Interview: Martin Saunders, deputy chief executive, Youthscape

15 November 2019

‘The stereotype of the hip twenty-something, hoodie-wearing youth worker needs to die’

Youthscape is a national youth charity, based in Luton. We work in schools, churches, and the community locally, and we also help to train, equip, and inspire Christian youth workers across the UK. I’m also youth team leader at St Mary’s, Reigate.

I lead the Innovation Team, which I’m aware sounds like a made-up job. I actually head up the development of our resources and events, which include the National Youth Ministry Weekend, the UK’s largest gathering of youth workers.

We invent things, essentially, test them out in Luton, and share them nationally. In the past couple of years, we’ve created a board game for youth workers to help them explore safeguarding situations that might become problematic. There’s also a card game, Shuffle, which is a 42-day journey experiencing Christian life. Each card has a prayer and a little bit of the Bible, and a task that helps them to live the Christian faith: pray for three people today; go for a walk and look for God in nature. And we’ve done another set of cards around mental health and well-being, suggesting tasks such as: make a positive playlist, or write a letter to encourage a friend.

We make the assumption that young people always want to access things through their phones, but I think that, for spiritual formation, people increasingly enjoy handing their phones in for a few hours, and it’s really good for their mental health. We also assume that young men don’t read, but have you seen the sales figures for youth fiction?

I started training to be a teacher, actually, but I had a Sliding Doors moment at university and ended up in Christian media. I became the editor of Premier’s Youthwork magazine, and sort of fell in love with youth ministry in reverse. Eventually, I didn’t want to just write about it any more.

Good youth work is always about really listening to, truly caring about, and being there for the long haul for young people as they go through the most complex and fast-moving period of human life. Everything else is secondary to that. The statutory youth-work sector was decimated at the start of the recession; so, really, the voluntary sector now bears a lot of the responsibility. Churches are at the forefront of that.

We did some research at Youthscape, which discovered that only about 25 per cent of all churches actually did any formal work with young people. So there are pockets of great practice, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.

What young people desperately need are authentic, kind role-models who care. They don’t especially need someone who can speak their language or knows about the latest Netflix smash; so, in a sense, age is irrelevant. They need friends and role-models of all ages. The stereotype of the hip twenty-something, hoodie-wearing youth-worker needs to die.

Most Christian youth work is still really oriented towards helping young people to discover and then keep faith: the traditional Bible-study and social model is alive and well. There’s a big question around whether that’s still the best model, even for churches. The Scouting movement is seeing a huge increase in numbers. I think that they get a lot right.

Christianity is a practical religion: it’s actually useful. I increasingly think that the way to reach this generation is through giving them opportunities to experience God rather than just hear about God. We invite people to pray or meditate on scripture, or to practise some ancient spiritual disciplines, before asking them to make a commitment to God. Getting them out into nature is a great starting point. You have to have high expectations that young people can cope with silence, and they rise to meet them. We ask them: If there was a God, what question would you ask him? What happens when you pray for five minutes [each day] for a week? What happens if you read the Bible every day for a week? And it frees them up to find out.

I grew up in a non-Christian home, and that aspect of life was pretty positive. School less so: I was bullied quite a bit, and made fun of quite a bit more. Finding faith saved my teenage years in many ways. Now, I’m married to Jo — she’s an amazing teacher — and we have four kids. Two of them are 13 and 11; so all the youth-work theory is suddenly being put to the toughest test.

On one level, I wrote The Man You’re Made to Be for my son, who is 14, and is starting to ask some of the big questions of identity and purpose. On another level, it was for some of the young men in my youth group at St Mary’s, Reigate: specifically, those who I’d heard say things like “Men can’t be seen to cry,” and “Guys can’t look weak on Instagram.” Beyond them, it’s for every boy and man who is experiencing some aspect of growing up; so, much of it’s probably still aimed at me.

What I ask my readers to do, if they aren’t Christians, is to suspend their disbelief for a while. Am I then going to try to make a compelling case that God is real and that Jesus is worth following? Of course. I think that Jesus is the greatest role-model a man or woman could ever hope to emulate. But I imagine that very few people will experience that as a complete surprise — there are quite a lot of clues that this is coming from a Christian perspective — and I think that the book does give you an “out” if you don’t want to buy into the faith element.

I might be falling into the very stereotyping I decry, by focusing on things such as sexuality, technology, and materialism as problematic. I guess I’ve tried to give the best advice that I can, as a 41-year-old youth worker and dad. These are the fundamental areas that I see young men asking about, wanting guidance on, and struggling with.

I was shaped by long-term mentors as a teenager, and then as a student. My favourite professor at Cambridge changed the course of my life with her advice. But then there have been people who have had a massive impact in a short burst, such as [the Revd] Sandy Millar, with whom I had a rather intense experience of the Holy Spirit; and then a summer-job boss who showed me exactly what kind of man I didn’t want to be. Oh, and Martin Sheen.

Courage? That’s the Martin Sheen story. I was trying to become a Hollywood screenwriter at the time, and it was going quite well, though it was very demanding. I asked him for his advice, and he said: “Son, you can get as far as you want to in this industry — as long as you don’t care what happens to your marriage and your family.” So, I stopped writing films, and it was the hardest and best decision I’ve ever made.

I’d still like to write movies. I talk a little bit about that whole adventure in my book. I got quite close.

I have a bit of a reputation for being hot-headed on Twitter, particularly around politics, and it’s got me into trouble more than once. I can’t quite get my head around how we’ve got to this point, both in the UK and the US, and when, in an age of austerity, we have these guys who want to cut taxes for the rich. It just boils my blood.

Young people give me hope for the future, of course. I’m fortunate to know a lot of them: they constantly inspire me with their activism, creativity, and optimism. I think that the generation coming up now are pretty special, actually: they’re the changemakers we need.

My kids make me happy. They’re all absolutely amazing, and I bore people about them constantly.

I love the white noise in coffee shops. I’m an extreme extrovert; so also being a writer is hell. Having people around is the only thing that gets me through the misery of my own company.

I pray that God will help me to stay humble and grow wiser, and that he’d stop the wheels from coming off.

If I was locked in a church — I’m assuming this place would have an organ, yes? In which case, I’d choose Hans Zimmer, and I’d persuade him to play the Interstellar soundtrack for me. It’s the thing that I most often write to. Or, if Hans wasn’t available, then Billy Joel. I’d quite enjoy the irony of having him play “Piano Man” on a church organ.

Martin Saunders was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Man You’re Made to Be: A book about growing up is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).

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