(Sorry – slightly ranty post)
Over the past decade, Bible Colleges in Britain have really started to struggle getting people to apply. This has been most clearly seen in youth work courses. Not only have several large and well-established youth work training centres now closed, but many of the biggest Bible Colleges in the UK don’t even have a dedicated youth work teacher.
I find this really weird, because also over the past decade, loads of deep-thinking books and resources have come out on youth work. There is now a plethora of relational practice books, educational theory journals, and theological youth work PhDs published each year. The knowledge base is constantly growing. I thought we were just starting to get it?
Youth ministry has been seen as ministry lite for a while now. From the outside it looks like underpaid, entertainment-driven purgatory, where a Nike-sporting young wannabe is waiting for ‘real’ ministry to start later. Only a cursory glance into the youth work world, however, would reveal just how many areas youth ministers need to be carefully developed in.
Youth ministers need to be trained theologically for sure; but they also need to understand HR, safeguarding law, project management, team development, conflict resolution, additional needs, mental health, and a mountain of other very specific, and vocationally professional areas.
Youth ministry is no joke. Done badly it can bring down a church, done really badly it can bring the entire Gospel into genuine disrepute. It’s now easier than ever to make these huge mistakes without even being aware of the issues that cause them.
So why are we so blasé about formal training?
Paediatric doctors will train for years. As will mental health nurses, psychiatrists, counsellors, sports coaches, and of course teachers. We see these as professions which require real training efforts. We take these seriously because they are all involved with the care of vulnerable young people. But wait – isn’t that exactly what we do in youth ministry?
Taking Youth Ministry Seriously
Youth work is no joke. It involves holistic care and theological security. Youth workers – especially those in lead ministry positions – need training. Experience alone simply doesn’t cut it; theological illiteracy is too epidemic, laws change too quickly, and young people vary too widely.
I’m not saying that youth workers need to be more intellectual or more academic. Not at all! We’re not running a school after all… but come on! A little hard effort into understanding complex issues and deep truths about young people goes for miles in ministry.
In most of my posts I’m totally on the youth worker’s side – but in this one I’m asking the impertinent question: What are you doing to show that you take your own ministry seriously?
Are you enrolling on courses, reading books, going to training regularly, and asking for a bigger budget to do just that? Do you know the options for degrees, further professional development, or even research? Do you know the gaps in your knowledge – and where to go to fill them? Are you intentionally putting yourself in situations where you’re challenged? Do you surround yourself with people smarter than you?
I really believe that youth workers should see their role as a calling – something long term. If you believe that’s you, then taking a few years (yes, years) out to do proper foundational training should be seen as an obvious thing to do.
Training doesn’t replace experience of course, nor should it eclipse your own reading, but you can build concurrently and afterwards. The first time I did a theology degree, I spent my free time volunteering in several youth projects – and worked part-time. It’s much easier to gain experience while training than it is to train while working.
Why would you not?
There are several routes into youth ministry, and many of them don’t require any formal training: Internships, apprenticeships, or graduating from voluntary work are often the most regularly travelled paths.
I love these options and I’ve seen some great youth workers come out of these routes too. However, these options often (if not always) leave signifiant holes that need to be plugged. They tend to be too particular, too basic, or too unaccountable.
When someone asks me about youth work training – and specifically about getting a degree – I always ask: why would you not?
Yes, some people hate the classroom and really don’t do well with traditional academic methods – but there is now so much choice in the UK for youth workers who feel just like this. There is also a wide range of funding options, distance learning courses, and timeframes to consider. You can usually discover a good fit if you are willing to put the effort into finding out.
There is also a lot of criticism levied against formal theological training: It’s not worth the money, universities are too hampered by their awarding bodies, youth don’t need another pasty-faced academic, I’d rather just be doing it, I can get all the same information from books etc. However, I’ve only ever heard these arguments from people who decided not to train. The Dunning-Kruger effect comes to mind.
The fact remains for me that the best youth workers that I’ve ever met personally are both well-experienced, and formally-trained. They didn’t feel like they we’re already ‘good enough’ to skip it and move on, and they didn’t feel like youth work didn’t deserve the time or the effort. They are all doing amazing work today that will long outlast them.
Is it always necessary to get a degree?
It probably sounds like I’m saying that right? Well, no it’s not… but I’d like us to start seeing degree-level-trained youth ministers as the norm rather than the exception. At the moment there are a lot less formally trained youth workers out there, and I’d really like to see that balance tip.
So there are genuine ways you should be able to go into youth ministry without getting formally trained – but I’d love to see that as the exception, not the rule. And I’d hope, if you are in that position, that you’d be looking for options as your ministry develops.
There are experiences, information, and learning environments that you just cannot get any other way – from people who are paid to stay up-to-date and informed – in a space designed for you to make lots of mistakes and ask lots of questions. Why would you not see that as the first option?
I kinda think about it like cyclists legs. Cyclists legs really creep me out; it’s like they have a chicken, or half a ham wedged into their calf, while the rest of their leg is super skinny. Experience might build a couple of big solid muscles, but training should give you what you need to develop everything in balance.
So get on it!
Formal theological and practical training in youth ministry is worth every minute.
Rather than asking ‘what else could I do’, start looking at formal, foundation training as the first option. You wouldn’t want a doctor working on you without proper training, or a mechanic working on your car with big gaps in their knowledge. Lets take youth ministry at least as seriously.
😛 That is all.