I like listening, and I like coffee, so I network.
I caught up with a local youth worker recently, in my efforts to network. Specifically, I wanted to talk with her about how traditionally ‘secular’ and traditionally ‘faith-based’ youth workers could co-operate. I think the two have some key differences, but on the other hand, modern Western youth work has mostly grown from passionate Christians who ventured outside the box to connect with children and young people. Sure, they were sometimes paternalistic but that’s not just a problem from the past.
I have written on a similar topic - seeking to broaden out our view of what we consider ‘Christian youth work’ to be. Aaron Garth, fellow Godbotherer, from Ultimate Youth Worker has written on this issue, and his contention is that workers in ‘youth ministry’ need to update their theory and skills so that they can work with today’s young people who are mostly outside the bounds of church as we know it.
Back to the conversation with the youth worker. She mentioned that she had met with a number of church youth pastors, given them opportunities to help out with various community events/programs for young people, and then heard nothing back. Reading between the lines, this episode that had led her to abandon partnering with churches. Which is a bad thing.
I realise there are deficiencies with the way this youth worker responded to the setback, but I want (as a Christian) to look at the issues from the churches’ angle.
What are the 3 main factors that lead churches to avoid true partnership with non-Christian organisations?
- Identity as a Christian Tribe: the strength of Christian youth ministries is that we create a strong sense of belonging that is often missing in professional-driven youth work. We usually don’t focus on narrow target groups and thereby we can include an interesting bunch of young people, which tends to an interesting, and attractive, ‘tribe’. However, a strong sense of tribe can lead to outsiders being viewed as a threat to the integrity and stability of the group.
- Cross-purposes: Christian youth ministry has an overriding Christian purpose – that’s obvious. Non-Christian youth work will not have the same overriding purpose. So, in a bit of Christian brain-fade, we assume that non-Christian youth work is basically useless, or a serious waste of time and money.
- Putting your faith into words everyone can understand: You might be surprised that I haven’t included ‘fear of compromise’ in this list. It is usually quoted in discussions of these kinds. That is, that a Christian youth worker will (apparently) need to compromise by not doing _______________ (insert essential Christian practice) or being obligated to not make public ______________ (insert essential Christian belief). But most secular agencies and youth workers are more than willing to have a conversation or argument about these things. Instead, I suggest Christian youth leaders are a tinsy-bit intimidated by the thought of defending and explaining their faith to people who aren’t part of the tribe.
From my tone, you can tell that I think this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.
What is the solution? Read about it in my next post…
I am a youth worker and youth work trainer, and I regularly write on youth work and youth ministry, so this announcement is probably no surprise. But, given I am a ’5′ on the Enneagram personality scale, I have been doing a silly amount of research about this. But sooner or later it will happen – a blog about youth work current affairs, comment, events, jobs etc.
In my voracious quest for more information, I am keen for you to provide grist for the mill, food for my brain etc.
In the little Christian cult that I belong to, we use “Queries and Advices” to guide our way. We chose this over a creed for a number of reasons which I’ll outline below, but lately I’ve been thinking that I’d like a little creedalism.
We borrowed the idea of ‘queries and advices’ from the Quakers, or the “Religious Society of Friends”. These are the queries and advices from the British Quakers. Quakers are most famous for their cereal products, but they used to be famous for refusing to go to war, not drinking alcohol, not swearing oats (oops, ‘oaths’) and silent worship. There used to be only 3 Quaker queries, but there is quite a few more now.
We made up our own queries and advices based on what we had found coming up time and time again in our common life over the last 20 years or so. But why did we choose to use queries and advices over a creed? It would be simpler just to take the historic creeds, yes?
- The shape of the mission of Seeds is always provisional, because the context that we are in is always changing, people are always changing, we are changing…you get the gist. Queries and advices recognise that change, and keep us asking important questions. Creeds tend to say “this is how it is – deal with it”.
- Queries get you thinking: a creed gives you an answer to a question, whereas a query asks you to come up with something yourself. Confessional theology get us to say “This is what I believe”, whereas an interrogatory theology(I know, I am smart) asks you hard questions that demand a response, like Jesus did.
- Creeds can be used as a tool of uniformity: the creeds got worked out back in the day because there was too much diversity of belief, and so it was clear what people were getting themselves into. I don’t mind this. But I think they need to be discussed, argued over, and not be used as a tool for uniformity.
However, I also like creeds, and I want to go in to bat for them, and not only because I earned Mars Bars in CEBS for learning them.
Friends of ours just missed out on a house at auction – it went for $10K more than they could afford. Snapped up by a motivated bidder, it could be bulldozed for units, rented out or made over and re-sold.
This is happening more and more in Long Gully. With cute miners’ cottages and an ageing population headed for the grave or the nearest nursing home (currently expanding as we speak), young families, singles and investors will fight among themselves to grab the bargains.
This trend raises serious questions for me and the others here in our little Christian community, who bought houses to commit to Long Gully. Are we simply an enclave of the middle-class within a poor community? Serving as the advance party of an army of gentrification which will put the poor into enforced exile?
What are we living in a poorer community for? The only legitimately Christian reason I can come up with is either that we ourselves are poor and can afford nowhere else, or that we seek to be in transformational solidarity with the poor. Otherwise, we’re only here for cheap land.
Resisting gentrification is like trying to hold back the rising ocean tide…If market forces alone are allowed to rule the day, the poor will be gradually, silently displaced, for the market has no conscience. But those who do understand God’s heart for the poor have a historic challenge to infuse the values of compassion and justice into the process. But it will require altogether new paradigms of ministry.
Any new paradigms knocking about your head?
I’ve been in plenty of youth ministry prayer times, and have led them myself, where we have prayed passionately for this or that young person, for strength for ourselves, for God to intervene. This is a valid form of prayer. But all too easily it becomes a way of us trying to persuade God to do what we think should happen. It’s fakery – we are pretending that we know what is the Godly thing to do, and if we just pray hard enough, God will join up to our campaign.
The best youth workers are the old ones. Talk to any youth worker who’s been doing it for 3 decades or more. They know that youth work, like any form of ministry to humans, is essentially mysterious. There are depths in people, and in communities, that we will never reach, motivations that will remain covered over, hurts that complicate lives despite the love we lavish on people. Young people will not conform to the cultural stereotypes we read about in the last ‘Gen whatever’ report that came out. They will respond to our approaches in confusing ways. They will tread paths that make little sense to us.
So when we pray for those we serve, we remember that if people are mysterious creatures, and if God is mysterious, then change and transformation will surely take an unexpected route.
I’m currently working on the bones of a book on Christian youth work. Here is some of my thoughts on the different ways Christians do youth work. I’d welcome any comments on these, as well as some sexy category names…
The broad category is “Christian work with young people”. Primarily, it has meant:
1) Youth ministry, which has meant the evangelisation, discipling and equipping for mission of young people. It has taken place within the local church, with the primary aspiration of drawing more young people into relationship with God and participation in the local church. To which I say, ‘Amen’! I became a youth worker through my participation in a church youth group. Because of the nurture I received, I was empowered to become a leader in the youth groups of this ministry, eventually taking the role of youth pastor.
2) Parachurch organisations such as YWAM, YCW, YFC, Scripture Union, chaplaincy bodies and Concern Australia do Christian work with young people, but they locate this work outside the context of the local church. In schools, prisons, homes, large youth events, the holiday season, drop-in centres and neighbourhoods, they often have similar aims to local church youth ministries. Though a sympathetic friend of the local church, their location ‘at arm’s length’ has created opportunities to utilise youth work philosophies & practices borrowed from social work agencies: employment programs; post-release initiatives; community development; counselling services etc.
3) Another form of Christian work with young people is these social work agencies mentioned above. Many social work agencies in Australia have strongly Christian roots and still have connections to the denominations that birthed them. Christian youth work in these agencies is done by Christians who are not ‘professional Christians’ as in youth ministry or parachurches, but work with Christian inspiration and vision and see their work as a full expression of their Christian identity, with equal value as an ‘explicitly’ Christian worker.
4) Yet another form of Christian work with young people is expressed when local congregations release youth leaders to work primarily with young people outside, or marginal to, the congregation, with little or no expectation that this work will result in increased numbers of young people attending. Admittedly, this is rare, but it is an important innovation. It recognises the role of the local church in serving the local community, outside of any benefit to itself in terms of numbers. In this form, Christians working with young people are playing a similar role to parachurch workers, but with a significant difference – they have a strong and ongoing connection to the local church.
5) One last form of Christian work with young people is that performed by people who are not Christians, but the character of their work can be affirmed as ‘in sympathy’ with the values of the Reign of God. How far such work can be affirmed is a thorny issue, but we need to at least acknowledge that such youth work is valuable, and to consider partnering where we can.
Those on FB may know that I have left it. I’m having some withdrawal symptoms involving a twitch in the hand when holding my phone, an automatic mouse move to the place where the FB shortcut was, and a niggling feeling that I am missing out on a debate, event or work-related opportunity.
And I definitely am missing out on something. In the same way that the telephone was once a luxury, but now is as necessary as a letter-box, Facebook has become almost essential if you work amongst anyone aged 10-30.
Justin & Jenny Duckworth are to blame – they have written a book called “Against the Tide, Toward the Kingdom” and one of their helpful ideas is that we all have things to chuck out of the boat. In this metaphor, the boat is what we travel in on our kingdom journey.
Facebook needs to be chucked out of my boat.
Nothing is more fallacious than wealth. It is a hostile comrade, a domestic enemy.
John Chrysostom, early church father
A few years ago I was talking with a young man who was really interested in God – we’ll the young guy “Brad”. Brad had been talking to a youth worker who was also a Christian. This youth worker told Brad that he had prayed for a vehicle and someone had donated a motorbike to him. Brad thought this was fantastic!
It was obvious that the youth worker believed strongly that God had directly intervened to make this happen. I don’t want to denigrate his obvious gratitude. I think that God can bless us financially or materially. But there are a few things to say about it.
First, any gift we receive from God has no connection to the depth or quality of our faith. We didn’t get it because we prayed better, lived better or sacrificed more. A deeper faith may lead us to realise that our gifts are truly from God, but a deeper faith is not why we received them.
Secondly, any gift we receive is held on behalf of others. That is the meaning of the body of Christ. Gifts are held by us, but God entrusts them to us for the benefit of others. They are not ours.
Thirdly, nowhere in the New Testament do we find God blessing people financially or with material possessions. We find that Jesus blesses people with sight, healing, inclusion, love, justice, forgiveness, but not with material possessions. In the early church, we find the same thing – people give away money, property and possessions rather than receiving them. When property, money or material possessions ARE mentioned, it is to narrate giving them away, guard against their dangers, advise the best use of them or condemn their abuse.
It’s therefore very difficult to argue that God gives us material and financial riches to enjoy for ourselves. Instead, I would argue that when we do find ourselves with material possessions and money, a biblical response is to use them for the wellbeing of others, primarily those without the gifts we have received.
So, I need to ask this youth worker “For what purpose did God give you this motorbike? How can it be a source of blessing for others?”
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I’ve been feeling a little down today as a few thoughts in my head coalesce. I feel a perfect storm is coming, a revelation of what our society is really like under the surface. The following is a little melancholy – be warned!
What are the winds that make this storm?
First, we have a rapidly ageing workforce, and a majority of the population will be beyond working age. Two major consequences flow from this: 1) that there will be less tax dollars to fund human services such as mental health, community development, youth work, family support etc; 2) a generation which is, in general, more likely to serve the community, is going to disappear soon.
Second, my wife came back from a work conference at which a Department of Human Services (DHS) senior bureaucrat foresaw the withering of the welfare sector as the financial crisis that is currently engulfing Europe inevitably finds its way to Australia. Funding to nonprofits and human services will be cut drastically, with the idea of the Big Society coming to the fore. The Big Society is a UK policy of devolution of responsibility for communities to the local level. Usually, I am all for a such a redistribution of power to the local level: it gives responsibility and ownership to people on the ground, who know what their community’s need. My first thought was – that’s great that the financial crisis has stimulated such a creative policy.
But then the crunch came.
Mark Sayers spoke at “Heartland”, a Christian youth work training event organised by Praxis and others in Bendigo. There, he mapped the cultural terrain that youth workers need to navigate. Mark’s main point is that youth and young adults approach life from a consumer perspective. That is, choices of all descriptions (phone, job, education, church, relationships) are re-framed in terms of what is good for the individual. The arena of decision-making has become the individual, rather than the community. Mark gave a rousing challenge to us there, to model wholehearted commitment to the cause of the reign of God.
You might be able to see the connections I’m making here. The factors of ageing population and financial crisis/Big Society require a new generation of people committed to the common good, who make decisions within that orbit rather than their personal needs. Great! But the pervasiveness of a consumerist worldview, across most of the population, means that people generally have a consumer approach to community service. I’ll do this homework club until I get bored; I’ll read to these kids until their parents frustrate me; I’ll visit the nursing home for as long as it’s ‘rewarding’; I’ll mentor those young people until I get a job offer interstate. This consumer approach to community service doesn’t build a community, it undermines it. Let me say that this attitude is not limited to young people and young adults.
What is needed? A body of people committed to the wellbeing of others and the community beyond personal comfort, whose source of motivation comes from beyond what others can give me. Sounds like the Church. Jesus Christ’s outright denial of a culture of reciprocity, which consumerism relies on (I’ll buy this if it gets me that; I’ll participate if I get X), is the good soil in which commitment to the common good can be fostered. And here is where I get alternately despondent and hopeful. On the one hand, the Church is withering away in Australia, and its numerically successful instances often rely on consumerism. On the other hand, there is a new movement of Christians excited about mission, pouring energy into their neighbours, schools, workplaces and communal institutions – that gives me courage!
However, if this ethic of community service doesn’t get passed on, and if the Church’s better angels don’t win out, and if the welfare sector we have contracted to do our dirty work for us is simply not there to hold back the tide, what’s going to happen? Wholesale breakdown of society. I’m not usually given to hyperbole, but I don’t see another option. Feel free to provide a more hopeful one.
In that day, the oddest book in the Bible, Revelation, will become eerily sensible. When humanity is stripped bare, when all the props have been knocked out, all that we have left is “patient endurance”. The book of Revelation advocates that the Church be the Church – if we allow God to shape us into that Church, there’s some hope.
G’day all – it’s been a long time between drinks! Apologies for that. I’ve been doing a fair amount of writing for study, and haven’t had time to write for this blog, although the list of blog post drafts is building up.
So, I’ve decided to inflict some of my writing from my study onto you. The first is from an essay on Evangelism and Community Development, sharing the faith and sharing the power. You are welcome to download the PDF version if you want the full whack of academic writing.
Evangelism needs Christian community development because without it, evangelism can only trace the outlines of the personal and corporate vision that the ‘good news’ advocates. Christian community development is a powerful way to help people participate in the kingdom of God, and within such participation the stories and ideas of the gospel come alive. From the Christian community development side, evangelism provides a risk factor without which Christian community development easily slides into secularised self-help mush. Evangelism points to a larger, deeper transformation, one that community development methods, even Christian ones, can only grasp at.
Evangelism and Christian community development have a number of similarities that make them natural partners:
• Theologically, they share narratives and doctrines
• They work best at grassroots level
• They are both on about transformational change
• They both value voluntary methods of change highly
• They work by reframing present reality in the terms of the kingdom of God
• Both believe the resources for change are (partly) present already in people’s lives
• Both are inspired by the possibility of “real change”, by historically concrete changes in people.
• Neither makes sense in a secular context without the other: without Christian community development, evangelism will be co-opted by consumer spirituality; without evangelism, community development will be co-opted by the welfare economy.
Given these similarities, evangelism and Christian community development can co-operate and integrate…
Both evangelism and Christian community development suffer from a weak theological base. Although this is not the time to develop a detailed theology of evangelical community development, there are three central theological themes that enable a theological interface between evangelism and Christian community development.
First, the doctrine of the Trinity. Taking a social Trinitarian approach, we can see that a community of mutual relationship is at the heart of God. This application to Christian community development is obvious. For evangelism, the application becomes clear when we take WJ Abraham’s view of evangelism as “primary initiation into the kingdom of God”, because his view is an inescapably corporate vision of evangelism, in which people are drawn into a relational life with respect to their salvation and their identity.
Secondly, a partially realised eschatology. Both evangelism and Christian community development passionately advocate transformed lives in the present. A view of the kingdom of God that recognises its ‘now…not yet’ tension enables evangelism to be concerned with current reality, and Christian community development to recognise that its aims lie beyond the horizon of contemporary social work theory. This eschatology sees that Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection has planted a tree, the roots of which are deep and strong, which will one day flourish into a tree for all to shelter in. What is the effect of such eschatology? As NT Wright puts it:
It gives us a view of creation which emphasises the goodness of God’s world, and God’s intention to renew it. It gives us, therefore, every possibly incentive, or at least every Christian incentive, to work for the renewal of God’s creation and for justice within God’s creation…[T]here is continuity between our present work and God’s future kingdom…(Wright, 1999:24)
Thirdly, a keen appreciation of the Holy Spirit’s work. For evangelism, it allows us to be confident that the Holy Spirit has already been working in people, awakening them to the possibility of God. For Christian community development, this prevenient grace enables us to work simultaneously with the intrinsic strengths of a community, knowing that these strengths are not wholly human, their true source being the Spirit of God.