Here’s what 187 youth workers call their young people…

What to call the collective age group that youth workers minister to can be an hotly debated issue. When you mix the world of polly-correctness with adolescence-driven chemicals and egotistical youth workers, getting the terms right can be a real thing.

So, we asked 187 youth workers the following question:

‘What you think the most respectful way of referring to ‘young people’ is? (plural).’

There were a few given options* with space to add alternatives. Here were the results:

148 said ‘students*’
14 said ‘youth*’
6 said ‘teenagers*’
5 said ‘young people’
2 said ‘young men and women’, ’the beast’, ’kids’, ‘super saiyans’, and ‘yall’
1 said ‘you’ins’ and ‘young church’
0 responses for either ‘children’ or ‘adolescents*’

Here were some of the additional comments:

“I can’t stand ‘young people’.”

“My SP says ‘Young People’ – even when he speaks at Youth Group. Drives me nuts.”

“Personally, I think Students is a much better term. It’s the precedent for whoever comes into your ministry that we are students of God. Youth has such a negative tone in most places today.”

“I see it as holding them up by calling them students. They’re on the cusp of adulthood and I want them to feel respected and that we recognize where they are. Calling them youth (or even kids) is accurate but a little demeaning when they want to be seen as more grown up. Plus, as students in my group it conveys the importance of why they’re at youth group: to learn the Bible, God, maturity, each other, etc.”

“In seriousness though I would still choose students. Students still has a younger connotation and I could see adults being offended by it for themselves like youth being offended by being called kids.”

Now, these responses came almost exclusively from American youth clubs, which is less helpful for us here in the UK, but it does still provide some interesting questions and contrasts. ‘Students’, for instance, almost exclusively means someone in university here, which doesn’t provide us the same clarity as a term as it might in the States.

Personally, I do tend to use the phrase ‘young people’ when talking about, but not necessary talking to young people. It’s descriptive and accurate, and it – I think – doesn’t contain the condescending undertones of other terms.

It’s also worth adding to the discussion that the Bible uses the words ‘Youth’ (בְּחֻרִים), ‘young man’ (בחור) and ‘the young’/‘youths’ (ילדות) – as distinct from children or adults, so some distinctive term is useful to have.

So, perhaps not massively important – or even helpful – to a UK context, but it is still interesting to think about. Our next venture will be to ask this same question to British young people and see what they say.

Are you a British youth worker? We’d love to know your thoughts on this!

Photo by Jake Ingle on Unsplash

7 Ways to Support Anorexic Young People

Last night my wife and I watched the BBC2 documentary with Louis Theron on Anorexia, which has prompted this post.

Youth ministries can be rife with all kinds of eating disorders, and classically we respond to this epidemic by simply talking about self image and inner value – so if we could just convince them that they are beautiful, then they’ll suddenly get better and start eating normally again. Messages on identity are genuinely important, but rarely do they adequately address the needs of a young person dealing with a diagnosed mental disorder like anorexia.

And that’s where we should start. Diagnosed anorexia is treated in mental health departments. It is often wrapped up in anxiety, paranoia, and other chemical vulnerabilities in the mind. This means that the condition, the symptoms, and the treatments are dramatically different depending on personality.

  • For some young people, anorexia means a pathological and even carnal phobia of food, and what eating does to their bodies.
  • For others, it is a form of self-harm or punishment; a painful response to inordinate guilt or a denial of things they feel they don’t deserve.
  • For some it is a response to trauma or tragedy – a way of making change happen to be more acceptable to themselves or others.
  • For again others, it creates a numbness that enables them to deal with other painful or overwhelming feelings.

Thus you will find young people who are filled with shame about how they deal with eating and exercise – and they will hide from you. You will then find others who are proud, and even militant about their sense of confused piety and discipline. Some will have no intention of recovery, and again others will have no acceptance of their problem. More than likely, however, several of these things will exist together in a constant state tension and battle. This can leave an intense feeling of powerlessness, and a ready acceptance of a half-life.

Anorexia – like any mental health problem – is never clean lined or simple.

It also comes with all kinds of misunderstandings and resentments. ‘Why don’t you just eat more?’ or ‘Don’t you know that you would look so much better with more meat on your bones!’ As if they could just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and suddenly think more objectively or rationally.

Anorexia smothers rational thinking. It comes with intense feelings of guilt, fear, judgement and social anxiety – and it proffers its own destructive solutions. It’s a cognitive war, wrapped up in emotion, expressed physically.

So what do we do about it as youth leaders?

1. Remember that we are not doctors.

We’re not psychologists, psychiatrists, key-workers, or mental health nurses. Our job is not treatment, or job is support. We should work with professionals and recommend or report to them to do what we can’t.

2. Treat them like distinct and individual people

Mental health needs a fuller understanding across the board. I’ve tried to demonstrate above some of the many different ways young people might experience this condition. Each of them will need a different response and will play by a different set of rules. We can’t learn broad responses – we need to work with them individually, case by case, person by person.

3. Ask them what they need

Allow them to speak into their own condition, and help you understand and provide for what language they need. This will also help you be able to look out for their specific triggers that might come up in your projects.

4. Love them unconditionally

It’s easy to get frustrated by conditions that we can’t understand, but our job isn’t to fix young people – it’s to lead them to Jesus. There are few things that do this better than creating a safe place of love and security in your ministry. This should also come alongside healthy and full teaching of God’s Word. Putting the human condition in context of God’s plan is massively helpful and gives great room for the Holy Spirit to convict, change and heal.

5. Don’t enable

Make sure you know enough of them, and have spent enough time with their family – and maybe even nurses or social workers – to be able to help them recover. This means creating similar boundaries within your projects for them as they’ll be experiencing at home. Make sure you’re not inadvertently enabling the condition.

6. Be clearly for their recovery

Show that your proud of them when they’re doing well and when they’re working with doctors. Mental health conditions tend to come with a pathological suspicion of treatment. Help them with encouragement that they’re doing the right thing by getting help. At the same time, give them to space to fall, and understand the time needed to make slow steady progress. Don’t drop them at every relapse – these kind of conditions often need multiple stages of treatment and recovery. It’s always worth it.

7. Don’t minimise their experience

Whatever kind of grip eating disorders have, or whatever form they take, they are always destructive. Be careful not to demonise or trivialise conditions like anorexia in how you joke or talk. Always hear young people out and take them seriously about what it is they’re feeling – whether or not you can relate.

Finally – Protect Yourself

Remember that you are a valuable minster to many young people, and cannot allow all of your energies to be hijacked. Be careful not to make yourself indispensable. You are not Jesus, and you’re not the Holy Spirit. Set healthy boundaries and stick to them.



Finding New Volunteers: Appeal vs Approach

Finding and developing teams of volunteers is the bread-and-butter of youth work. When the team works – it works really well, and when it doesn’t – everything has to work around it.

I’ve just arrived home after a month away to find that my team had been brilliant. They had run and grown all the projects in my absence like pros. This is the first time in 13 years of youth ministry that I felt comfortable enough to leave for an extended period, knowing the young people we’re in good hands. It’s fabulous when a team just works!

But when you don’t have the volunteers to run your projects or (sometimes worse) you have the wrong volunteers in a project things can get very heavy and very stressful very quickly.

The Appeal

For years I ran appeals for help. Letters in news sheets, notices from the front of church gatherings, and direct mail-outs to hundreds of people. Every time I did this I noticed three things:

1. Hardly anyone responded
The ratio – however I did it – came back at something like one or two in every hundred.

2. The wrong people responded
I often got sent offers to help from people with ulterior motives who would be massively unhelpful – if not dangerous – to vulnerable young people, thus would need constant supervision.

3. I’d wasted ministry capital
I want my churches to read everything I give them, and listen up when I speak. This works less when I’m constantly begging for help from the front. No one is inspired by the sinking ship!

The Approach

I recently attended a training session led by the leaders of a large and thriving Children’s Church. Unfortunately I found them frankly quite odd, and took very little of what they said on board. However, they did get one thing very right – which is to approach potential help directly.

I’d suggest this has five stages: Identify, Encourage, Clarify, Invite and Followup.


Sit down and make a list of people in your context that could work for your project. They don’t need to be perfect, but they do need a couple of skills to start with, and some space for you to develop others. It’s not your job to decide whether or not they have time at this point – just make up a wish list.


Seek them out and tell them why you have identified them specifically. This conversation is all about them. Tell them what skills they have and why you think those fit, and tell them why you would love your young people to be served by them. Leave this with them for a week.


Followup with them and start to tell them the basics of what is required. One of the key reasons people don’t respond to appeals is that they are just too vague. Treat them like adults and tell them what is expected from a leader. Also let them know how they will be developed and supported to thrive.


Invite them to the project for a no-pressure, observation-only session. Let them see and have a look at what you do – right from the setup time to the debrief. This lets them picture what it is they would be doing.


Soon after (ideally within the week following) have a coffee with that person. Give them the application forms and initiate the formal process. Get them onto to rota in a supervised position until the process is complete.


This takes the same – if not actually much less – time as an appeal process. Although it doesn’t work every time, my experience has been that you will have more responses, better fitting people, and a more sound beginning for your volunteers.

Have you had success with appeals or approaches? Do you have any other ideas? Send us a message or leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you! 🙂

YouthWorkHacks has been nominated for two awards!

Last year it was an amazing privilege to be nominated for the Premier Digital Awards, Most Inspiring Leadership Blog – and then an enormous surprise to win it among so many fantastic blogs. This year I’m blown away to be nominated for two awards:

This, again, is amazing! Big thanks to everybody who nominated the blog – you guys n’ gals are awesome.

In the meantime, check out the fantastic talent that has been nominated alongside me:

Multi-Author Blog of the Year:

Clarity Magazine


Girl Got Faith

More Precious

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog:

Apples of Gold

Martin Salters Blog

Speak Life

The Additional Needs Blogfather


Again – these are awesome blogs, and it’s fab just to be seen on the same page as them.

Watch this space everybody! 😀


Please everyone? Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.

It’s really hard in youth work to juggle everyone’s expectations, hurt feelings, and mixed theologies. I totally try though, and I think it’s really worth learning how to get on peacefully with everybody. Some things are worth the passion, and the pain, and the fury – and some things are just not; and it’s those things we get stuck on. The little upsets that I think we spend a lot of our energies on. It’s also usually those things we can’t change.

This evening (yesterday now… as I’ll be publishing this tomorrow – which is now today! Hey!) I dropped one of my team members off home. It was about 8.50pm, and we stayed outside her house for about five or six minutes chatting about the day (it’s her birthday!). I noticed an elderly lady poking her head around the curtain, so I thought I must be bothering her with my headlights, so I turned them off.

After that she came outside, leaned on her face and stared at us. I said to my friend that she looked like she was going to start yelling at us so we should probably call it a night. We said good bye and I started to drive away.

On leaving, this tiny little elderly lady said something obscene and gave me the ‘up yours’ sign.

Perturbed, I reversed back, pulled my window down and asked if everything was ok. I asked a couple of times and she just ignored me – so I drove on home.

I was so upset!

Angry, confused, miffed, and totally weirded out.

I was sad and I wanted to go back and talk to her. Find out what went wrong and help change her mind about it. Tell her I’m a nice guy – a Christian youth worker just trying to get a female colleague home safely. Then I prayed. I told God how I felt and I prayed for this little old lady. Then I started to let it go, and arrived home.

Sometimes you just can’t please people. You can’t change how they feel or reverse how they think. Sometimes you’re just giving yourself away by trying. Hand these times and these people over to God; continue to be faithful to His calling on your character and push through to the positive:

You are a child of God, saved by grace alone, divinely adored and yet living in a hostile world. And that’s ok.

Grace goes a long way afterall.

Tomorrow, I’m going to sneakily leave some flowers on her doorstep and a note that says, “I’m sorry I parked outside your house last night when dropping a friend off home. I didn’t mean to upset you so. I wish you all they best!” I hope that little act of peace-making brings some measure of joy to an obviously hurt, vulnerable, and frightened woman.

It’s the best I can hope for – and whether or not she likes or accepts the gesture, it will have no bearing on, or power over me any more. I am a child of God, saved by grace…

…and I can’t please everyone.

Dear Youth Worker, keep hold of yourself

I think one of the hardest battles that I’ve had to consistently struggle through in youth ministry is keeping hold of myself.

From the day you interview, through to meeting the kids for the first time, sitting in Eldership meetings, and talking with concerned parents, you are constantly working with varied and changing expectations. You listen actively, you discern the needs, and you respond with the subtitles required to pacify, subdue or waylay the particular ethics on the table. This can often mean keeping yourself in a constant state of pliability.

After years of this, I wonder how many youth workers today feel like their identity is spiritual putty – or in consistent flux. Foundationally wobbly, this youth worker becomes an increasingly good actor, increasingly desperate for internal stability, and increasingly fearful of being ‘found out.’ At it’s worst, this becomes a hollowed out shell with Nike labels and an iPhone.

The sense of this is hauntingly familiar in Johnny Cash’s rendition of the song ‘hurt.’

Very very rarely a strange things happens in music: A song actually changes ownership from the original writer to a new cover artist. I can think of two, maybe three times that this has happened. Hurt was written by Nine Inch Nails, but was redone as a stripped-back acoustic cover by Cash just a year before he died. The last lines wobbled out in his aged, baritone voice as,

‘If I could start again,
a million miles away,
I would keep myself,
I would find a way.’

Hidden in these notes is a strong sense of personal history. A fear of wasted time, and loosing touch with who he could or should have been. You feel these words testimonially deep – you know he means them.

Sometimes I feel a whisper of that same fear in me: Do I really know who I am. Have I kept a clear hold of myself? Have I spent so long trying to navigate the many expectations that I forgot somewhere who I am?

The answer this this – and any identity crisis – is not to look inward. That’s the humanist, or enlightenment (or dare I say millennial) approch. The answer is to look to Jesus Christ. Our identity is discovered and shaped by our proximity to Him. Our nearness to Jesus sculpts us like marble.

Dear youth worker: Keep a hold of yourself… by keeping a hold on to Him.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

YouthWorkHacks in America

Hey! Where have you been YWHs?

Sorry folks – I’ve been in America for the last few weeks. I’m now sat in a motel room on the edge of Sacramento, California, on a quintessential motel duvet, after having a shower from what looked suspiciously like the one from Psycho.

Before arriving here we had spent a week in a tent in Yosemite National Park hiking, and then we were in the Santa Cruz Mountains before that hanging out with the In-Laws – which included a couple of cats, seven miniature horses, and two incredibly fractious chihuahuas.

So, sorry I’ve not posted for a while! We’ll be remedying that soon. However, I thought I’d leave you with a brief encouragement.

While visiting my wife’s old church I came across two young people that I’d spoken to on a camp here in California about eleven years ago. Both are still part of the church, and both still going strong following Jesus. I had a good long chat with each of them and realized that I had – in a small way – been part of God’s work in their lives.

This is now the second time that I’ve had a significant encounter with a young person years after my ministry influence in their lives. I had no idea at the time of ministry just how God was using me and how it would form a piece of their Christian lives for the long haul.

Being able to have these moment where God shared just a little with me about how I was involved is precious. It reminds me to treasure the time I have with my young people now – and to not underestimate what God can do with these passing ministry moments.

Anyway – I’m off to a Wedding now in Nevada City. See you all soon!