What youth workers want to say to children’s workers

Often, the fragmented nature of our churches means that as we wave goodbye to children from our kids’ groups and send them off to the wild world of youth work, we never see them again. OK, this is a slight overexaggeration, but it reflects an unhelpful dichotomy that we’ve managed to create. In fact, the two disciplines need to listen and learn from each other. Youth work specialist and Premier Childrenswork’s founding editor Martin Saunders returns to these pages with some lessons from the world of youth ministry…

Youth and children’s workers: two groups of people, divided by a common mission. We should be the best of friends, yet often we pass each other like ships in the proverbial night (or literal night when it comes to youth ministry). Our relationships are often strained, sometimes non-existent, yet we all seek to serve the same group of people: we’re all motivated / obsessed / kept awake at night by the desire to see the same under-18s find a place of belonging and explore faith.

We should enjoy, as the transatlantic politicians put it, a ‘Special Relationship’. We’re the people in the church community who should understand each other best; on paper we have far more in common than we differ over. Our missions, while distinct, are intrinsically linked to one another, and each of us possesses valuable intelligence and resources that can be of huge help to the other.

So why aren’t we better friends? And why – in many cases but not all – do we spend so little time talking and collaborating? I think there are a few ways in which we could and should practice that special relationship, and I want to list them here. But first, I think there’s a little ‘elephant in the room’ which needs to be addressed:

We’re sorry

Most youth workers (certainly the less mature ones, like me) have made condescending jokes about children’s ministry. We’ve laughed about how it’s all about cutting out cardboard donkeys and finding new ways to hand Bible-verse emblazoned stickers to impressionable seven-year-olds. Consciously or otherwise, we’ve looked down on children’s work as a lesser discipline and told ourselves that your role is essentially about keeping the kids in church until they’re old enough for us to do real ministry with them.

We’ve been patronising and arrogant. We’ve told our teenagers not to let anyone look down on them because they’re young (1 Timothy 4:12) but hypocritically looked down on those who work with the younger. We’ve simplified children’s psychological and spiritual development to a one-size- fitsall approach, as if young people only get complicated once they reach 11.

Our arrogance towards you has come during our own time of plenty: the 1990s and 2000s were a sort of golden age of youth ministry, when churches were falling over themselves to employ full-time youth pastors, training colleges were churning out hundreds of gifted young graduates, and most towns boasted a couple of decent-sized Christian youth groups. By contrast during that time, children’s work was run by passionate volunteers: while most churches ran groups for children, they were run as an act of service, rather than a function of employment. Now the tables have turned. Youth ministry is in a time of serious upset and upheaval; churches are cutting youth work posts or joining them with other distinct disciplines (more on this later). Youth groups are dramatically smaller, and there are far fewer of them. At the same time, children’s ministry has undergone something of a revival; the sector has become more professional and organised, and is better resourced than ever before: not just with curriculum, but with academic rigour too. More people are thinking deeply about children’s work. You’ve even got your own magazine these days.

It’s a bit unfortunate to be writing this after the balance of power has shifted. I feel a little bit like the Prodigal Son, who only turned apologetically for home after spending his father’s fortune. Yet while awkward, the sentiment is genuine: we’re really sorry.

We’re sorry for our condescending words and attitudes. We’re sorry for not taking a passionate interest in your work and for the times we didn’t support you, or even seem to notice you. We’re sorry that, while we’re fighting the idea that work with the young is a training ground for ‘proper’ ministry, we’ve visited exactly the same notion upon you.  We’re sorry for when we kept our distance, and for when we didn’t listen. We’re sorry for not realising how hard you work, and for not properly grasping that you feel exactly the same burning, obsessive passion for the development of children as we feel about growing teenage disciples. It’s long overdue, but please, forgive us.

Let’s work together

Here’s the thing: there are a number of substantial, practical ways in which we can start practicing a new level of collaboration. Youth and children’s workers need not only to become friends, but to become each other’s closest allies: recognising our common mission together, and adopting a much more coherent approach to tackling it.

Meet with us regularly

I realise this is just as much our job as yours, but in my experience you’re a lot more organised than we are. Those overseeing youth ministry and children’s ministry in a church should prioritise spending time with one another, and more than that, commit to understanding and serving each other’s ministries. Meeting to discuss the challenges and joys of our work not only creates opportunities for us to help solve each other’s problems, but it’s also a crucial bit of information sharing, helping youth workers to get to know those who’ll be moving up, and in some cases learning from those who already know the now-teenagers who were once in children’s groups. Praying together is a vital and profound element of this, an act of mutual submission to each other, and to our larger common aims.

Help us to keep the disciplines separate

Youth and children’s ministry are increasingly being lumped together (by people who don’t really understand either) because budgets are tight, and because there’s an implicit assumption that work with the various groups under 18 is all vaguely alike. This is a bit like the owners of a safari park putting the lions and the zebras in the same enclosure (although hopefully not as bloody): just because they share some common characteristics, it doesn’t mean they should all be seen as one. Young people and children have vastly different needs, and they need leaders who are prepared to specialise in and understand their world. The teenage years see the most rapid and significant period of change in a person’s life (other than the first two years) and so those who work with this age group have to understand their world and know how to respond to it. Likewise, understanding how to talk to, manage, and communicate faith to children requires expertise all of its own. By asking a single person to assume responsibility for both, we water down our provision for everyone. So please, join us in fighting this trend; the need for tightening the purse strings is never a good reason for a ministry decision.

Of course, there are many places where there is already a single staff member who has responsibility for youth and children’s (and family, and student, and small mammal) ministry, and that may be you. Having a single coordinator for both areas isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is then that person’s responsibility to ensure that while there is crossover, the two areas are kept defined and distinct. Keeping volunteer teams separate, with their own planning meetings and a clear identity as either youth or children’s leaders, will help with this.

Let’s understand the blur together

The nature of both childhood and adolescence are both being impacted and changed by our culture. Many children enter adolescence earlier, and adults leave the period much later than we’ve ever seen before. Yet at the same time, other children are keen to hold on to less mature or ‘childish’ behaviours, much later into their teenage years. This ‘blurring’ between what is a child, and what is a young person is a major challenge to our work with both groups, and I believe youth and children’s leaders need to be proactive in addressing it together. In practice, it means that youth work skills and expertise may become relevant in how leaders deal with some nine-year-olds, while children’s work knowhow could be useful in helping to understand certain 13-year-olds.

For example, children’s workers are now likely to have to deal with issues in nine and ten-year-olds which would never previously have been relevant in that age group. Statistics suggest that self-harm, for instance, is on the rise among a younger age demographic, while the average age of first exposure to online pornography is also falling. Youth workers are often well-versed in these subjects because of their prevalence among teenagers, so make use of our knowledge. In the same way, some younger teens find it very difficult to enter the adolescent world; your knowledge of what makes them tick is vitally important to youth workers as we seek to help them navigate a tricky transition. So, let’s own those key periods jointly.

This ‘blurring’ makes communication, and access to both teams vital if a church wants to provide a holistic, joined-up approach to work with under 18s - what Matt Summerfield terms a ‘generational’ approach to youth and children’s work.

“The missions of youth ministry and children’s ministry, while distinct, are intrinsically linked to one another”

A warning

Children’s ministry is entering a potentially exciting new phase, where more people are becoming ‘professional’ children’s workers, new funding and resources are being created for the sector, and there’s an increased academic literacy among the workforce as a whole (thanks partly to this magazine). All of this is potentially good, but should be handled with care. The story of youth ministry over the past three decades should serve as a warning of some of the pitfalls.

For a start, professionalisation does not always mean an increase in professionalism. Some of the most diligent, theologically-literate and fabulously gifted youth workers I know are volunteers, somehow holding down a full-time job while running a thriving youth ministry (in a wholly professional manner). And at the same time, I know some fairly immature qualified youth workers who have developed their skills but not their character; they’re professional in name only. A linked issue to this is the fact that churches often seem to believe that by employing a person to run a youth group, they have then devolved all responsibility for young people to that person, instead of understanding that it takes a whole church to raise a child. Volunteering dries up, prayer support withers, and a fractured relationship begins between the church employer and the ‘superhero’ professional employed to fix all their under-18 problems.

For me, full-time youth work appointments work best when the post holders are empowered to co-ordinate the vision for youth ministry in their church, agreeing from the outset that it’s not their job to do everything, but to lead the whole church in their engagement with young people. If professional children’s workers are to thrive long term, I believe that the same vision should be employed. Let’s not have a decline in 20 years’ time, where churches decide that the full-time children’s worker movement has failed, just because the model was wrong from the outset.

Instead, we need to let children’s and youth workers act as specialist resources on which the rest of the church can depend; people who ‘go deep’ in an area of expertise so that the whole church conmmunity can draw on their experience and knowledge. Most churches have at least one ‘expert theologian’ who fulfills this role (often unofficially); many have people who know how to feed 100 hungry mouths. In the same way, everyone in the church should feel that they have a stake and a role to play in youth and children’s ministry, with the key leaders accessible and empowered to enable them to do so.

The editors of this magazine asked me what I thought youth work (if you can characterise it as a single entity), would want to say to children’s work. So here it is again: we’re sorry for our arrogance towards you, let’s work together, and be careful not to make some of our mistakes. And as a parent of four children under 11, let me add this: thank you for your incredible hard work, your ceaseless commitment and boundless enthusiasm. You are, as you know, making a huge difference to young lives, the same thing we seek to do in youth ministry. Our two disciplines should enjoy a special relationship: let’s extend the hand of friendship to each other.

Martin Saunders is a regular contributor to Premier Youthwork magazine. He was one of the founding editors of Premier Childrenswork

« Back to the June issue

comments powered by Disqus