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Youth-work plans need rethink

26 April 2024

New Church of England resources for work with young people are welcome. But shaping congregational life to embrace them fully is the only way to success, argues Pete Ward


WORK among children and young people is a significant element in the C of E’s current strategic planning. The announced aim of “growing a younger Church” includes an ambition to train 30,000 youth ministers in the next ten years.

Of these, it is expected that ten per cent will be employed, either part- or full-time. To achieve this, tens of millions of pounds have been set aside, and the first grants have already been allocated to pilot training projects. This is extraordinarily good news for those of us who have worked in this sector for many years.

Yet the fact that this is happening should make us pause and think. This investment in youth ministry is not because of a record of amazing success. Rather, the Church has been panicked into spending its historic resources because we have an ever-decreasing number of children and young people.

Anecdotally, congregations that want to hire a full-time or part-time youth minister find recruitment extremely difficult, because there are very few trained youth ministers out there. Hence the Church of England’s decision to develop a strategy to turn things around by training a whole new cohort of youth ministers, both voluntary and paid.

I WANT to raise one simple question: what is the theological underpinning for what is now proposed?

A significant part of the calling of the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry is to reflect deeply on the Church’s experience and on the lives of young people, both in the Church and outside it. Reflection, if it is to be worth anything, needs to be costly and to deep. It needs to ask awkward questions, and we need to be honest with ourselves and with others.

In particular, how have we got things wrong? Why have we not made the impact that was hoped for from previous funding?

It is perfectly possible that, even where we have done things that have been filled with the work of God, such activities have also been the cause of our present problems. Even as we have seen amazing youth-ministry stuff happen, we have been causing our own downfall.

In 2002, I wrote a book, Liquid Church (Paternoster Press). My central argument was that all denominations seemed to see church as a meeting: a gathering of people in the same room (sometimes now an online room) to do the same things. How might Christians, instead, engage with the spiritual life and practices to be found outside the Church, and see these as a missiological starting point?

In an earlier book, Youthwork and the Mission of God (SPCK, 1997), I suggested that there were two approaches to youth ministry: one based on gathering young Christians and church children into groups that would attract others to join them; and one based on a more missional, relationship-based ministry, which started anywhere that young people were naturally present.

Professor Pete Ward

In Translating the Message: The missionary impact on culture (1989), the missiologist Lamin Sanneh distinguished complementary ways of doing mission: by translation and diffusion. With translation, the Church expresses itself in the context, in the vernacular, and taking new forms. Diffusion, drawing on what feels familiar, assumes that Church as we know it is the right response.

In the Church of England, it was this second option that was seen to be more attractive and effective. Church-planting — investing millions of pounds in developing “resource churches” on the model of Holy Trinity, Brompton — is essentially a form of diffusion.

While there was a growth in schools-based ministry and school chaplaincy in the Church of England, the baseline youth work, the model of the “church youth group”, also relies on diffusion: gathering together a group of young people who are already connected to the church, in the expectation that they will draw in others. But sticking with the youth-group model meant that the writing was on the wall.

Young people are like butterflies: they are with us for a while, but soon they move on, because they grow up. This makes youth ministry an unstable environment. Something that is at first a huge success can, after a relatively short time, be struggling to keep the doors open.

The logic of church youth groups rests on a steady flow of young people, coming primarily from Christian parents. But many members of our youth groups do not go on to be adult members of the congregation. That means that fewer young adults in the Church and, in turn, fewer children and young people who might, in turn, form the basis of future youth groups.

IN THE late 1990s and into the 2000s, the language changed, but little else. While “relational youth ministry” became the “in” way of talking, and everyone started to find ways to connect with schools or other places where young people were to be found, this was used as an add-on to church groups. The focus, inevitably, remained on Christian young people and those with whom they socialised.

It was worship that became the main event. The assumption was that we meet God through sung worship. But recent revelations at Soul Survivor, Hillsong, and elsewhere have led many of us, not just in the youth-ministry academic community, to ask questions about these developments. How do we understand what has happened?

The worship revolution powerfully reinforced the idea that a meeting in a large auditorium was the basis for mission, to the extent that this has now become the assumed theology of most youth-ministry people in the UK.

In previous generations, groups were smaller, meeting in someone’s home; the main event was Bible study and prayer, perhaps with a few songs to get everyone feeling good. The large worship event said, instead, that, if young people really wanted to meet God, they did it at this kind of event.

The use of the word “church” to describe mission work among young people also brought problems. The Church of England reacted to innovation in mission by developing a culture of surveillance. Church leaders began to develop a scepticism about certain kinds of mission project if they did not conform to what was expected of a “church”. These developments together mean that forms of missional and contextual ministry have often been sidelined.

And then there are the questions over training and employing youth ministers. As various dedicated courses and schemes have closed down, youth-ministry training is in danger of becoming too generic, without enough connection between innovators on the ground and the people who are being trained. Practitioners need to support and learn from one another.

The Church has also failed to offer terms and conditions of employment which can sustain a career. Low pay and the sense that the clergy will always have a higher status eroded the confidence of the youth workers we trained. After one or two jobs, most have moved on.

I DO not believe that the prevailing pattern of youth ministry, based on church groups and worship events, will deliver what is required. It may continue to give energy and life to some, but it is intrinsically a model with diminishing returns.

The diocese of Durham, where I am, is a warning. If you have no children and young people already linked to the church, and your congregations are ageing and declining, then a method that starts by gathering together Christian young people is pointless.

Quite apart from the concerns about abuse, money, and power, the larger worship events that we have seen, while they offer life to many, ultimately serve only to conceal the true extent of the problem.

Our dominant existing model, of church youth groups and worship events, makes too many assumptions about how young people meet God, and shapes what that encounter should look like.

Our practice expresses a theology. It speaks of what we understand God to be and how God might work. Contextualisation puts these assumed theological certainties into the mixer. Adopting a missional approach to youth ministry is effectively the pursuit of a new understanding of how God might be at work — and, indeed, what the social, ethical, and personal implications of meeting God in new ways might be.

THE Church of England, besides having large amounts of money to throw at these problems, has another very significant asset: its network of church schools. Several within the central organisation of the Church have started to grasp that, while churches may have very few (if any) young people, there are thousands coming every day to the schools that are linked to the Church.

This is clearly a wonderful situation. Working out how, responsibly and ethically, to introduce others to faith and help them to grow in discipleship in and through the connection between churches and schools represents the most exciting of prospects.

But here, too, the model of what “church” is can be a danger. My own experience has been that many young people are open to experiencing faith and exploring spirituality — but what they are less willing to do is to join a church.

Where this problem has been overcome, reaching out to young people has involved a significant reorientation of congregational life. In other words, contextualisation becomes a key factor in reshaping not simply faith among young people, but also the wider life of the congregation. Where the Church is able and willing to change, there is, I think, hope.

There is a risk that youth ministry may be a lost cause, unless we are willing to spend time reflecting on the problems and shortcomings of everything that has been done to develop it in this country. I argue for more missional and contextual approaches to work with young people to be developed.

Professor Pete Ward is Professor of Practical Theology at Durham University. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Via Media News.

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