Hi all – I am currently writing a chapter on spirituality and youth work for a book which is coming out next year sometime. I’ll put a few excerpts from my chapter up as I go. Some of relates to the work I do with the Praxis Network. There’s a bunch of academic references which don’t have hyperlinks…too much bother – sorry about that 🙂


There are plenty of good reasons to remain in conversation with youth work’s past, none so pressing as the need to avoid the mistreatment of children and young people, often in the pursuit of the young person’s ‘best interest’. For example, the child migration policies championed by Thomas Barnardo which dislocated so many young people from culture and family.


Closer to home, there have been two recent inquiries into the abuse of children and young people within institutions such as churches, schools, associations, clubs and government organisations: these have continually revealed lax standards of care, ignorance of the needs of young people, abuse of whistle-blowers and inadequate implementation of policy designed to protect young people.[2] Add to this the growing awareness of the trauma of the ‘Stolen Generation’ and there is ample reason, simply to avoid abuse, for continuing honest historical conversation. In addition, we find unconscious ‘frames of mind’ in some sacred-shaped youth work of the past, that we would wise to avoid. A focus on the ‘rescue’ of young people from poverty was rife, as was an evasion of the structural causes of injustice.


More positively, history functions as inspiration and sage through practices and personalities that, though bound by time, nonetheless contain gems of practice wisdom and thinking for which we are poorer in our ignorance.


As we noted, Praxis students desire to integrate their passionately held the sacred with youth work practice. Such integration was a historical reality in the early days of youth work. Though there were non-sacred antecedents to youth work, like the Youth Communist League, most had explicitly Christian inspiration. In fact, Clyne argues that youth work can only be truly understood if this history is accepted and its influence tracked:

The surviving Christian virtues of hope, emancipation, beneficence and justice within the youth work discourse give sufficient space to suggest that youth work’s foundational Christian language still infuses the discourse. The ‘ghost of the divine’ continues to shape the youth work story. (Clyne, 2015, p. 23)


The sacred roots of youth work are well documented, particularly in relation to Christianity: we will look at two examples of historical practice that translated into modern youth work, as well as three youth work pioneers.

a. Practice: Ragged Schools

In the wake of the industrial revolution, as rural-urban migration increased, youth work pioneers responded to the social misery of the cities through Ragged Schools. Mostly lay evangelical[3] activists gathered children and young people off the streets, to protect them from harm and to educate them.


The ragged schools planted the seed of ‘informal education’ that drives much of modern youth work, particularly in the UK. The youth worker gathers groups of young people who need assistance and empowerment and works with them in a coach-like manner. Mark Smith says:

Historically, youth work did not develop to simply ‘keep people off the streets’, or to provide amusement. As we have seen, a lot of the early clubs grew out of Sunday schools and ragged schools…This interest in learning – often of the most informal kind – was augmented by a concern for the general welfare of young people.


b. Practice: Associations

Associations aimed to instill Christian character and disciplines in young people. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), begun by George Williams, aimed to help young adult Christians stand fast against the temptations of the metropolis. Another association was the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM) that spawned Scripture Union, a parachurch movement[4], which spread quickly across the globe with its method of daily Bible readings and camps. Of the surviving associations, some have kept their Christian identity though diversified its expression (e.g. Scripture Union). Others, like the YMCA, have lost their identity as a self-consciously Christian organisation.


The legacy of the associations lies in their specific targeting of young people as a demographic category, and using social connections as the ‘glue’ with which to pursue their aims. Such ‘relational’ youth work with young people is widespread now (Rodd & Stuart, 2009). Though the form these took (eg. bible study etc) is anachronistic within modern youth work, at the time this was a genuine innovation. (eg Josiah Speirs). Less positively in the view of radical youth work was the a strong tendency to ‘drift’ to the middle-class.


c. Pioneers: Thomas Barnardo

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Barnardo trod the grimy streets of England when the post-war welfare system was a sparkle in the eyes of social democrats. There was no safety net to whom citizens could subcontract neighbourly love. People in need were helped by their neighbours or they were not. Although a grim situation, it produced some remarkable people, of which Barnardo was one. Preparing to be a missionary to China, he gained a scholarship from the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA) to study in London, where he faced the poverty of children on the streets. He decided to make England his focus. He was a controversial figure, lauded for his rescues of street children from a life of hard labour and destitution, but later pilloried for his advocacy of child migration.


His legacy to modern youth work can be seen in the foster care system. Barnardo recognised that homeless young people should be cared for, not in institutions, but in families or places that approximated families. In addition, he could provide some useful lessons for organisations struggling with the current funding cutbacks for youth work, as he was a philanthropic activist.

d. Pioneers: Joseph Cardijn

The Young Christian Worker (YCW or ‘Jocist’) movement stemmed from the life and thinking of Joseph Cardijn. Cardijn was born in Belgium and became conscientized to the plight of workers because of his working-class friends. According to Marcel Uylenbroeck, Cardijn insisted that YCW’s aim was the ‘re-Christianisation’ of the whole world in all its dimensions:

Y.C.W. cannot be understood in a context which ignores the real situation of man, of his whole being, ‘body and soul’, in his social and earthly existence. It calls all young workers to engage themselves wholly in the service of Christ in order to work together for the salvation of everything and of every person.


Although BA Santamaria saw the YCW as futile pietism, the YCW’s “See, Judge, Act” method to empowered young people to interpret and act on their world for social justice. This focus on social action has been carried on by youth workers with a structural view of inequality, despite leaving the ‘Christian’ part behind.


e. Pioneers: Lily Montagu

Lily Montagu began life as a member of a wealthy Jewish family in England, at a time when Jews were still seen as an ‘immigrant’ community, and subject to suspicion and sometimes anti-Semitism. She initially began working with Jewish girls whose punishing work in factories made it difficult to maintain the practices of Orthodox tradition to which Montagu belonged: “Industrial hours and housing conditions made ritual observance practically impossible and people were abandoning a faith which could not adjust to their living conditions” (Spence, 1999).


Montagu maintained that philanthropic work should be achieved through friendship, rather than through investigation of the poor, and this approach seems to have exposed her to the reality of Jewish girls’ experiences, which in turn enlarged her view of her work to include political action:

Montagu learned directly from the members of her club how low wages, overwork and unsanitary conditions were implicated in the material, cultural and spiritual poverty which blighted their young lives. She thus became concerned with the question of industrial reform…(Spence, 2004)


Montagu maintained an intense sacred conviction at the heart of her work, though she moved a long way from the Orthodoxy of her family. She continually interpreted her work through the lens of Judaism. In addition, she made strenuous efforts to maintain a dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, and to take the insights of Christianity seriously:

[O]ne can see her engaged in a kind of interfaith dialogue. Her project to relate Judaism to the Christian other was one means by which she developed self-knowledge and worked out her own sacred identity. It is clear that from early on she had set out with a clear conclusion in mind: that, as a Jew, she could identify with the Christian on a profound level…It is just as clear that she also planned to reform Judaism according to the spiritual insights she had received from her time with Christians…(Langton, 2010, p.20)


Montagu’s contribution to modern youth work is wide-ranging. Not only does she contribute to a relational understanding of youth work, but she focusses attention on gender as a primary consideration. Her desire to synthesise Judaic and Christian sacred ideas into a practical approach to youth work is also instructive for youth workers wanting to engage in the conversation between secular and sacred-shaped youth work.



[1] UK heritage is directly relevant to Australia’s experience through the export of youth organisations such as Scripture Union, YMCA, Boys Brigade and others.

[2] These are: the Victorian government’s Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Sacred and other Non-Government Organisations (Report tabled in 2013); the Commonwealth government’s The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (currently hearing submissions).

[3] ‘Evangelical’ refers to a tradition within Christianity that emphasises reliance on the Bible as the primary interpretive lens through which to see reality.

[4] ‘Parachurch’ movements are organisations on the fringe of formal church structures, but which exist to further the aims of the church. Contemporary Australian examples include Scripture Union, Fusion, Youth For Christ and Youth Dimension.