The Heart-Breaking Side of being a Long-Term Youth Worker

I’m a huge advocate for youth ministry as a long-haul vocation, rather than a one-stop ride on the way to ‘proper’ ministry. We’ve got to dig in, get comfortable, and prepare for a real journey.

There is, however, a darker side to being in it for the long haul, one we don’t often talk about in the wake of trying to keep people from giving up. In a nutshell it’s this: people leave.

Friends to but not friends with

When you are ministering to young people it is important to remember that you’re not their mate. You can be a friend to a young person, but not a friend with a young person. We’re not their peers (that would be creepy), and as adults with duty-of-care, we need to exercise healthy boundaries that are stricter than the average friend.

All that said, you do grow to like young people. You spend a lot of time with them laughing, making memories, opening up, being supportive; and many of them – over the long haul – mature into fully fledged adults. I can honestly say that I’m now friends with several adults who used to be in my youth group when they were younger.

These are the first of two groups who leave.

When friends move away

When kids become adults, they do things like go to university, get jobs, and move away. This has happened to me more than a few times now, and it’s a sad recurring story.

When you have invested so much into a young person – who then grows into a healthy adult – a bond is made and the relationship can easily grow into an adult friendship. Then quite suddenly there’s marriage, new families, and jobs far away. It’s always sad to see friends go, and there’s a bittersweet irony when these friends used to be young people to whom we invested so much into their maturity into adulthood.

 

When young people drift away

It’s not just these maturing young adults that leave. Over my years as a youth worker I’ve seen many young people come and go. In some cases, these young people stayed around for just one week, but in others they were around a year or so then drifted off without a word.

Sometimes they fell out with God, other times they fell out with me. In some cases, there was an issue at home, a tragedy, or just a change in personality. Whichever way, young people often leave.

The longer you spend in youth ministry the more you look back over the names and faces that you no longer see. There are good memories to be sure, but there’s also grief and loss.

This is the other side of long haul youth ministry that we rarely talk about – and it’s important to remember that we’re not alone. Considering how isolated youth ministry can be, this feels like we should prepare for this more.

How do you handle the loss?

I’m not entirely sure, as I’m only just realising that this is a thing in my life, however I offer up a few simple suggestions to get us started.

  • Let yourself grieve
    It is important to genuinely feel what you’re feeling and to allow yourself to move through the stages of sadness.
  • Make an event of people leaving when you can
    Closure goes a long way and celebrating a young person’s movement into adulthood is incredibly affirming for them.
  • Keep in touch
    Be realistic, but keep a few details and drop a ‘hello, how are you?’ every now and then. It will be valuable to both of you.
  • Remember that it’s hard for them too
    You’ve been a significant part of their life, and you too will be stepping out of their world.
  • Keep healthy boundaries
    Goes without saying, but make sure you do move through your ministry with the right measure of strict and organically reactive boundaries to keep the relationships in safe areas.
  • Pray for them
    Give thanks to God for them, and them let Him have them completely.

When youth ministry meets real life – an excerpt from Rebooted

The following is a small excerpt from my book, Rebooted, which was released a week ago. This is the section – which comes from Chapter 5: ‘Youth work through the Prophets’ – that was read by my wife, Katie, at the official launch. Hope you find it helpful!

Youth work is not always pretty, it doesn’t always follow the rules, it doesn’t always show up on time, and it doesn’t always play fair.

I remember getting a phone call at 6am from a local school in London to explain that a very popular sixteen-year-old boy had tragically lost his life in the night. He had been out with some friends, came home late, and – complicated by an undiagnosed heart problem – choked on his own vomit in his sleep. I was asked to attend a memorial assembly that very morning, then asked if I would stay behind afterwards to ‘counsel’ some of his friends.

I got up, donned my suit, and headed through the morning London traffic. The assembly was heart-breaking. Two thousand students, many openly weeping, a confused and unsure shell of a head teacher trying desperately to find words of comfort, and the boy’s parents, fresh from the hospital on the front row in each other’s arms. It got very real very fast. This was nothing however, compared to what came next.

Myself, a local church minister, and a school councillor were taken to a small temporary classroom outside the main hall. This had been set apart for any young person or teacher that wanted time to reflect, or someone to talk to. Students were also told that it was ok to write some messages or stories on the walls inside if that would help them.

Over the next couple of hours, we saw hundreds of students come through that building, almost all of whom left a message. By the afternoon every piece of wall, inside and outside, the carpet, the tables, the chairs, and the ceiling were covered (and I mean covered) by writing:

 

There were funny stories of times when friends had gone out and done stupid things together.

There were shared dreams and aspirations of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

There were heart-wrenching, deepest apologies – the guilt of which you cannot imagine.

 

Myself and the other two counsellors walked around like lost sheep. We tried, very carefully, to talk to some of the young people; but that’s really not what they wanted. I shared a hug with a young lad I knew from my youth club at the time, tears lining his face. I had no idea what to say and no idea what to do.

You learn about these times in college and through books, but nothing prepared me for it. I remember tangibly thinking, God please help me take my youth ministry more seriously.

Of course, this is not youth work going wrong, this is youth work working! This is youth ministry at its most pertinent. The creativity of the school gave the young people an uncommonly valuable way of moving thorough their pain as a community. It was amazing. I was there, at best, to facilitate the safety of the activities and the tone of the room. God was obviously, however, in their midst.

Youth ministry is, of course, not all lock-ins, nerf wars, and happy teenagers ‘getting saved’. There are times when real life just happens; the question is whether we have created a youth ministry context where real life is welcomed, and projects that embrace the fullness of this life – even when it ‘goes wrong.’

When the rubber meets the road and things get real, the question left on the table is ‘have I built a youth ministry that can weather this’?’ Or – even better – ‘have I developed young people who thrive in the midst of suffering?’

Life, ministry, and certainly youth work, can get very messy.

 

The Book of Daniel

I – according to my entire team – have a serious defect: I do not like Disney films.

This isn’t entirely true. I still have a soft spot for The Lion King, I don’t mind the new Star Wars, and I could quote Cool Runnings all day long. However, I cannot make it through almost any other Disney film – especially the ones with cartoon animals that wear hats, but not pants! My problem comes down to formula – I think they are all basically the same. This is probably where I lose some of you. Thanks for reading this far!

Each film starts off with a happy situation. Good friends, cosy family, feel-good music and glitter everywhere. Then ‘the thing’ happens. The thing could be anything that introduces a tragic separation into the film (usually the death of a parent): Mufasa is killed by Scar, Bambi’s mum meets the hunter, Dumbo is separated from his mum by the circus… after being rocked like a baby in tears through the bars of a cage, Nemo’s mum and unborn siblings are eaten by a freakish barracuda, Tarzan loses his parents, Chance, Shadow and Sassy get lost in the middle of nowhere, Cinderella is emotionally abused by her sisters, Bell gets kidnapped, Andy gives away his toys, and that whole opening scene from Up!

Once the thing happens, and all the watching children are traumatised for life, there is usually a ‘thrown far from home’ bit. This is then followed by an ‘amazing journey’ bit, a rapid race through the five stages of grief while ‘accompanied by new streetwise friends who you first thought were jerks’ bit (think Timone and Pumba, Buzz Lightyear, sassy candlesticks, a load of kitchen utensils, or a boy scout and demented Labrador). Eventually they find their way ‘back home’ and ‘find themselves’ in some existential way in the process. The evil protagonists die in a brutal way (they usually fall to their doom), and everyone lives happily ever after. The prophecies are fulfilled, the world is saved, there is sometimes ice cream or toast, and so on. Disney in a nutshell. I thank you.

Interestingly, that however, is also really the story of Daniel. A young lad, happy in the promised land, then the thing happens – which is the Babylonian conquest. He is dragged far from home, meets a ragtag group of friends, finds his way, and helps a king (somewhat) connect with God and (kinda) lives happily ever after. If I could sum up the story of Daniel in one line it would be: Trust in God, because everything else is a nightmare!

It’s likely that Daniel (alongside Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) were teenagers because they were taken from Judah and trained to serve in the king of Babylon’s court (Dan. 1:4-6). They were also specifically called ‘young men’ in v.4.

The fascinating thing we see in these young companions, and especially Daniel, is their immense faith, and connectedness to God’s Word in the middle of a destitute world of sin and godlessness. They would not ‘defile’ themselves with food God had forbidden (1:8), they were divinely given all kinds of knowledge by God (1:17), including the prophetic gift of dream interpretation. They are also kept safe from a fiery furnace (3:6-28) and a lions’ den (6:10-23).

Throughout this whole story Daniel is able to worship his God, speak his word, and challenge the King of Babylon to do the same. Incredible!

Daniel trusted in God, and God raised him up to both speak truth and remain pure Babylon, which probably still rates among the worst cultural environments of all time. Babylon is the metaphor God uses for the Godless world that would be cast into the sea in Revelation 18:21. Young people are immensely resilient, especially when they have a firm foundation of faith and conviction.

We need to do all we can to help young people to thrive under pressure by standing them firmly upon their faith in God. We cannot teach purity, holiness, spiritual disciplines or even a passion for evangelism legalistically or abstractly. We need to continually point them back to God in the midst of tragedy, struggle and grief. We need to help them find God in the midst of pants situations. This is to objectively ‘speak God’ into where He might otherwise have been missed in the middle of the mess. Then they will be equipped in faith to thrive supernaturally.

 

What about you?

What do you do to help your young people thrive supernaturally? Does this only work in good times, or do you point to it in the worst times too?

 

Youth Work and the Gravity of the Bible

When I was growing up, my brother was big into mountain biking. He made his own bikes, had all the right gear, and wore ‘biker’ clothing. One of his t-shirts had a picture of an upsidedown guy who had just fallen off his bike with the caption: ‘GRAVITY. I fought the law, but the law won.’

You just can’t fight gravity! Think about the amount of money NASA spends on rockets, fuel and propulsion systems to fight gravity. Gravity is incredible. It’s a powerful force that draws things together, keeps things sound and solid, and it helps things move healthily. If gravity was suddenly just a little different on Earth, then we’d lose the integrity in our joints and bones and even basic movement would become painful. Gravity is a big deal. The Bible has its own gravity: it draws everything together, keeps you on the right track, and holds your ministry accountable. We need to surrender to its pull (it is God speaking after all) and let everything we do be shaped by it.

When we teach young people, we don’t need to be afraid of actually opening and digging into the Bible. Over the past few years I have opened the Bible in every style of youth project I’ve done and – when I properly let them engage with it rather than just spoon-feeding it to them – it is always amazing.

I’d summarise what Peter was doing back in Acts 2 (and the Apostles throughout the rest of the story) as gravitating towards to the Word. They opened it up at every possible opportunity. They used object lessons, full-on speeches, little chats, supernatural miracles – everything they could think of – to illustrate what the Word is saying. These things always accompanied their speaking of the Gospel; they never watered it down or replaced it.

If in doubt, gravitate towards the Bible and use all your considerable creative talents to bring what it actually says alive relevantly. It really works, and I guarantee you that if you can say something well – God can say it better. Remember, it’s His mission.

 

This was a sneaky-cheeky excerpt from my upcoming book Rebooted. Pre-order a copy from IVP here.

 

7 Ways to lead people who are older than you – on LeadAnyone

I first wrote this for the excellent blog, leadanyone.com early last year. However, with the new term approaching and lots of youth workers changing and starting new jobs, I thought it might be some timely help to someone. You can read the original here.
“Who on earth does this kid think he is?” This, I am sure, was the overall impression I left on people during my first year as a full-time minister.

Fresh out of seminary and ready to take on the world, I was going to teach these older generations a thing or two – and I made sure they knew it! Needless to say I failed pretty miserably, left a wake of distrust behind me and ensured a consistent undercurrent of defensiveness in my meetings. Bummer.

Learning to manage the older generations in your team is absolutely vital! Not only does it properly respect the formula for united and diverse ministry laid out in 1 Corinthians 12, but it also makes everyone’s life easier and your projects much more effective.

These seven tips for how to lead older team members boil down to three simple principles: value, trust and communication. You must consistently show that you genuinely value everybody’s input. You must cultivate a culture of mutual trust and respect. You must communicate clearly on several levels to make sure everybody is on board. Let’s unpack the tips more thoroughly:

1. Make the right first impression

Experts claim that between thirty seconds and two minutes is all the time people take to form a lasting impression of someone. I’m not sure if this is true, but it’s a pretty scary idea. However long it actually takes, the principal remains the same: we need to start off on the right foot.

You should not come across immediately as ‘the boss.’ Instead be humble, ask lots of questions, show genuine interest and make simple friendly gestures. If you come across from the start as open, friendly, and easy to talk to, it will set the stage for all of your interactions when managing people later.

2. Get to know them personally

It’s important to know team members, and particularly older team members, personally outside of your meetings. It gives you the proper room to talk and share together and it builds trust.

Take them out for coffee, accept their invitations to dinner, join them on rambles and meet their families. Take time to understand their background and history, delve into their experience and allow them to tell you their stories. It will be far more interesting and edifying than you might think!

Also, be open and genuine with them. Allow aspects of your vulnerability to come through, and especially be reasonably honest about your nervousness as a young leader. This is a great opportunity for you to show your trust in them, and to reach out to their wisdom.

3. Metacognate

Isn’t that just a fantastic word? It literally means to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – and doing so for your older members will be an illuminating thought experiment!

Consider that when you’re in your 20s and 30s you are still trying to understand what your life will stand for. When you get to your 40s and 50s, focus switches to your family’s legacies, and your fears surround comparing yourself to your peers. In your 60s and 70s you look back more and ask questions about your value, the impact you left behind and whether you mattered.

Try to imagine what it’s like to live with those different perspectives and fears. Empathise with them and be sympathetic in how you manage.

4. Listen actively and communicate clearly

Active listening is intentional. When it comes to the older generations you need to ask lots of questions, listen carefully to their responses, and remember the stories they tell you. Just smiling and nodding doesn’t work if you can’t recall the information and apply it later. This means you should observe carefully and watch before you make any major changes or start any revolutions. You want to bring people with you, and that requires responding to who they really are.

Listening shows that you are willing to be a learner and are obviously teachable. Teachable leaders are always the best team managers as they are able to incorporate people’s differing perspectives while helping them feel valued at the same time. One of the best ways you can do this is to ask for their feedback specifically and consistently.

In meetings, you should give lots of room for expression and clearly acknowledge the points made. However if you want to push a change or new project though, then it is vital that you first meet with members individually. This prepares them for change and also allows you to get their feedback and hear their thoughts before you bring it to a public meeting.

Finally make sure you communicate on many levels. It’s not enough to simply say “well I copied you into that email” or “I tweeted with the hashtag I told you to follow.” Everything you want others to know should be communicated through at least three different mediums. You’ll know you’ve done it right if you get feedback.

5. Embrace their perspectives

One of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever learned is that I’m not actually right all the time. Annoyingly. When it comes to running a successful project, you need to embrace a whole range of different perspectives on learning styles, and these will not all come from you. Shock-horror.

We need to respect tradition and blend old and new approaches when working with Church projects. You’ll find that having a blend of age perspectives will cover a much broader spectrum that includes learning styles and personality types as well.

Be adaptable therefore, and see older team members as part of the solution and not a roadblock to progress. Recognise their wisdom and abilities genuinely and seek ways to apply them specifically. On a side note; do this without grovelling insincerely – they’re old enough to see through you!

Finally, consider a mentoring program where the main intention is to actively encourage older team members to mentor and coach younger members. This will expose everyone to more perspectives while increasing the value you show to older generations.

6. Cultivate the right environment

The meetings and interactions that you have with your team should consistently cultivate a safe, secure, friendly, open and compassionate environment. Don’t hide from conflict and don’t engage in gossip – however vulnerable you might feel.

Recognise the different needs and working styles that older generations might have, responding with specific assurances and opportunities. Try to provide training, especially on things like technology, so that everyone is on equal footing no matter their background.

7. Be a leader

With all the listening, assurances, and vulnerability you could be forgiven for thinking that you shouldn’t actually lead. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Everyone in your team – including older generations – are expecting you to be solid, making decisions, resolving conflict, and setting tone and direction. Don’t feel embarrassed or inappropriately unworthy about the position God has called you to. Seek consistent respect rather than constant approval. Paul’s advice to young leader Timothy on how to lead older teams is simply this, ‘don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, rather set an example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity.’

You should not, however, come across as autocratic or overly authoritarian. It’s possible to make your expectations clear without lording it over people – any episode of The Apprentice can tell you that!

So stand firm and resist intimidation – but do so respectfully.

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

Surviving Summer Camp!

Summer camps are the cornerstone… or millstone of the youth ministry calendar. Great memories mixed with funny smells, odd conversations, and goo that won’t wash out your hair.

They’re also a minefield of safeguarding pushing, consent trying, first-aid exasperating young people who you get to know a little more than you perhaps wanted to!

As I leave for Soul Survivor Week A tomorrow (get in touch if you’re there and want to meet up!), I thought I’d leave you with these posts on how to survive camp for another year.

 

Staying healthy on camp

 

Surviving camp with a fully charged mobile phone

 

Dear free hugs guy… please stop

 

 

Running a Soul Survivor trip pack

 

 

And if you’re feeling a bit more theoretical, here are two posts I’ve written on Soul Survivor specifically over the last few years…

The Christology of Soul Survivor

‘What Soul Survivor Got Wrong’… a missed opportunity

 

 

 

Photo by Maxime Bhm on Unsplash

The difference between ‘millennials’ and ‘GenZ’. Part 2 by Jonny Price

Jonny returns to his discussion of the differences between ‘millennials’ and today’s young people (‘GenZ’) here in part 2; focusing on the differences needed in approach. If you missed part 1, you can check it out here.

 

Recently I wrote about 5 Differences between today’s young people and Millennials. In this blog I want to lay out some potential ways that we as youth workers might start to engage with some of these ideas.

1. Emphasise what we stand FOR, rather than what we are against

For decades the church has been known by those on the outside by what it is against. It is anti-science, anti-LGBTQ, anti-women and anti many other things too. Within the church this has been seen as a sign of the church being counter-cultural, or of the church standing against the tide of society for the sake of the Gospel.

Outside the church though, this has been seen as the church persecuting those who don’t conform, and, far from being counter-cultural, it has been seen as the church promoting the established culture. GenZ are intrinsically egalitarian, they are shocked at the existence of racism, sexism, or any other ism. Combine this with their lack of knowledge of the Christian faith, then they don’t know why the church is standing against those things.

But what about what we stand for? We are for redemption, for equality, for renewal, for the least and the lost. I am certainly not arguing that we should give up our markers in the sand, or that we should keep quiet about what we are against, but maybe we need to re-think or re-emphasise. Are we promoting personal holiness through individual action, or are we promoting systematic cultural change?

2. Emphasise the everyday-ness of spirituality

For a long time the idea of ‘spiritual but not religious’ has been a catch-all group for those who believe but don’t belong. While many writers argue that GenZ are neither spiritual or religious, I’m not sure that is the case. It seems that many members of GenZ are intrigued by the spiritual world, but they don’t use the code words we in the church look for to signal that they are spiritual.

Combine this with the way we have made Christian spirituality about a special time and place (Sunday morning, summer camp etc.), then why should young people expect to see God in the world around them?

We can help our young people to see God at work in the world through the people around them and through the amazing things that happen each day. We have a huge help in this from the advertising industry, which has trained this generation to be discerning and skeptical. If we can help our young people to use their incredible skills of discernment, then we can help them to see God at work in the everyday world, and help them to see how they are a part of God’s work in this world.

3. Peter, not Paul, should be our example for conversion and faith

We love dramatic conversion stories. We love to see people’s lives changed suddenly, so that they are redeemed and renewed, and we should. These stories are fantastic and inspiring. These stories stand out, however, because they are unusual. It’s much more difficult to see the hard won, life-long search for truth and the struggle to live out that truth.

Which is why I think Peter is such a good example for us to hold to when we are thinking about conversion and faith development. It is not that he is holier, or superior, but that maybe his example is more timely for us today. How many times did he mess up? How many times did he not get it? How many times did he fail? And yet, he was never abandoned, never rejected, always called back.

By emphasising dramatic conversion, epitomised by Paul on the road to Damascus (which wasn’t as sudden or dramatic as we think, but that’s for another time), we set our young people up for disappointment when they don’t experience this sudden transformation in their own lives.

Emphasising Peter over Paul allows us to tap into GenZ’s understanding of change as incremental and slow, and will help us to develop lifelong disciples, rather than summer converts.

In Conclusion

There is no radical rethink here, no reforming of the Christian faith into something new. Instead we need to look at our contemporary culture and, as faithful Christians have done for centuries, see where the contact points between that culture and our faith is and emphasise those.

It can be uncomfortable, but if we can do this well, we can show the rest of the church how it is done and, more importantly, help a generation of young people see that there is a God who loves them, and offers them redemption not just to a new way of life today, but to an eternal life tomorrow.

 

 

Jonny Price is the Youth and Children’s Ministry Leader for a Clifton Parish Churches in the North of beautiful York, where he lives with his wife, Carly, and son, Ethan.

When time allows he can be found cycling, either road or mountain, cooking or reading.

He holds a BA (Hons) in Mission and Ministry with a specialism in Youth from Cliff College, and is currently studying for an MA.

He loves Jesus and the Church, and wants to see the Church work to help young people live transformed lives by experiencing the redeeming love of Jesus.

Photo by Ben Duchac on Unsplash

The difference between ‘being the leader’ and actually leading

One is based on an assumption, the other is based on an action.

Being the leader is assumed. It’s on your name tag, written in your job description, and comes with the territory. It does not – on it’s own – make people follow you.

‘You know what they call a leader with no followers? Just a guy taking a walk’ (immortal wisdom from Vice President bob in the West Wing).

Actually leading is acting like the leader. It’s earning the right to the name tag, living up to the job description, and owning the territory. It inspires followers.

In churches we can be a fickle bunch, and we don’t often care for our leaders the way we actually should. It’s hard today to meet a Christian who hasn’t got some story of how a leader was abused, or some juicy piece of gossip about how poor a leader was. It’s also hard to meet a leader that hasn’t been back-handed in exactly this kind of way. We don’t make it easy for our leaders!

When a leader starts a new post, they can either become territorial, dictatorial, and then defensive about their shinny new leadership role, or they can grow into it.

How to act like a leader:

1. Take responsibility.
Roll up your sleeves and start working on solutions… including for things within yourself.

2. Don’t enable.
Steer clear of gossip, judgement, and criticising what went before. Challenge those who do.

3. Don’t take sides.
Engage in active conflict resolution and mediation.

4. Pick up the phone.
Rather than leaving problems unanswered get on them immediately and personally.

5. Don’t be afraid of conflict.
Avoiding conflict tends to breed more problematic conflict. Look it in the eye and work at it.

6. Listen activity.
Practice the art of good listening, remembering, and personal critical thinking.

7. Spend time with difficult characters.
Don’t just surround yourself with people you like. Spend intentional time with those you struggle with.

8. Guard your own time.
If you don’t fill your calender, someone else will. Craft your week and stick to it.

9. Guard your contact details.
Give out ways to get in touch with you that you can turn off when necessarily. Not everyone needs your personal number or home address.

10. Say no.
Some ideas are not where things are at, and some times you’re not available. Learn to say no with compassion but finality.

11. Build a team.
Develop a group of core people around you to share responsibility and steer the ship. More on this soon!

12. Take time off – seriously!
ALWAYS guard your time off. Don’t change it.

13. Don’t overstep your resources.
If you can’t resource something (money, people, time, space) then don’t do it.

14. Be sacrificial.
Just like Jesus. Don’t lord it over people, but roll up your sleeves and get stuck in with whatever.

15. Look after your health.
Diet, sleep, and food. A healthy trinity of things you’ll need to function well while leading people.

16. Don’t be afraid of people leaving.
It happens every time leadership changes; for good and bad reasons. Build on what God has given you, and take your time over the foundation.

17. Love what you do.
Take pride and joy in your ministry. Let the best bits fill you, and embrace the bad as learning opportunities. God has called you – so believe in it.

 

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Is youth ministry too ‘anti-academic’?

Naaaa…. not really. Well, yes, maybe. Kinda. Hmmmm.

This is a tough nut to crack!

So I’m a youth worker and I like to at least think of myself as an academic. I’ve studied at Oak Hill Theological College, Oxford University, and I’ve just finished a Masters in mission from Cliff College with a distinction. So me likey the thinkies!

Moving in these circles has meant that I have had the chance to spend time with other thinky youth workers who love to plumb the depths of theory and debate over the finer parts of nitpicking for long hours into the night. However this isn’t always the case.

A lack of theoretical depth

Sometimes it feels like youth work conferences and seminars are aimed at occasional volunteers in need of entertainment and very light topics. Sometimes youth work groups and forums don’t make it out of the ‘anyone got any game ideas’ threads, and then delete deeper areas for fear of heated debate or strong opinions. Sometimes casual conversations with fellow youth workers make me ashamed for wanting to go deeper. Sometimes ideas like ‘critical discussion’ or ‘peer review’ make people squint and jerk their heads, like they’re being offered something that could be poison.

According to every piece of research on the topic less youth workers are being hired, and they just don’t last long when they are. There is obviously a problem somewhere – and I wonder if the lack of depth and internal understanding of the job is a large contributing factor.

I’ve often been told that I’m overthinking, making things too complicated, or ‘straining a gnat’. Sometimes that’s fair – sometimes I am. Sorry! Sometimes I’m not though, and it’s these times that concern me.

Isn’t what we do pretty deep?

As youth workers, we need to take our profession very seriously. We navigate a landscape of  risk assessments, safeguarding law, adult ratios, additional needs, conflict resolution, mediation, teaching styles, personality types, consent and privacy law, social services, multi-agency intervention and support groups, volunteer management, charity commission reports, accountability boards, time management, inclusivity, digital awareness, and technology.

We really are in a theory-heavy and legally accountable profession.

Without deep thinking, constructive training and expertise in a lot (if not all of these areas), our youth work raft will eventually start sporting holes. We need to proactively and preemptively think through a whole range of areas before they become a problem.

With this foundational, structural safety net in place, we then turn to the level of teaching and welfare instruction (DBS terminology for regulated activity) that we are called to give:

Youth work mostly focuses on contemporary missiology and practical theology, but according to Deut. 6, there is a responsibility to pass on the whole nature of God’s ways and character to the next generation. Our theological understanding should go way beyond the scope of just ‘God loves you’. We should be able to helpfully travel the waters of adolescence with a firm enough understanding of the Bible to respond to complicated questions and steer young people towards God in the middle of confusion. This needs more than just a cursory understanding of scripture and is exactly why I wrote Rebooted.

What’s your point grumpy Tim?

I’ve not met many youth workers who 1. have a serious enough understanding of the fabric of their work or 2. have a deep enough relationship to biblical theology – to trust that they’ll still be doing it in ten years time. This makes me really sad, because they are good people with an amazing passion for young people, and clear gifts for this purpose!

As highly as we value it, however, passion just isn’t enough for the long haul. We need our conferences, seminars, online spaces, and conversations to deepen into the theory that surrounds us. We need to make our peace with study, training, and academic reading.

Again – I happen to move in some circles where this is prized, but the more time I spend with youth workers outside the academic realm, the more I wonder if it really is taken seriously on the whole.

Maybe it is and maybe you do – which is why you’re here.

If not, consider joining some groups, or doing some more professional development training. Read youth work journals not just magazines, and check out the work of the IASYM. Go to education conferences, and if you’re in the position of leadership at a conference – deepen some topics and broaden your speakers. We’ll all thank you for it when our profession is still alive and thriving in twenty years time!

At very least, let’s all surround ourselves with people who are smarter than us and let’s ask lots and lots of questions!

Thanks everybody.

Youth Ministry that’s Genuinely Relevant without Faking It

Last week I had the privilege of writing this for the IVP blog. Check out the original online here.

There’s a classic episode of The Simpsons where Ned Flanders, the show’s exorbitantly cheesy Christian stereotype, runs a Bible study in his home. The group has one teenager – an air-headed bully called Jimbo. In order to keep the study relevant to Jimbo, Ned keeps throwing in techy terms, ‘Now let us download the holy tweet of the Lord!’ When Jimbo begins to get bored and heads for the door, Ned yells desperately, ‘Mousepad! Double-click! Skype! Skype!’ Anything to give off the pseudo air of relevancy.

Relevancy is one of those magic words that we youth workers love to throw into our strategy statements and mission plans! Relevancy is as relevancy does though. On the one hand, relevancy genuinely can help us connect with young people at a deeper and more meaningful level. It can create a bridge into their world and smooth the path of the Gospel into their lives. On the other hand – as Ned established – relevancy can also become simply a disjointed and awkward attempt to look trendy and fashionable without any real depth. What makes the difference

Authentic Relevancy

A couple of years ago I knew an elderly gentleman who, before he passed away, rode the bus every morning when the teenagers got on for school. He struck up conversations with them, told them about Jesus, and somehow had them hanging on his every word. It was incredible! He was doing my job – in his eighties – better than I do it! This was more than a little humbling. The thing is that he wasn’t trendy, he wasn’t tuned in to their music, books, or box sets, and he wouldn’t know what a ‘skype’ was if you whacked him around the head with a webcam. What he was though was incredibly authentic.

Authenticity is what makes relevancy real. Authenticity is the magic ingredient that creates a connection with people who are different to us. Authenticity is what actually makes us relevant. This elderly chap would listen actively and intently, he would show genuine compassion, he would remember names, make eye contact, and be honestly interested. It didn’t matter one bit that he didn’t know who Chris Pratt or Kanye West was. He was authentic. He liked them, and they liked him. He was authentic – so he was relevant.

Getting on Trend without Being on Trend

It’s not that understanding teenage culture or following what’s ‘on trend’ is a bad thing. Of course it’s good to know, understand, and engage with what’s happening in their world. It’s healthy to be able to speak into the activities they’re committed to and the media they’re consuming.

It is their world though – and when we come off as being as much in it as they are we kill authenticity dead. Teenagers are super smart, and they can smell a rat a mile away! If we try to understand their world by being in it as much as they are – buying the same things, dressing the same way, watching all the same shows – then it’ll just end up weird. A little knowledge and some common ground is great, but it’s not what makes us genuinely relevant.

Cultivating Authenticity

Authentic people engage with teenagers in meaningful and lasting ways. Let’s prioritise authenticity. So, what makes us this kind of authentic?

• Active listeners are authentic
• Honest and transparent storytellers are authentic
• Humble people are authentic
• Compassionate and interested adults are authentic
• Those who generously give time are authentic
• Those who set consistent and healthy boundaries are authentic
• Those who cultivate thankful spirits are authentic
• Content people who trust God for what they need are authentic
• People who create situations for multiple voices to be heard are authentic
• Those who ask good questions, yet don’t have all the answers are authentic
• Those who talk clearly, and unapologetically from the Bible are authentic
• Those who mention Jesus; His life, death and resurrection are authentic

And these authentic people are genuinely relevant! Trying to understand culture without understanding the things above will leave you as a desperate square peg, forever jamming yourself into a round hole. Irrelevant!

I recently got my hands on a copy of Jessie Faerber’s new book More Than Just Pretty, and it’s a great example of what I’m talking about. More Than Just Pretty is a book that connects with the genuine struggles and ambitions of young girls in a solidly relevant way. It’s relevant because it’s authentic. You get the feeling as you read it that Faerber has really been there, and can empathise with girls while simultaneously giving permission for them to be so much more than what culture expects. She’s authentic – so her message is relevant! With my own book on the Bible and youth ministry, ‘Rebooted’, coming out in September, I hope that I come across with even half the authenticity that Jesse does!

With the Jimbo-generation in our projects, let’s not cheapen their experience of Christians by Ned Flandering all over them; ‘skype! Skype!’ Instead let’s be compassionate, interested, actively-listening adults who share with them authentically. Then we and our youth ministries will be truly relevant!

57 random thoughts and suggestions for new pastors.

I’m a youth worker. We know this already! However, I actually trained as a pastor and have spent the last 14 years working closely with many church pastors. Here are a collection of random thoughts for pastors who are just starting off…

  1. Love people more than you love books.
  2. Teach the people you have, not the people you wish you had.
  3. Ask questions. lots and lots of questions.
  4. Hang out with other pastors.
  5. Spend time with the children’s ministry.
  6. Pray more for people than you talk about people.
  7. Knowing things that should make you a better preacher, won’t necessarily make you a better preacher.
  8. If you are not seeking God’s voice, you cannot share God’s Word.
  9. Placating difficult personalities rarely makes things easier.
  10. Neither does just ‘letting them have it’.
  11. You cannot be all things to all people… That’s not what that verse means.
  12. If your prayer meetings are empty, it doesn’t matter how full your services are.
  13. You can’t look after a congregation if you’re not looking after your family.
  14. You can’t look after your family alone.
  15. Preachers on youtube are not the best model for pastoral ministry.
  16. Training is not just for ‘other people’.
  17. Training alone does not prepare you completely.
  18. Let people serve – even if you can do it better than them.
  19. Train people – even if it’s easier to just do it yourself.
  20. Recognise traits of toxic people – and don’t give them any responsibly over other people or your time.
  21. Sing worship like your life depends on it. It probably does.
  22. Plan your time around the priorities the Holy Spirit lays on your heart. If you don’t – other people will plan your time around their priorities.
  23. See your job description as something that should be fulfilled by year 5, not day 1.
  24. Leave 10% of your time ‘free’ for growth that will come later. Don’t ever commit to something to simply make up the hours.
  25. Don’t hold grudges.
  26. Take people bowling.
  27. Keep your office tidy.
  28. Take your days off, and disconnect. No email or phone.
  29. Arrive early to welcome people – set the standard for everyone.
  30. Plan Sundays where you are just part of the congregation and not leading anything.
  31. Avoiding conflict doesn’t actually avoid conflict.
  32. Avoiding conflict doesn’t actually make life easier.
  33. Avoiding conflict usually creates more conflict.
  34. Deal with conflict in person – not over email or on the phone.
  35. Deal with conflict immediately.
  36. Treat volunteers professionally, and hold them to agreed standards.
  37. Throw off monkeys so you can shoot elephants! (Deal with the small annoying things as they jump up on your face, before they’re so many of them you can’t do what you’re called to).
  38. Find a small group of people who serve and dedicate most of your time to them. Then get them to dedicate their time to others.
  39. Love your Bible. Really really love it.
  40. Give most of your time to faithful, available and teachable people.
  41. Welcome criticism, but disregard most of it.
  42. Find people you trust to give criticism that you won’t disregard (and not just people who agree with you).
  43. Pray like your life depends on it. It probably does.
  44. Don’t see prayer as a function of ministry, but as an expression of relationship.
  45. Don’t be afraid of getting things wrong. You were never made to be perfect – in fact, God tends to get more glory when you’re not.
  46. Bring Jesus and the Gospel into every debate – see all disagreements in light of a Christ context.
  47. Find a new hobby.
  48. Stay healthy. Eat well, sleep consistently, exercise regularly.
  49. Look after your youth worker. Be involved with what they do – volunteer for ‘their’ ministry.
  50. Bring your administrator doughnuts.
  51. Eat breakfast every day.
  52. Spend more time with people than you do alone in your office.
  53. Spend time alone in your office.
  54. Read good books about being a pastor by people who have done it for years in small churches – for instance Eugene Peterson’s, The Contemplative Pastor
  55. Help people to pray.
  56. Ask for prayer often.
  57. Love what you do. Or stop doing it.