Today’s Discipleship, Tomorrow’s Disciples by Nathan Iles and Phil Knox

This was a live blog for Youthwork, the Conference, originally published on their webpage here.


It’s ​9:08​ in Devonshire 1, and the room is slowly filling up to experience the first seminar of Youthwork​,​ the Conference 2014; “Today’s Discipleship, Tomorrow’s Disciples”. The air conditioning is whirring, the awkward ‘chair-next-door conversations’ have started​,​ and the title, ​​Today’s Discipleship, Tomorrow’s Disciples is stirring interest.

Our speakers, Nathan Iles and Phil Knox, are here holding the torch for British Youth For Christ, so we’re expecting this to be fuelled by a drive and passion to ‘take the good news of Jesus Christ relevantly to every young person in the UK.’

(This is live, sorry about any mistakes!)

An opening question “how good was your breakfast?” with a hearty response breaks the ice and kicks us into gear. This is a fast paced, high energy presentation with masses of important information and deeply applicable challenges – so buckle up!

Ten Unique Challenges of The Millennial Generation

Sociologists have been saying ​that ​‘there​’​s something different about this generation’​, something that​ creates new categories, reaches for new terms and raises new questions for how we do youthwork today. They go by many names​:​​​ ​​the millennials,​​ the paradoxical generation, ​​the dot-coms,​​ the emerging adults,​​ the 18s-20s –​ ​and they come with unique wordviews which require us to ta​i​lor our approach to youthwork accordingly.

So what is unique about this generation and what are some of the ways that we can speak truth to them?

1. They are digital pioneers.

They don’t just go online, they are online. Over half will check their social media as soon as they wake up. They live in the moment and that moment is on the smartphone, the tablet and the laptop.

Paradoxically this hyper-connectiv​ity​​ ​with a whole net of other digital users also creates a sense of isolation, and often a polarisation between the persona in reality and the persona online.

There needs to be a definite level of incarnational involvement in that world. We need to be God incarnate online, and help our young people be responsible digital pioneers and good citizens of the online world.

2. They are anti-institutional

Once upon a time we trusted politicians, we trusted organisation and we trusted institution. Those days are rapidly wearing thin. There is a pandemic lack of desire to belong to, or be a card-carrying member of any kind of institution.

However, this does not mean that this generation is not deeply spiritual. They are! There is a rejection of organised religion but a widespread searching for a deeper sense of reality.

We need to tackle nominal church going. Phil reminded us that ‘small is beautiful’ and that we need to see a de-emphasis on the Sunday morning service and a greater emphasis on the small group. We further need to give young people a bigger image of what church can be, moving away from consumerist models. “We need a society to contribute to rather than a church to consume.”

3. They are instant consumerists

The mo​t​to of this generation is tesco ergo sum, I shop therefore I am. This is the first generation to identify as consumerists, and specifically instant consumerists. We can go from hearing a song on TV to downloading and owning it within thirty seconds. There used to be a day where we browsed video rental shops – now we feel hard don​e​ by if we can’t stream a video within seconds.

We can address this by speaking out on generosity and speaking out against consumerism and the desire craze. What kinaesthetic experiences can we give to our young people (like visiting homeless kitchens) to teach them about generosity?

4. They are influenced more by friends than romance or family

Peers have replaced parents. Friends have become the most dependable unit. Even in popular culture, TV shows have moved away from the family unit (The Simpsons) to the friendship circles (Big Bang Theory).

The church, however​,​ can uniquely give people a broader vision of family through all-age community. When young people were asked in a recent study, ‘what do you look for in a youth leader?’ 85% responded with a parent or grandparent figure.

Nathan gave us a great example of a program called ‘sponsor a young person.’ The deal is the young person has to say hello to an older person, and the older person has to commit to pray for that young person and give £1 a month to support them to go on a residential. Brilliant!

5. They have paradox between need for community and increasing isolation

There is a deep desire for individualism and a parallel longing for community. They are the ‘have it your way’ generation but​ they​ also have a deep need to be part of something bigger than themselves.

In youth ministry we need to hold these tensions and speak into these paradoxes. We need to speak into individual decision and church community  This should be easy for the church! Faith is rooted in individual decision, in light of a whole community.

6. They are a post-christendom generation

Religion is no longer at the centre of public life. Jesus is a swear word and ​N​oah is a myth. In 1985 520,000 18-30s were going to church​; ​in the 20 years since that has more than halved. This generation no longer has the context, the background or the language to engage directly with Christian culture.

Sunday school for many in this generation is a thing of the past. People don’t know the Bible stories now. We need to translate the language and use words that young people understand. We also need to look at a different paradigm for the communication of Gospel, using stories works more often now than using something like the 4 points Gospel. Not least because the lack of prior understanding also means that the stories also now have a real freshness.

7. They are spending more time in adolescence

The average age of Adolescence is extending and now sits somewhere between the ages of 10-27. They are also sometimes called the ‘Peter Pan’ generation because ‘they never grow up.’

There are ways, like being sexually active, where they are growing up faster​,​ however transitioning into full adulthood is getting harder and taking longer.

As church and youthworkers we need to intentionally celebrate the translations into adulthood by inten​t​ionally addressing transition issues and by supporting parents more. One of the things Youth For Christ has done is changed the age spectrum in its constitution from 11-18 to 7-25. We should consider running our youth groups older.

8. They have a ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deist’ worldview

The way that emerging adults view God is like Santa Claus or like a cosmic butler. He helps us be happy by bringing us good things and encouraging people to be nice and fair. The ultimate purpose of life is hedonistic – that is to be happy. ​(​Ideal moment to kick in with Pharall Williams.​)​

Bottom line here: We need to get uncomfortable. Comfort is the enemy of growth. We should as youth workers give our young people a sense of adventure and of mission. It’s not enough to entertain young people and show them a good time. We need to dare young people to do incredible things in their world for Jesus Christ.

9. They are anti-commitment

The average ​A​merican has 7 jobs in their 20s and on​e​ of the most downloaded apps in the UK today is ‘try before you buy dating’ which allows you to hook up with no strings attached. This bleeds into our profession too: the average time a UK church leader spends at a church is 7-10 years, however the average time a youth leader spends at a church is 18 months.

What does commitment to Jesus look like to an ant​i​-commitment generation? We must help young people to chose day in day out for Jesus Christ. The challenge is enabling teenagers to dream again. Helping them think big, aim high and work hard to get there. All the while we must constantly remind ourselves that generationally, things do shift. Things can change.

10. They have a happy midi-narrative – worldview

Happiness is the central goal of life. Period. This isn’t necessarily new, however​ what​ might be is how that is achieved. You don’t pursue happiness through metanarrative (the big picture of life), but on a much more modest scale that you can control in your microcosm of your own contacted life. An interesting picture this is our Facebook profiles. A small reality that we can control and protect.

We need to tell the big story though. We need to tell the whole story of God, creation, life, Jesus Christ. We must tell the metanarrate and challenge the microcosms. One of the best ways we can do this is to invite them into it. They too are part of this great story!


Youth work is 10 years out of date!

so_retro_by_mathiole(style v substance discussion here)

Much of our youth work is consistently at least 10 years out of date. Truthfully it’s more like 20.

When we design a project, we are influenced by a whole host of things, however three specifics tend to consistently stand out:

– Our own experiences of youth work from when we were a young person
– Successful youth work books we have read
– Training events and conferences where the speakers are veteran youth workers

These are great things! Genuinely. But there are some problems from a culture point of view.

Your Own Experiences

When we use what worked in our own youth work experience, that experience is usually at least a decade out of date. This is what was cool or what was relevant when we were growing up which might be drastically different to today. No matter what I do, for instance, I cannot get my guys interested in DC Talk or the World Wide Message Tribe!

“Although the truths we know and the relationship principles of humanity remain the same, the cultural context they sit in is constantly in flux – and we tend to be left behind.”

Unfortunately too many of us use our youth work platforms to either fulfill what was missing or relive moments that impacted us from our youth work past. Some of this might be useful, you should after all go with what you know! However, it is a pretty blinkered approach to creating contextually successful youth work.

Youth Work Books

I’ve read some amazing youth work books. However the best youth work books on the market today are 10-30 years old – and are often American.

The 2014 updated ‘Youth Work Reading List’ on, for instance, doesn’t include a single piece of writing after 2003.

When reading youth work books from America, it is easy to be taken in because they are so well written and represent a ‘thriving’ youth work culture. However culture in America is very different to in the UK.

The USA is still mostly in some form of Christendom. The popular culture however, is maybe a decade ahead of us. This means there is a polarisation of culture embedded into these youth work books that addresses a social church culture 30-50 years behind and a popular culture up to 10 years ahead. This simply does not speak to our context.

“We are – right now – working with a 22nd Century people.”

Conference Speakers

Veteran youth workers that speak at conferences – specifically those that keynote – are brilliant! However they usually became veterans over the last 10, 20, or 30 years and have often ‘graduated’ to other pastoral or training ministry.

If they are still involved in youth work they often manage teams or shepherd projects from more of a distance. They might develop new ideas and new forms of youth work to engage with culture but what had worked for them personally before isn’t necessarily what’s working in their projects today.

I’m partially revising this thought because many conferences that I attended this year had the opposite problem in that many of their speakers we’re still pretty green and very specifically contextual. Not that this solves the problem!


So what?

When we consider these things, our youth work could be at least a decade out of date. It’s aimed at what was cool, what did work, and what might of been successful a while back – and perhaps not in our culture at all.

“We need to be aiming at tomorrows culture, not todays and certainly not yesterdays!”

When you add to this the dramatic pace of popular culture, the sweeping and unstoppable technology market, spreading globalisation and the unpredictable directions of generation Z – we need to be aiming not at today’s culture but tomorrow’s. We are – right now – working with a 22nd Century people.

Although the truths we know and the relationship principles of humanity remain the same, the cultural context they sit in is constantly in flux – and we tend to be left behind.

Young people aren’t necessarily uninterested in our message – in fact this generation are incredibly spiritually curious – they just don’t want to be coaxed back into yesteryear to hear it.

Even some of the most modern and flash youth ministries at large thriving churches are employing principles from a decade ago. It looks great, it’s lots of fun, but it only engages with a small sliver of humanity in the young people themselves.


10 Cultural Observations For Today

Here are some cultural observations to consider in our youth work projects:

1. They Need Us To Engage Senses Rather Than Emotion

It’s easy to make young people miserable or joyful and call them to respond from that emotion. These responses tend to last as long as the emotions themselves, thus need constant poking and more boisterous maintenance. They should be responding from senses instead; a sense of clear identity, community belonging, conviction of sin, understanding of love, awareness of presence, etc.

2. They Want A God Cares About What They Care About

This generation needs to know that God shares their love for the world, not just for themselves. God is on their team – His heart breaks for what theirs does. This is more a save the world generation than any before.

3. They Need To Participate, Not Consume

Community participation is much more important to a young person than having a great consumer experience. For instance, in my context, when we run events we put guitar chords on the screen with the songs and invite the young people to bring instruments with them.

“Do you believe in the socks and sandals, meek and mild, blond hair blue eyes Jesus – or do you believe in the dangerous, revolutionary with fire in his eyes and a dagger on his tongue?”

4. They Keep Community Secrets

Young people in this generation guard knowledge, understanding and activities almost religiously in the circles they move in. We need to treat their friendships with some sanctity.

5. Parents are less helpful

I still believe that we need parents on board however parents are just as culturally detached for the same reasons youth workers are. They however, come with all the extra emotional baggage of family too. Youth programs need to give space away from family in very real ways.

6. They can be more choosy

I spent 7 years working and living in London – whatever you did in your youth program you can guarantee six other churches did it better around the corner. We cannot compete with secular culture, nor should we. What do you offer that’s authentic rather than flashy? Some of the cheapest things look the flashiest now, but young people are learning to spot the rat and know the real thing.

7. They’re looking for authenticy

Not a ‘Christian version of…’ Or a ‘look we can do it too.’ The Smashing Pumpkins’ front-man, Billy Corgan said to Christian bands, “stop copying U2 and stop making bad music” – he’s right! Young people are looking for something real and genuine. We need to offer something real, meaningful and substantive.

8. They Need Jesus To Work In Real Life

Make it about life holistically. So many youth materials say we should worship Jesus with our whole lives – but I’ve yet to read one that expands on that other than ‘pray when you brush your teeth,’ or ‘sing Christian songs in the car.’ How does Jesus and life intrinsically work together? If Jesus doesn’t work in real life, He doesn’t work – and they know it!

“Young people aren’t uninterested in our message, they just don’t want to be coaxed back into yesteryear to hear it.”

9. They hate trolls too

They’re genuinely looking for real conversation – not sixteen reasons why science hasn’t disproved God. Sitting down and talking is better than an epic three part talk any day.

10. They hate the same Jesus you do

Do you believe in the socks and sandals, meek and mild, blond hair blue eyes Jesus – or do you believe in the dangerous, revolutionary with fire in his eyes and a dagger on his tongue? Tell them what you don’t believe about Christianity, not just what you do – This culture won’t make the distinction if you don’t.

Bottom line

There’s obviously plenty more, but this is what I came up with in bed last night and sat on the loo this morning.

Let’s make our youth ministry about our young people in their young people’s world – not – about when we were young people in yesterday’s world.

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