choose. (N.b. I usually find 1-2 verses a week works well for most growing Christians)

If you would like a free downloadable crib sheet that I’ve used before click here.

5. Get them to read a book like ‘Dig Deeper’ by Nigel Beynon & Andrew Sach

Rather than buying them Bible reading notes, buy them an easy usable how to manual that will help them read the Bible itself without notes. Dig Deeper is an epic example that I highly recommend. It’s great for independent work, or one-to-one, but can also be a good group study tool and it’s useful training for Bible study leaders.

– Buy the book for them as a gift, and make sure you’ve read it yourself!
– They should read a chapter a week & do the examples
– Ask them questions on it & ask to see their examples
– Give them new verses to work on that need the tools explained in the book to understand

6. Teach them to get messy!

Teach them to get messy! I don’t care if they need to underline every single word in a different colour, allow them to draw in their Bibles – or if that’s a cultural no-no where you are, print out passages for them!

– They should do whatever helps them s l o w  d o w n , ask questions of the text, and highlight key sections. I’d rather a young person come with a tatty, Biro-blessed, dogeared Bible than a pristine one that’s obviously never been touched.
– Teach them to get personal with the Bible and get messy with it. Bring out the highlighters in droves (you can always buy a new one for them!)

 

The Bible And Young People, Stephen Hale

The Bible And Young People, Stephen Hale

Quote from ‘A Theological Model Of Youth Ministry’ from Stephan Hale in ‘Towards a Theology of Youth Ministry‘ from The Ridley College Youth Conference Papers, 1998.

Jesus was himself an adolescent and had to develop and grow into adulthood (Luke 2:52). Jesus encouraged the Children to come to him (Luke 18:15-17) and had to discourage the disciples from keeping them away from him. In the apostolic ministry in Acts, whole households were converted (Acts 16:30-34). Paul’s letters were addressed to household churches that included children. It was assumed they were present for the reading of the Scriptures and Paul’s letters, because he specifically addresses them in the household tables found in Ephesus and Colossians. Paul addresses younger leaders in his letters (1 Timothy 4:12-16) and young men and women as groups (Titus 2:4-8).

The Bible records the successes of many young people – David, Samuel, Esther, Josiah and Daniel to name but a few. The time of youth is one when great achievements and spiritual leadership are possible. God uses young people just as much as he does adults. We need to honour young people, nurture their faith, character and gifts and give them openings and opportunities.

Teaching The Trinity in Youth Groups

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“It seems that Jesus is popular by reason of being anchored in history, rather than floating in metaphysics.”

Such is the drive behind ‘The Trinity, the historical Jesus and youth ministry’ by Angus McLeay in ‘Towards a Theology of Youth Ministry‘ from The Ridley College Youth Conference Papers, 1998.

The Trinity by its very nature is taught as metaphysical and abstract with little or no tangible relationship to our experiences in reality. Trying to teach the Trinity as a knowable and relevant entity within youth groups is therefore incredibly difficult!

The Trinity on one hand is often communicated with metaphor, image, object lessons and concepts, and on the other hand with mystery and difficulty. This paradox is at best confusing. The analogies themselves (water, ice, steam; plant, root, flower… etc.) are always found wanting in its wake.

Rather than using the Trinity as a conceptual idea of God, McLeay says that ‘The Trinity is a statement about the relations that form the essence of God’s being.’ The Trinity is a statement of relations and relationship. This makes the doctrine far more teachable and applicable to young people.

The key to teaching the Trinity therefore is relationship. God is a relationship God – absolutely, necessarily, essentially and in eternally. He is many and one in community. We must teach Trinity by teaching the relationships between the members, and specifically how they play out in the Kingdom of God.

McLeay points out several of these Trinity-Kingdom relationship dynamics that are worth unpacking in a youth ministry setting (which I have fleshed out somewhat). These are all tangible and applicable and as such make the Trinity much more teachable rather than abstract:

Kingdom – God’s rule through Jesus over us His people and the world. Jesus has God the Father’s own authority for us to know Him through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. We work with Jesus, through the conviction and strength of the Spirit to be a steward of the world the Father created. The Father gave this Kingdom to His Son, Jesus – secured through the raising of Him to life by the Spirit.

Allegiance – Jesus calls us to know the Father though Him – to commit to Him through the power of the Spirit and live with ‘radical, personal allegiance’ to God.

Father/Son – The relationship spelled out in the Old Testament as the King and Son of the King – the God and Son of the God (Psalm 2:2-9). Jesus’ identity is caught up in the identity of the Father. His confidence is in the surety of the loving, protective bond between them and His activities are the fulfillment (through the Spirit’s power) of the Father’s wishes.

Crucifixion & Resurrection – The Kingdom of God is secured through the powerful act of substitution on the cross. Jesus the Son, absorbing the wrath of God the Father in eternity though the eternal nature of their relationships, then brought back to life by the creational breath of God through the Holy Spirit. The resurrection also secures the Kingdom rule of the Son, as death itself (the biggest enemy) is placed beneath his feet.

McLeay ends with a whole bunch of practical steps to teach the Trinity which I’ll simplify here:

– Start with a Gospel story that picks up on Kingdom-Trinity relationships (something that shows how Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate).
– Refer to the oneness of these three beings in the course of other Bible Studies constantly asking the question, ‘what does this tell us about God?’
– Link any relational teaching and concepts back to the Trinity, and particularly examples in the Gospels.
– Look for Trinity links when teaching Kingdom concepts like identity, authority, independence, identity, individuality and outreach.

 

 

 

Teaching The Trinity in Youth Groups

A Biblical Mandate For Youth Ministry

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If you’ve seen parts 1 & 2 you’ll know that I’m on a study week looking through the most resent, top scoring dissertations from probably the most academic, Bible-driven Bible College in the UK. Today I’m highlighting and summarizing the important argument in favour of Youth Ministry from the Bible in:

‘A Biblical Mandate For Youth Ministry’, by Andrew Cook.

This short thesis is broken into three parts:

1stan opening discussion of adolescence
2ndan outline of the argument against doing Youth Ministry
3rda Biblical defense of and model for Youth Ministry

I will go through each.

 

Adolescence

Andrew looks at both the sociological and Biblical approaches the adolescence question.

Sociologically Andrew points out, adolescence as a transition from childhood to adulthood has always existed in some form and is often referred to as ‘storm and stress.’ This term, coined by the largely discredited work of G. Stanley Hall has nevertheless been a useful term to describe this often tumultuous time of transition. The massive changes both socially and biologically during adolescence makes this transitional age group a very distinct people.

Although their is much disagreement, Andrew suggests a broad age group surrounding (just before, during and just after) puberty to be our focus.

Biblically, we find few places speaking directly to this transitional time, however historically they do exist. The Jewish education system celebrates times of transition for instance. Further, in passages such as 1 Chronicles 23 and Leviticus 27 we find that the age of 20 is a significant time for adult value and responsibility.

A category of ‘young men’ or ‘young adults’ also exist in places like Deuteronomy 32 and Jeremiah 6 – where such a group is seen as a sub-category of Children. In 1 John 2:12-14, categories include ‘children’, ‘young men’ and ‘fathers.’ ‘Youths’ is another term found many places such as Job 31 and 1 Timothy 4.

The adolescent ‘youth’ or ‘young adult’ stages of development Biblically are seen as time to grow away from youthful sin and temptations (1 Cor. 6; Prov. 5:3, 8; 1 Tim. 5:11; Prov. 1:10-19) and grow into wisdom and maturity (Prov. 1-9; 1 Kings 12:8; 14:30; 1 Pet. 5:5; 1 Tim. 5:1-2).

 

The Argument Against Youth Ministry

Instead of segregated youth ministry some say that we should look to integrated and inclusive whole family ministry.

Those supporting this argument (Andrew notes particularly the online film, ‘Divided’ by Philip Leclerc) say the crisis of young people leaving the church is largely the fault of what they call the ‘godless, pagan, Darwinian’ invention that is age segregated youth ministry. They note that only age-integrated worship is seen in Scripture where the youth-specific ministry and discipleship is given through parents alone.

They see age segregated youth ministry as undermining corporate worship and undermining parental ministry.

It’s worth saying, that even though the Biblical arguments presented by advocates of this argument are pretty weak they do raise some important challenges about integration and parenting.

 

The Biblical Basis For Youth Ministry

Andrew starts this section by helpfully saying:

“The argument against youth ministry cannot be supported biblically, but this does not in itself ratify all approaches to adolescent discipleship.

The spiritual poverty of some approaches is obvious: the gospel is not proclaimed, the Bible is not taught, young people are not included in the community of faith, there is little if any spiritual growth, and the only legacy seems likely to be some very high scores at Mario Kart and a few broken church windows.”

Andrew outlines (very basically) three of the most frequently used youth work models in the UK and their drawbacks:

Incarnational model – prefers sharing stories to preaching the gospel.
Worship model – encourages faith based on subjective, emotional experience not propositional truth.
Funnel model – prefers entertainment to Bible study and content.

This is a useful set of thoughts to have in the backs of our minds as we continue.

Andrew finds Biblical examples of ministry happening with adolescents outside the nuclear family but within the church family. For instance in Deuteronomy 29 there is a communal approach to sharing responsibility for each other – specifically the elders for the young people in the whole community. Also, in Nehemiah, Ezra groups people according to their ages in order to teach God’s word (Neh. 8). Further, in Proverbs there is a communal nature to teach wisdom to youths outside the nuclear family unit. Finally, in the New Testament there is a big push towards shared community life and specifically Andrew gives us Titus 2 as an example of the young being taught communally and Luke 2:41-52 where the 12 year old Jesus is sitting with the elders – away from his parents – discussing God’s word.

All this said, there is a prominent push in Andrew’s model to integrate young people into the church and support parents as much as possible – not exclusively (like the proponents against Youth Ministry might say), but heavily.

Andrew therefore goes on to find a prime but not sole responsibility on the parents to disciple young people (Deut. 6; Prov. 1-9; Eph. 6) and some age-specific applications of Biblical truth outside the sole parental structure (Eph. 6; Col. 3). Finally Andrew demonstrates how Church is family just as important as the nuclear family (Mark 3:31-35; Luke 14:26; 1 Tim. 5:1-2) and shows how special space is given to ‘youths’ (1 Cor. 12:21-26).

 

Concluding Thoughts

All this goes to show that youth ministry within a inclusive church family structure is a Biblical model for Youth Ministry. Youth Ministry should never be solely segregated, divided or exclusive – and the parents should not be undermined. However the growth of adolescence is the responsibility of the whole community with a Bible-driven passion for youth discipleship. This vital for the health of the whole church – and vital to the health of successful youth ministries.

Thank you Andrew! Lots of helpful things in here and a wonderful grasp of the Bible’s role in defining what youth ministry actually is.

I would love to see a longer thesis with room given for models of general discipleship, spiritual healing, sanctification and growth and how they would apply to this model – and I’d really value a look at culture differences and how these application might look in today’s unique world. Finally I’d also like to see what role Bible-drive, but culturally specific young people’s mission looks like in this church-integration model. My suspicion is it would struggle somewhat without some more cultural wiggle-room.

Well worth the time in the Word! Cheers.

The Latest in Academic Youth Work Part 2: Emerging Church and Youth Work

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Still happily embedded in my study week, enjoying dissertations from the best young academic-theological minds in the youth work world in Britain – moving on to my highlights from and thoughts on another Youth Ministry Thesis:

“Can Some Aspects of Emerging Church Culture Result in De-Emphasising The Bible In Contemporary Youth And Children’s Work?” by Philippa Ruth Wehrle. 2013.

Emerging Church? A preliminary thought.

It’s worth saying that this massively helpful critique of the ripples of the emerging church in youth work is really only based on the Brian McLaren aspect of the emerging movement. Although in many ways McLaren is the figure head of much of the emerging church and specifically emergent village, he is certainly not representative of all of it.

Philippa says “Whist emerging church proponents will slightly differ on their scriptural stance…” however my experience is emerging church proponents differ massively and wildly in their approach to scripture. Worth keeping in mind methinks.

The Reclassification of The Bible

Philippa begins by walking us through the reclassification of Scripture by McLaren as a Library rather than a Constitution. Another way of putting this might be useful and informative, but not authoritative and instructional. McLaren therefore treats scripture as an ongoing conversation which we are invited into but doesn’t hold the weight of sola scripture evangelicals classically have with it.

There are many beautiful things to learn from such an approach – mainly not allowing ourselves to read our own presuppositions into it. However as Philippa points out, taking this approach can also mean that the bottom drops out of the Word and our anchors and foundations start to disappear. The Word no longer has authority over believers and we need no longer to place ourselves under its instruction.

 “The authority Word of God is inseparable from the authority of the Person of God.”

I might find myself being more open to and favorable of much of McLaren’s approach than perhaps Philippa is, especially the conversational reading of God’s Word as timeless and relational. However I share her thoughts on the danger of ambiguity and downplaying of the authority present in the Word of God.

In a later section, Philippa shows how the authority Word of God is inseparable from the authority of the Person of God – to reject one is to reject the other. My suspicion though is if we find place for living authority in McLaren’s conversational approach to scripture we would learn boat loads!

Straw Men and False Antitheses

Very importantly Philippia critiques McLaren’s ethically questionable approach to argument and discussion. She lists off some of his false conclusions drawn from questionable arguments and identifies straw men opponents made in much the same way.

This is absolutely vital as McLaren’s foundational belief is in conversational theology, but his own approach to conversation and discussion is far more manipulative and dogmatic than can comfortably sit with this.

Much of his opponents are people or positions that he has either misunderstood or unfairly represented, but in his characteristically playful style he judges and demonizes whole schools of thought without proper discussion.

The result?

Having downplayed the authority of the Bible, and downplayed further intelligent defense of this authority we are led “into an ambiguous Christianity that tends to be idolatrous and autonomous.”

The Effect on Youth and Children’s Work

McLaren’s approach to scripture, says Philippa “means [young people’s] lives needn’t be challenged by biblical propositions which are often countercultural in today’s society; when the world and the Bible disagree, they needn’t choose between them, because the emerging church approach appears to offer both.”

She raises two important questions:

1st. “Is the emerging church approach and it’s de-emphasis of the Bible going to attract young people to Christianity?”

2nd. “Is it going to transform young people’s lives so that they become committed and mature followers of the true God who seek to serve him with their whole lives?”

“Personal faith in Christ, for it to be genuine and saving must have propositional content.”

To answer these Philippa points out the obvious important point which is that the world already offers them this form of ‘Christianity’; warm, simple, and compromising communities. Further she points out that ambiguity and uncertainty are not helpful for young people in this culture – they need structure, guidance and authority, especially now when the rest of the world is giving them less and less of this.

“Young people cannot be genuine believers simply because they are involved in social action, or have a vague notion of who God is: “personal faith in Christ, for it to be genuine and saving must have propositional content” says Philippa (quoting also DeYoung and Kluck, Why we’re not emergent, 74).

Philippa’s Conclusions

Young people need both ‘heart’ and ‘brain’ religion concludes Philippa. The Bible must be understood as the “true self-revelation of God to his people, though which the essential gospel truths are revealed, and by which Christians are authoritatively taught and corrected.”

The Bible is our way to understand Jesus and how we have salvation – so it must be protected as authoritative and taught as such.

My Final Thoughts

There is lots to admire about Philippa’s thesis. The Bible is certainly God’s own revelation; beautiful, true and authoritative. It is creative and life giving and communicates to us the very heart of God.

Further, her passion to teach the Bible wholly and counter-culturally to young people is excellent and needs to be mimicked across the youth work spectrum if we are to see young people be fully cross-carrying, God-exalting Christians.

However, there is some agitation I have at lack of engagement with the Bible as an organic book with relational, timeless, conversational aspects that are new and newly creative every morning. The Bible without the Holy Spirit is a book – simple as and no more. Dead and molting. But when the Spirit of God shines through the pages and meets with us then theology and Christianity comes to life.

In short the Bible is big enough to be subject to our humanity and God is big enough to protect His words through the grandest of scrutiny and the softest of liberal engagement.

The Bible does not save – God does. And He has a whole tool-belt to do that with. God has spoken yes – but God also speaks. The Bible is received, yes – but God is organic and takes all the time and space he wants to open and not close our perceptions of him. The more we nail down, the less we know God.

The Latest in Academic Youth Work Part 1: Fatherlessness and Discipleship

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This week is a study week for me. I’m in my old Bible College Library for 5 days working through Youth Ministry and Theology issues. Hopefully at some point I’ll get to grill some of my ol’ lecturers too!

Oak Hill has simply the best Bible-driven, theological education Britain can offer – so I’m starting off by working through the last couple of years worth of the the Youth Ministry Course’s top scoring Dissertations. One from 2013 on Fatherlessness and Discipleship stood out for me today:

“An Approach to the Discipleship of Children and Young People with Absent Fathers, Particularly Considering Their Understanding of and Interaction with God as Father” by Mellissa Christine Tuthill.

This is a brilliant, grounded and fantastically helpful approach to nurturing and growing young people who have grown up without a father.

Mellissa starts with devastating statistics which show that 50% of young people no longer live with both parents by age 15. The result, particularly for those who grow up without dad (whether he is physically or emotionally removed), is a fundamental underdevelopment of spiritual, emotional and psychological well being.

She then goes on to paint a picture of the Biblical picture of dad in the Jewish home as teacher, provider and protector and shows how each of these find their source and fulfillment in the person of God the Father.

To move us towards application Mellissa outlines a three-pronged model for discipleship that would be particularly effective for the Fatherless:

1. Teaching and applying doctrine
Correcting the distorted image of the Father from Scripture – particularity passages that speak to adoption, unconditional love, the trinity, perfection and God as Father.

Further to support this, working through important relational theology such as sin and idolatry and the nature of Grace.

2. Biblical counselling
Allowing the young person to work through and discuss the issues they face as a result of fatherlessness and work to a place of acceptance and forgiveness.

Mellissa takes us through Kübler-Ross’ classic stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and encourages us as counsellor to help young people through this process.

Some key phrases stood out to me here, specifically the importance of validating emotions and being as specific as possible in the healing process.

3. Mentoring
What Mellissa says is arguably the most significant and most effective method of discipleship for fatherless young people. The key to this is sharing life with young people, being something like a Father to them and following the practices of Jesus and Paul.

Much of mentoring comes from being a loving role model, not just from a mentor but from exposure to a whole, loving family unit. This latter point is what is often missed in conversations about mentoring. This can happen though intentional time together, but often happens through just ‘going shopping’, ‘washing the car’ or ‘going for a bike ride.’