When I started as a full time youth worker I read every book and listened to every talk I could get my hands on! I found some powerful principles and timeless truths that have been priceless in my ministry with young people.
All the best, most current, official looking and practically driven books and talks that I found came from America. This caused some real problems and disruptions in my job.
Disclaimer… I love America!
Now I love America – so much so that I married an American! I’ve also spoken on an American Camp, helped in an American Church youth group, worked with an American schools-based evangelistic charity and nearly went to an American seminary… twice. I’ve been to a bunch of American churches and spent two years living with a whole bunch of American friends. Just to cross the line into the weird I also stayed up all night to watch the general election coverage after months routinely quizzing my American friends and family on their state polls.
The UK is not America. As much as we love American television, drool over classic American muscle cars and lap up American fashion and food we are not America. We love ‘reality show exchanges’ too – we sent Gordon Ramsay to host Masterchef America and we gained David Hasselhoff for Britain’s Got Talent – although the jury is probably still out on who got the fuzzy end of that lollypop! The UK is simply not the same as America.
This is really evident when we try to apply contextual American ministry models to UK based Churches. So when I picked up the ministry model in (for instance) Doug Field’s ‘Purpose Driven Youth Ministry’ and tried to slap it onto a South London Church youth club things fell apart.
First off, for each of the 5 areas of purpose he proposes you need a specific group or project to create the funnel effect he’s looking for. Then each of these need their own leadership, bureaucracy, accountability and resources. I ran a pretty big youth club for the UK, but suddenly shaking it up and segregating it this way meant 1. Christians rarely mixed with non-Christians in constructive ways, 2. the leadership group became stretched beyond their means, 3. we were more polarized from the Church itself, 4. the community fell apart and 5. everything shrank and lost its depth. This took three years to rebuild!
Today I visit lots of youth clubs as part of my job, and you can tell pretty quickly which ones, just like I did, have been listening to too much advice from over the pond. It’s not that American youth ministry models don’t work – it’s that they don’t work prepackaged, flat-packed and superimposed over here!
The Cultural, Contextual and Church Differences between the UK and the USA that Impact Youthwork
Some of you might remember that Mark Driscoll, gave a controversial (go figure!) interview last year on the shape and direction of the British Church. This was the first time I really got annoyed at him! Even though he made some fair points, he demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the differences between American and British history and culture, and specifically the church culture which really is wildly different.
I’m going to carefully and (hopefully) open-handedly suggest some differences between the established Youth Work of America and that of the UK.
These aren’t all true across the board, but these do tend to be true of the ministries that publish books and get to speak in the UK. I’m not therefore, saying all American Youth Work looks like this – I’m saying the one’s that most easily get to influence us tend to!
I’m not going to spend time outlining every way these differences affect what we do – hopefully just encourage you to think contextually and culturally when you design youth work in the UK.
So – in no particular order:
1. America is still in ‘some form of’ Christendom whereas the UK is long past it
The UK’s Church driven state is at least 50 years gone now. We are 3 generations behind from when Church attendance was a cultural expectation. This, as a basic rule of thumb, makes our youth clubs and our interaction with family units much smaller. More on this here.
2. American Christian Media is a Much Larger Industry
There is an enormous market in the US for Christian books, films, television, music and magazines whereas in the UK it is virtually non-existent and shrinking. This sometimes contributes towards youth work projects that seek to compete with consumer culture rather than standing against it.
3. America Has a Much More Positive Leader-Worship Culture
This can make American youth ministry much more leader-centric and individual-driven than is necessarily helpful. In the UK we like to beat people down, simple as. We don’t romance about political leaders and we don’t esteem charismatic church leaders quite so high either. The US loves a hero, but in the UK we simply don’t allow people to become heroes.
4. America Has a Recent Mega-Church History
Whatever your view on the ‘mega-church’ we didn’t see a whole lot of it in the UK. In the US however, the emergence of the mega-church completely changed church and mission culture. The mega-churches dried smaller community churches up, stole all the most talented leaders and put them in a melting pot, and they started a trend towards the business model, professional looking and culture competing ministries.
5. America Has More Clearly Defined Expectations For Youth Work
In the UK, employing a full time youth worker is really quite a new thing and – once we’ve done it – we don’t know what to do with them, how to manage them, how to nurture them or how to fit them into the life of the church! In the US, youth work is well established and has a much more understood bureaucracy – for better or for worse.
6. American Youth Clubs Are Simply Bigger
This is mainly because of the Christendom thing – but its true, the average youth club in the UK is about 5 people and its more like 25 in the US. A reasonably large youth group in the UK would be 50+ but gets to several hundred in the US.
7. American Teams Look More Like Teams
With formal interview processes, application forms, regular reviews, project areas, dedicated secretaries and line management strings – American youth ministries have a much more formal team structure than the UK’s general ‘lets see who shows up’ approach. Something that we really could learn from, but in our own culturally specific way.
8. The American Church Doesn’t Have The Same Monarchical History
The UK Church has hundreds of years of political and foreign war-time history saturating it. For examples look at the French Revolution, the emergence of Catholicism, the Reformation, the Crusades and the heavily state-agenda controlled nonsense of Henry VIII, Edward and Victoria. The American church got to observe and learn from this after-the-fact; we’re lumbered with it and all of its decaying baggage.
9. The American Church is Much More Polarised & Politicised
American mainstream-media presented views (recently more-so after the Bush Jr era/error) are incredibly polarized and extreme flanked… even if most of the country are actually centrists. With things like politics, morality/ethics, and theology much more clearly presented in statements and preaching, American churches can be more competitive and polarized than in the UK. This becomes more true when you factor in huge sub-culture driven churches, ethnicity-driven churches, and cult-driven churches.
10. American Youth Work is Better Funded And Resourced
Some of the youth work budgets for American churches would simply blow your mind! In the UK simply having a clearly outlined budget is a miracle! Not to mention that each US State has a bunch of well operated perennial Christian camps and retreats that would make even our best look like a second-hand tent sale.
11. American Youth Work is More System Driven Than Community Driven
To their credit, some AMAZING youth leaders in the States have been saying this for a while. It’s an issue they push against but we don’t necessarily need to as hard.
12. American Separation of Church and State Dictates Schools Work
Unless you work with a private school, talking about Jesus in any context just isn’t going to cut it. In the UK we have far more openness and opportunity to bring Jesus, God and Acts Of Worship into the Schools. The constitution of America simply will not allow the level of overt honesty and openness that we have available here.
Lets learn from and stand with our American brothers and sisters, but please please please, lets also think how to build a full UK expression of Church in our UK Youthwork! 🙂