Partnering with youth work agencies who hold vastly different world views is difficult.

In my last post, I outlined 3 major reasons why Christian youth ministries avoid partnerships with secular youth work organisations. (I realise this contrast of “youth ministry/youth work” is not absolute).

  1. Identity as a Christian Tribe: a strong sense of belonging can lead to seeing secular agencies as a threat to your youth ministry.
  2. Cross-Purposes: apparent differences in objectives leads to seeing secular agencies as basically irrelevant to your aims
  3. Putting your faith in words everyone can understand: Christians are often intimidated by having to put cherished beliefs into the language of secular youth work. Why? Because we don’t have much practice doing it, and we are concerned those cherished beliefs will be trivialised.

Come to think of it, these 3 reasons for avoiding partnership are similar to why secular agencies avoid partnership with Christian, or other faith-based, youth work organisations.

So what is the solution? It’s not rocket-science, but it is difficult. Before I give a list of things, here’s a real-world example of what I am talking about.

I run a youth development program with Urban Seed, a Christian organisation. A secular hiphop youth program wanted to use our church hall for weekly dance sessions. I let them. I then built a relationship with the main youth worker by coming along to his . I listened to his story, to his values, and decided there was much overlap with my values. I suggested we get his dancers involved in teaching the young people in my program. That excited him, and gave me more excuses for conversation about what we both valued, including my faith. I was honest about what motivated me, and my doubts about the effectiveness of secular youth work – turns out he was more negative than me about the structure of youth work today.

What lessons can we take from this?

  1. Talk to a secular youth worker: stereotypes don’t usually survive contact with a real person, who is always more complex than even they realise. If you are a Christian youth leader who works mainly within the church boundaries, I recommend going to youth work professional development, network meetings or simply calling up a youth worker and offering to buy them a coffee in exchange for 30 minutes of their time. With the youth worker in the previous post, I emailed them, then phoned them and made a time. Good conversational starter: “How did you get into youth work in the first place?”
  2. Find something to do together: I don’t mean a shared hobby. I mean something that your young people and their young people could do. Shared action is always a great basis for honest conversation about the values you hold.
  3. Be honest without being harsh: this gets back to the point I made earlier, about Christians being a little unsure or intimidated about putting their beliefs into language others can understand. I think it is possible to be honest about what we believe about faith, youth work and young people without sounding like a dill.

Lastly, believe that the Spirit blows where it will: Do you believe what the Bible says about the holy Spirit? That the Spirit of God can be working in people who don’t subscribe to Christianity? If you don’t, that is a huge barrier to working with secular organisations. However, if you do believe this, working with secular groups is not a distraction but an exciting opportunity.