Youthwork in Wales. After just 3 and a half years working in Wales I’m anything but an expert! I am, however, a learner, and I’ve put together these quick thoughts as a result of my own growing observation and conversations in the Welsh-ministry world. I would of course heartily welcome any feedback from experienced Welsh pastors and youth workers in order to grow and adapt these thoughts. I am holding them loosely and (I hope) with an open hand.
Most of my experience is in North Wales… creeping into Mid Wales, with very little in South Wales (other than some epic holidays and knowing some amazing people). So I guess I’m mostly talking about the North here.
I’m an Englishman living in Wales. My ancestry is Welsh, I became a Christian in the town which I now work, and I am in love with the culture here and never felt more at home. I am, however, definitely English (watching the World Cup proved that!) – so do take my observations lightly.
Big, Whopping Preliminary Thought:
– Wales really is a whole other country! Let’s treat it that way. I have another post on this topic here.
What We Have
– Wales is beautiful! I have a friend who has been working in Wales for a long time who once said ‘when God made the Earth He started with Wales.’ I think my friend was right! Wales is gorgeous, rich, and diverse – and perfect geographically for outdoor pursuits! There is lots available (mountaineering, canoeing, climbing, surfing) within easy driving reach of each other and easy reach of town bases. This is one of the key reasons that Welsh Youth Camps are so successful.
– Legacy. There is a proud and broad Church and missionary history in Wales. There are many countries (such as India and South Korea) that still view Wales as their spiritual home. Don’t forget the epic Welsh revival(s) just over a century ago, and the founding of charities like Scripture Union and The International Beach Mission. This gives people huge pride in – and openness to – ministry, particularly with a view to mission.
– Unity. Another friend I’ve made here settled in Wales after working for years globally with people like Billy Graham. He told me just last week that he hasn’t seen such an unprecedented level of churches and charities working together anywhere else in the entire world… Go Wales! There are disagreements and factions of course, but when it comes to mission there is a huge willingness to pool resources and march forward. I spoke at a camp last week that had people involved from Young Life, Urban Saints, and YFC which was attended by a huge range of denominations. There was no ‘look at us’ and a whole load of ‘look at JESUS!’
– Multicultural… but not like what you’re thinking. Wales’s as a culture is split several ways, but what you really notice is the incredible Celtic heritage bleeding through the older Welsh communities, particularly from the West Coast. This heritage is spiritually aware, open and ready to hear about the mysteries of God in a unique way. The Welsh language is also incredibly rich, broad and adds a whole host of considerations for ministry.
– Community driven. Much of North Wales still feels like a village community. This bleeds through into Church and School culture and makes community projects and particularly events that cross the age spectrum work really well.
– Love of creative arts. Wales has an ancient history with art and creativity, and this forms many of the foundation blocks of its culture. Art galleries, poetry, folk music, architecture, sculpture and theater are mainstays of just about every Welsh settlement – and should be taken seriously for Welsh ministry.
– The highest poverty in the UK. Almost a quarter, 23% against England’s 22% and Scotland’s 18%. When you consider population sizes that’s huge! About 700,000 people in Wales living under the breadline. Further, the cuts have damaged the Welsh working poor more than the rest of the UK. By 2015-16 tax payers in Wales will be paying £900 million a year for benefit reforms.
– Highest Child Poverty in the UK. About 15% live in what’s described as severe poverty in Wales. Read more about poverty in Wales here and here.
What We Don’t Have
– Clinical resources and support groups. There are, for instance, no clearly advertised self harm support networks across the whole of North Wales. Waiting lists for NHS counsellors are huge, and there are few local competitive free-lancers. There are a lot of emotional needs that go unaddressed in North Wales because of the lack of support.
*edit (2015) – Mind, the Mental Health Charity, are pushing hard to make inroads to remedy some of the above.
– Up-to-date First Language Welsh Resources. There are groups like SU who are working hard to remedy this, but much of the Welsh resources for young people are old! Google Translate and Babblefish simply do not work for Welsh! There is a huge need for properly translated modern songs, Bibles and youth resources. This is a need, but an incredibly niche huge market, so good luck trying to convince the publishers!
– Crowds. For some perspective, North Wales has the same population as Sheffield. I once tried to run a crowd event just for Christian young people in a North Wales town where I had only 20 or so show up. This was really disappointing until I realised that those 20 constituted about 80% of the Christian youth in that town! If you want to run crowd events across a larger area though, you are plagued by geography. We need something other than standard crowd events to build wider community here.
– Large school districts. The largest areas of North Wales only have a couple of Schools serving them, and in some cases these school populations have been coached in from miles away. Cross-school based projects are going to struggle, as is any group or project that depends on multiple feeder schools.
– Cities. OK so we’ve got a couple… 6 of them. In the North we’ve got two: Bangor (population 17,575) and St. Asaph (population 3,491). Both of them are 20 minutes away from my base in Llandudno (population 20,710 – almost bigger than both cities put together.) Considering that there are 51 cities in England (average size about 200,000), it should become instantly clear that this is a totally different world! City ministry models in England are not going to help us much here.
– Motorways. So this sounds like a small thing, but in order to get from North Wales to South Wales the quickest, easiest way is to leave the country, travel down the M6 then come back in… Yeah. The lack of mobility infrastructure (& the fact that mid Wales is incredibly sparsely populated) really makes Wales two countries.
What We Don’t Need
English City Driven Youth Strategies. Even in the few years I’ve been here I’ve seen several English City youth workers come to the area, try to start a big event only to see it pop and fizzle. Then they move away. I’ve come from 7 years working in London and I’m still saying it! We don’t have feeder schools, we don’t have several key massive youth groups, we don’t have mainstay youth projects and we don’t have the resources available to English cities. We also have a very different geographical town structure than City clusters. Please think contextually. Think about Wales.
Events, projects and physical resources that are crowd-drawing, resource-draining, and lacking follow-up that are created without a proper understanding of the context are not going to make disciples here. They’ll only make even more church debt! It’s just bad stewardship.
What We Really DO Need
Methods and praxis for developing mission strategy in schools and a mechanism for rolling that out more widely.
More resources in terms of cash and people to invest incarnationally and intentionally in the area – particularly in para-church projects.
Welsh speakers working alongside veteran youth workers to come up with innovative, fresh and culturally relevant youth work resources and Bible translations.
Churches, cities and towns to pray for us intentionally as a country.
Churches and charities to step up with their resources and take risks by setting up counselling and support networks for emotional and mental health.
To maximize the use of our pre-existing, well established camps and to work them into our church youth strategies.
To keep working in partnership and unity with various other groups and to pool our resources – it’s about the name of Jesus after all!