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.

2 replies
    • youthworkhacks
      youthworkhacks says:

      Well I read it – and enjoyed it. So then there were two!

      I write a lot of posts knowing they won’t get huge coverage. But mostly blogging gives me an accountable space to express and store my thoughts for later use.

      Reply

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