I’ve just got back from my second year at the Bible Centred Youth Work Conference run by the Good Book company. It’s been a really encouraging few days and it was great to be able to meet with other youth workers who are in the same position as I am and who are facing similar struggles. It was also a useful time to be able to gather my thoughts on my ministry and where it’s strengths and weaknesses lie.
The teaching at the conference has been really helpful in focusing me back onto what I’m actually here to do and really helped in getting some perspective on my situation. Basically, I like a bit of a grumble, and whilst my church is far from perfect, hearing about the situations that some people are in made me realise just how good I have it.
In many ways, I still haven’t had much time to really process what I heard at the conference and so anything I say now may just be reactionary, but there was a lot of food for thought, some of which I referenced in my mini-blogs during the conference. It’s the comments of Phil Moon and Dave Fenton in relation to how they’ve seen youth work change over the years that have really stuck in my mind and I’d like to make some comment on what they said and how I feel this speaks into my situation.
More Work, Less Progress
This was something I could immediately identify with as it’s something that a number of us have often said plagues our own church. I personally associate the ‘more work’ with a couple of different things. Firstly, busyness. It’s an incredibly worldly idea to think that you can only be doing things properly if you’re busy and rushed off your feet. That’s not to suggest that we should be sitting around doing very little; of course we need to work very hard at what we do and give our all to it. But when your youth group or church starts to decline or growth slows, the temptation is to start thinking about what new things we can add to the calendar and eventually we end up with a weekly schedule where we just rush about from one thing to the next in a state of heightened stress. There’s a lot on offer but it’s not really moving anyone forward, just stressing us out and putting pressure excess pressure on us (and probably everyone else too).
Secondly, I think this shows that we can be working really hard, but if there’s no progress, perhaps the work we’re doing isn’t the right kind. Maybe we’ve got our priorities wrong. I marvel at churches whose young people are never taught the Bible in any real depth and yet they can’t understand why their youth ministry isn’t growing. It’s cause you’re working hard at fun and games but not teaching the word.
I think both busyness and our work being misdirected, actually hinder progress and are the reason so many youth workers burn out. Apparently the average UK church youth worker lasts 17 months before they burn out which is shocking. I was definitely struck by that and I need to examine what parts of my week are actually things which are just clogging up the diary and actually hindering the youth work at my church. Anyway, the next thing was:
More Focus, Less Sacrifice
Being, for the most part, a conservative evangelical and part of a solid Bible teaching church, it’s unsurprising that my ministry has a heavy focus on preaching and teaching the word. If you’ve read some of my other blogs you might have picked up on my conviction that it’s the word of God that speaks to people and opens their eyes and that basically, youth work without the Bible is pretty much unthinkable to my mind. However, what Phil Moon seemed to be saying, was that as conservative evangelicals we have prioritised the word so much, that it’s actually been to the detriment of our relationships with our young people. We’ve become so embroiled in knowing how to handle the Bible correctly, how to give good talks that are faithful to the word etc, that we just don’t have much of a focus on sacrificing our time and selves to be with our young people and really get alongside them. Both Phil and Dave recounted various outings they’d gone on as young people and later with their own young people, and how important those times were. Even those times were teaching times because ministry is incarnational. We have to share our lives with our young people, not just an hour and a half at bible study each week. 1 Thessalonians 2:8 says this:
Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.
Paul is saying ‘there was more to our ministry that just telling you the gospel. We lived amongst you, we laughed with you, we cried with you, we shared every part of our lives with you. Why? Because we love you.’ We all know (or should do) that youth work is relational, but somehow, despite knowing that, we’ve gradually pushed that out due to our heavy focus on the word. The key for us now is to keep that evangelical word focus but also get back to sharing our lives with our young people; making sacrifices for our ministry. Sharing the gospel and our lives with our young people because we love them. I think this is a real weakness in my ministry and one that needs addressing. We do have some great relationships, but they could be so much more. And making that a reality can be a lot simpler than we might think. An example was mentioned of how one leader used to take her kids to the shopping centre. She was going shopping and asked if anyone wanted to come, so she drove them in and they simply went about their shopping. They didn’t have to spend the whole time together. They went their separate ways and then re-grouped for refreshments and such like, but it was a great time of relationship building and an opportunity to have some really good chats in the car and over coffee. I’m already mulling over what I can do with my kids and I think adding more of this kind of stuff in could make a huge difference. The third change was:
More Training, Less Practice
Basically we have a generation made up of a vast number of people who have been heavily trained in how to handle the Bible and lead Bible studies, and somehow an attitude has grown up that you basically have to have a PhD to teach the Bible. It’s all become quite academic and we’ve become training reliant. We’re afraid to let those without the right qualifications get up and teach. But the reality is that we now have a lot of people who have been taught how to do things, but haven’t actually done many of those things in the real world. They’ve been taught how to do it but they’ve never really done it. When I look back over the years and the various things I lead at, I know I got up and made a real mess of stuff sometimes. But if I hadn’t been given the opportunity to have a go, mess it up, learn from it and try again, then I wouldn’t have had any chance of moving forward or growing. The challenge for me now is to not be afraid to let others have a go and fail. We still want to support and train our leaders as best we can, but we need to realise that they don’t have to have done three years at Bible college before they can get up and lead. Sure, they won’t be the finished product, but then who the hell is? I’m certainly not. I’m thankful I was given the opportunities to try and to fail and so now I’ve got to learn to trust God enough to let others do the same.
The way Dave Fenton summed up Christian youth work was this: Preach the word and care for the flock. Those are the only two things we need to do. It’s really that simple but yet we often make it so much more complicated. When someone sums up our ministry so succinctly and so concisely, we can’t help but look at our ministry and realise that we just need to go right back to basics. All we are to do is to preach the word and share our lives with our young people. We show them Jesus and we care for them, we listen to them, we laugh with them, we cry with them, we pray with them, we support them and we have fun with them. Why? Because we love them.
That’s what will make a great youth ministry.