A young person walks into a church. He bounces straight up to 70-year-old Gladys and gives her a warm hug. He shouts ‘Hey Frank!’ to the warden huddled away in the church office and starts setting up for an evening of prayer and worship.
He doesn’t sit at the back of the church with the other teenagers. He doesn’t even sit with his own family. He sits in a different place every week, with people of all ages and backgrounds. He doesn’t think of himself as ‘youth’. He thinks: ‘My name is Sam, and I’m part of this church.’
The church is reaching people of all ages. Its teenagers have the energy and vision to launch different ways of doing church among people their own age, rooted in and supported by the wider church body. The church is known by young people in the town as a safe place.
The young people in the church have the freedom and desire to host night-long prayer meetings. They meet with others their age each week to chat deeply about life, eternity and Made in Chelsea.
They have parent-daughter and parent-son relationships with the mums and dads in the congregation, and spiritual grandparents in the older folk. They see the children in the groups they lead as younger siblings, caring and looking out for them. Their passion is infectious, and the church’s youth work volunteer list is oversubscribed.
85% OF YOUNG PEOPLE SAY THEY WANT A PARENTAL OR GRANDPARENTAL FIGURE IN THEIR IDEAL YOUTH WORKER
A young person walks past a church. He has never been inside. He thinks church is for old people. The only person he has ever met from inside told him off for being noisy on the steps. He assumes churchgoers don’t like young people.
He doesn’t really know what goes on inside. His gran went to church when she was little, but just to sing some songs and wear a uniform. That’s what they did back then, but not now.
He sometimes wonders if there is meaning to life. But if there is, he doesn’t think he’ll find it in a church building. God always seems angry from what he has read about him on the Internet, so it’s not surprising that the people who follow his rules are angry.
There’s nowhere for him to go in the town, and he doesn’t want to be at home while his parents are arguing. The steps of the church are ideal for skating. Sometimes he goes there late at night, when everyone has gone home. He looks up at the stars and wonders if God is there after all, and what he’s like. Maybe he will never find out.
The reality in UK churches today is probably somewhere between these two scenarios. Many churches engage well with young people, so teenagers feel welcomed, loved and accepted. However, according to the 2005 English Church Census carried out by Peter Brierley, 59% of UK churches have no young people aged 15-19. Ten years on, it is likely that this figure is now much higher.
I find this statistic terrifying. Spine-tingling, keep-me-up-at-night terrifying. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are in a crisis as far as the Church’s engagement with young people in this country is concerned.
There are some great people out there doing excellent stuff, but we are sending out a mere handful of men and women to fight against a raging storm armed with nothing but an iPad and a few quid for a tuck shop. We need a seismic shift in the way we do and think about youth ministry.
In a recent Premier Youthwork blog, deputy CEO of Youthscape Martin Saunders said: ‘Youth ministry can’t just become a phase that the Church went though. Young people are its future and its present, and it needs people to pastor, attract, keep and care for them.
YOUNG PEOPLE ARE BURSTING WITH PASSION AND YOU CAN’T HELP BUT CATCH SOME OF THEIR ZEST FOR LIFE
‘Every church leader should have youth work at the top of their agenda again; every denominational and para-Church head must bang the drum as they did in the 80s and 90s…All is not lost, but it’s high time we recognised the state we’ve got ourselves into. Youth ministry needs a revolution.’
That’s where you come in.
WHY YOUR YOUNG PEOPLE NEED YOU
I was chatting with a wonderful older lady called Betty at my church recently. During the conversation I suggested she get involved with the youth group. She responded with something I have heard time and again as a youth leader: ‘Oh, I’m too old for that!’
I love Betty, but there’s so much wrong with this thinking that it’s difficult to know where to begin. If I can convince the Bettys of this land that there is a powerful role for them in our youth ministries, then I will rest happy. We need you, Bettys, and here’s why.
In a piece of research carried out by Youth for Christ, young people were asked what they look for in a youth worker. An astonishing 85% said they wanted a parental or grandparental figure in their ideal youth worker. There is a misconception across the board that to be a good youth worker you need to be young, cool, energetic, funny and dynamic. It simply isn’t true. Churches might want youth workers like this, but young people don’t.
There are countless ways you can get involved with the youth work in your church, whether that means giving people lifts, baking cakes, doing admin or going the whole hog and volunteering at the youth group. At its very core, youth work is very simple: loving young people and seeking to introduce them to Jesus.
Not only do young people want parental and grandparental role models in their youth workers, they need them. Thinkers such as Kara Powell and Kenda Creasy Dean have explored what it is that gives young people faith that continues into their adult years.
At the Youth Work Summit last year, Dean revealed that for faith to survive through high school, there were six variables. One of these was that young people need multiple adults of faith to turn to for support and help, with the key ratio being five to one. Just think about your youth group for a moment (if you have one) and ponder how many volunteers you have. My guess would be that this ratio is reversed; that you probably have five young people for every adult.
You may not think you can be the most significant person in a young person’s faith life, but could you be one of their five?
In an article written for Premier Youthwork entitled, ‘It takes a whole Church to raise a child’, Krish Kandiah explained why intergenerational relationships and
the community offered by the Church is so important. For many years, we have sought to do youth ministry in a vacuum, segregating young people from the life of the Church in their own special groups, services and even congregations.
By doing this, Kandiah says we can ‘rob them of developing significant relationships…and starve them of role models’. He adds: ‘With young people absent from the majority of our gathered worship time, we have no need to adapt it and therefore become more stagnant and less attractive to our young people when they transition to adult services.’
WHY YOU NEED YOUNG PEOPLE
Maybe some Bettys still don’t want to be involved, or don’t see how doing so could change the life of their church or their own lives. The first and most important thing to say here is that we don’t do youth work to prop up or ‘save’ the future Church. It’s not our job to save the Church, even if we fancy ourselves as heroes, as we already have a mightier hero who has done all the saving we will ever need. We must reach young people because we are compelled to reach the lost as disciples of Jesus.
Having said this, it may be strategically advantageous to invest in youth work. In his book, Getting Your Kids through Church without them Ending up Hating God (Monarch), Care for the Family’s Rob Parsons says that 72% of Christians make a faith commitment before the age of 19. If we want to be strategic in our evangelism, reaching out to young people is a good use of our resources and efforts.
According to the ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ report into growth in the Church of England, churches in which there is a high ratio of children to adults are twice as likely to be growing. The study also showed that three-quarters of churches that offer retreats, conferences or camps for young people report growth, compared with only half for those that do not. It is hard to know whether growing churches happen to have young people or whether young people contribute to the life of growing churches, but either way young people are good for growth, or are at least likely to be present in thriving churches.
THE AGE OF SEGREGATED YOUTH MINISTRY IS OVER
I can’t offer you a money-back guarantee that you will love being around teenagers, but in my experience young people are bursting with passion and you can’t help but catch some of their zest for life. Far from being drained by their energy and noise, I leave every youth group session feeling reinvigorated and full of joy.
WHY YOUTH WORK SHOULDN’T BE LEFT TO YOUTH WORKERS
Youth work shouldn’t be left to youth workers. This is not because they aren’t spectacular human beings; gifted, called and anointed for their work with young people. In my experience, youth workers are some of the most pioneering, innovative, committed, humble and dynamic people on the ministry radar. Don’t take your youth workers for granted. Invest in them, trust them and support them wherever you can. Above all, try to keep them!
But youth work shouldn’t be left to us alone, because the task is too big and the mission too important. And because we can’t do it without you. If we are left to it, failure is inevitable. The age of segregated youth ministry is over; youth work in a vacuum doesn’t work. Youth work is for the whole Church, whatever your age, background or experience.
Will you help us?
HOW TO GET INVOLVED WITH YOUTH WORK
Want to get involved but don’t know where to begin? Here are five top tips:
1 Talk to your youth worker. There are many ways to support the youth work in your church, from helping in the kitchen on weekends away to stewarding at events or being a shoulder to cry on for your youth worker.
2 If you don’t have a youth worker, speak to the young people in your church. Get to know them, and ask what they would like the church to offer. Inviting them to plan something with you will mean they have ownership and buy-in from the word go. Feed their ideas back to your leaders and see if you can recruit a team of people to help facilitate them.
3 If you don’t currently have any young people in your church, there are great resources out there. I would recommend Youth Work from Scratch (Monarch) by Martin Saunders. It contains a great deal of practical wisdom about taking your youth work from nothing to something.
4 Get equipped. There are plenty of great conferences and events to give you ideas for your youth work. I would recommend the Youth Work Summit, a dynamic, TED-style conference (20th June, Tonbridge). It features a wide range of experts from across the Church, packing lots of wisdom into short, relevant talks. Find out more, and watch all of the videos from previous years at Youthwork Summit.
5 Pray. The most important thing you can do is pray for your young people and the youth work in your church. If you don’t have a heart for young people, pray to be burdened for their cause. If you love the young people in your church, pray for them regularly, and tell them that you’re doing so. Pray for your youth worker if you have one and pray that the Church will be a place where young people feel they belong and can meet with God.
THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS
Unlikely candidates doing great youth work…
David, Portsmouth Deanery Youth Work Project
David, in his late 70s, has been involved with young people for a long time through scouting. For the past six years he has been a volunteer for a breakfast club at academy school Charter Academy, which is a Portsmouth Deanery project. He is the most consistent team member and brings a mature perspective that the young people love. He teaches and plays chess with them over breakfast, embodying participation, respect and fun. David works with some of the toughest young people in Portsmouth and is a shining example of how senior figures can be effective in a youth work setting.
Ailsa, Upton Vale Baptist Church, Torquay
For the last ten years, Ailsa has set aside time every week to manage admin for the youth pastor, children’s worker and volunteer team. Ailsa keeps contact lists up to date and mails out letters to hundreds of families each term. She books dozens of young people for Soul Survivor and youth weekends, also managing the feeding and transporting of more than 50 people. She manages the budgets, handles correspondence and ensures the team is well-informed. She also provides a listening ear, encouragement, accountability and excellent advice to the youth pastor. Many of the young people would not be in the Church today were it not for Ailsa’s hard work.
Rob, Dagenham Parish Church
After finishing a tough week working in pest control, Rob pulls a double volunteer shift for the children’s and youth groups before giving another volunteer a lift home. Rob is incredibly devoted to the children and young people of Dagenham. He is cheerful, witty, humble, kind and passionate about the gospel. He takes time to listen to young people and firmly challenges difficult behaviour from those experiencing tough situations. Living across the street from the church, Rob and his wife Sara generously offer their home to support church events and are always on hand to help out.
The above stories were adapted from the nominations received for the annual Youth Work Awards. If you know of someone who quietly gets on with their youth work-related role, often without praise or recognition, why not nominate them? Visit Youth work Awards to find out how.