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Youth work found to be theological, research finds

29 January 2021

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THEOLOGICAL reflection (TR) is central to the practice of youth ministry in the UK, new research from the Christian charity Youthscape suggests.

Its latest research report, Theological Reflection in Youth Ministry, published on Monday, offers a detailed literature review of theological reflection before analysing the results of an online survey and online focus groups of 242 youth workers around the country about the nature of this practice in youth ministry.

Theological reflection is loosely defined in the report as “any process or activity that seeks to connect faith and life” — although many variations are described, from informal to formal, and different expressions of theological reflection, such as storytelling or conversation. Most participants in the research referred to it as either “telling God’s story” (85) or “theology by heart” (84).

More than two-thirds (67 per cent) reported that they reflected theologically either often or always, while just under two-thirds (61 per cent) saw theological reflection as central to their practice. Respondents reflected mostly on the Bible (46 per cent) or personal experience (45 per cent); more than half (55 per cent) said that they would prefer to do so in a group. These practices were considered “informal” (41 per cent) and “flexible” (90 per cent).

Most participants were employed youth workers (153) rather than volunteers (97), and most worked in a church (141) or Christian organisation (40). Their interaction with young people mostly occurred in churches (194), schools (125), and/or other community spaces (109). More than three-quarters of respondents had been in youth work for more than five years; more than half had not studied it.

Most participants in the survey were Anglican (92), Baptist (42), or Methodist (24).

The Head of Theology at Youthscape, Dr Phoebe Hill, who led the project, said that the research presented “a cautiously optimistic picture” of theological reflection in youth ministry. “The youth workers we spoke to demonstrated an openness to thinking theologically about their practice, and were keen to find resources, methods, and time with others to do so.”

More than other ministry spaces, she said, youth work offered “an urgent and important space” for theological thinking. “Youth ministry is often perceived to be theologically lightweight. But here we have a group of practitioners and a context that is ripe and ready, with fertile theological ground. This space, if it is utilised, offers potential not just for youth ministry thinking, but for the wider Church and theology at large.”

While respondents reported that being trained in theological reflection made little difference to how the practice was perceived, but training resulted in more frequent theological reflection. Being too busy, having too little time or more pressing demands hindered this practice.

Dr Mark Scanlan, who is a tutor in Theology and Youth Ministry at St Mellitus College, said: “It is encouraging to see that training makes a difference in this area — those Christians working with young people who have had some formal training consider TR more central to their work by, for example, seeking to practice TR more frequently.”

He was also encouraged to find that theological reflection “happens instinctively” in youth contexts. “The manner with which young people are cultural interpreters brings an urgency to the task of theological reflection by youth ministers that could help engage and equip those training for other ministries.”

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