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Rethinking youth work

Seven Lego sets are sold every second, rising to 28 in the run up to Christmas. It’s the world’s best-selling toy. But behind the bricks there’s a parable for youth ministry and the challenges we face. Chris Curtis and Martin Saunders from Youthscape open the box and explain

Like most overbearing parents, I quickly take charge when a new Lego set arrives in the household. After all, who would leave the complex construction of the latest Star wars spaceship to a child? I hold back for as long as I can, but you have to understand that the force is strong. So I dive in to help, offering constructive comments (at least as I see them), innocently sorting bricks until a trip to the loo by my nine-year-old allows me to slip onto the chair and fully take control. Ha! They’ll enjoy playing with the finished model, right?

Don’t worry, my long-suffering daughter still has one trick up her sleeve. She knows what to expect. Smiling sweetly, she takes the finished model to her bedroom, where she proceeds to dismantle it and, with the help of her brother, make something completely different with the bricks. There’s nothing that pierces the heart quite like the sight of the Millennium Falcon transformed into a cart to carry a collection of Shopkins toys. I call them the Rebel Alliance.

If I’m honest, it wouldn’t occur to me to use those bricks for anything other than the model pictured on the front of the box. I like to follow instructions. In fact, given a chance, I might even glue the bricks together like Finn’s father in the final scenes of The Lego movie. Except, my daughter’s inventive approach turns out to be a vital life lesson for those of us working with young people. Like Lego, there are distinct models of youth ministry that have been around for years. The open youth evening in the church hall. The themed programme presenting a teaching point through video excerpts, games and discussion. You know these models because our youth ministry has been happily building them for the last 30 years. A whole industry of books, guides and materials has grown up to provide you with step-by-step instructions to build these models in your church week by week.

But they’re not working. Youth work in UK churches is in decline. David Voas’ ground-breaking research in 2009 and the Losing Heart report published by Youthscape’s Centre for Research last year tell us what we already knew but found hard to admit: our models aren’t working any more. The number of young people in the Church is halving every generation. By 2017, we find that three-quarters of churches don’t have any youth work at all. Finding ways to connect with teenagers in the community and grow the faith of those within the Church feels increasingly difficult. Ways of doing youth ministry that seemed so effective in the 90s and 2000s no longer fit our culture or the needs of young people. It’s time to stop building the same old models and start building something new.

“New ideas are great. Ideas that respond to real needs are even better”

Building new models

Young people are living in a complex and challenging world. They face greater levels of choice and opportunity, but also unprecedented uncertainty and risk. The increase in poor mental health, the ubiquitous presence of social media and a suspicion of traditional institutions are just some of the big issues we have to address, and the model we’re using may not fit the bill. It’s time to dismantle them and take a fresh look at what we can make.

Did you know there are 24 different ways two Lego bricks with eight studs can be combined? Take six bricks and there are 915,103,765 possible combinations! If you watched the recent Channel 4 Lego masters series you’ll have seen teams battling it out to make the most amazing models in a series of challenges. No pictures, no instructions; just their creativity and imagination, and those same old familiar Lego bricks. The results were stunning. but the real encouragement were the competitors themselves: not seasoned designers, but a mum and her son, two nine-year-olds(!) and a couple of students. They took some of the very bricks I know we have sitting upstairs in my daughter’s bedroom and transformed them into something magical.

That’s the good news. The models may need to be different, but you already have the right building blocks. Like Lego, they remain the same whatever the different trends and changing culture. Time, love, listening, respect, your own growing faith... and of course the power of the gospel. This is what connects young people to God. It’s just time to use them to build something different.

Talk of innovation can feel pretty challenging at the best of times. Are we saying that, as well as keeping the weekly youth group programme on the road, we have to figure out a completely new way of working with young people? Just downloading this week’s instructions is often all you have time for.

This isn’t a task for already overworked individuals; it’s something we can and should be doing together. When hundreds of us gather in Birmingham this autumn for the first national gathering of youth workers in some years, it’s to begin to explore these challenges together as a youth work team that stretches across churches large and small, rural and urban, thriving and struggling. Developing innovative new models of working is something that needs the courage and engagement of you, me and everyone else who cares passionately about the Church reaching, loving and sharing faith with young people. Two years ago, Youthscape took the difficult decision to completely reorganise and devote the entirety of its resources to reimagine youth ministry. The new ideas presented at the National Youth Ministry weekend will be the first fruits of that new direction.

Did you know that just 13 years ago, Lego was on the brink of bankruptcy? Literally about to go under. Innovation and a new approach were urgently needed. Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a former McKinsey consultant, took charge of the foundering company in 2004 and immediately got to work. After streamlining the business, he went back to listen to the hardcore fans about what they really wanted, recruiting many of them to be designers. He listened, took brave decisions, axed ageing models and stepped out in new directions. The growing popularity of the Star wars Lego series was just one of the winning strategies. As a result, Lego is now the most played-with toy in the world. Our children (and me!) spend five billion hours a year not only following the instructions on each set, but creating their own models from their imagination. If a nine-year-old can do it, what’s stopping us as the Church?

Chris Curtis is CEO of Youthscape.

So far, so inspiring. We all want to see Church youth ministry reinvigorated. We all want to see our faded brand restored to prominence among the younger generations, with or without the addition of some sort of Star wars franchise element. Innovation, creative new approaches, an exciting new way of reaching young people that really works; they all sound great in principle, but intangible in practice. How on earth, alongside all the other stuff you need to do, can you begin to embrace innovation in youth ministry at a local level? How do you take a Google approach to development when you’re running a church youth group as two volunteers in a living room?

The answer is, you can’t. Innovation-centred organisations like Apple, Google and Samsung have billion-dollar research facilities entirely devoted to discovering the new way forward in their industries. We can draw inspiration from these companies and their ideas, but we can’t possibly hope to operate at their scale.

So instead of feeling intimidated by innovation, relax. What we’re really advocating here is an openness to new ways forward; an acknowledgement that some of the old models might be creaking. At Youthscape – where we do have some dedicated innovation staff, if not quite on the same scale – we’ve developed a simple, five-stage approach to creative development. We use it both to dream up better ways of meeting and talking to young people about faith and the issues they face, and to produce new resources for youth ministry such as Shuffle, the discipleship card game released this summer. We thought it might be helpful to explain the process here and to unpack how it might work in the average youth ministry, even if resources are low and time is tight.

Step one: listen

New ideas are great. Ideas that respond to real needs are even better. One of the most profound things you can do as a youth leader, before you start to form your own plans, is to listen to what your community and young people really need. Is there an epidemic of anxiety that local schools are struggling to respond to? Are young people being priced out of the opportunity to play sport by expensive clubs and facilities? Do teenagers on your doorstep need practical support with literacy skills or food during the school holidays? You can have the most brilliant idea for youth ministry, yet totally ‘miss’ the young people right in front of you because it’s not the approach they need.

At Youthscape, we glean and gather insights from a variety of sources that help us understand the needs in our community. We talk to teachers, meet with parents and keep on top of culture and media. Most importantly, though, we talk every single day with young people about their world and the challenges they face. The great news is if you’re involved in youth ministry, this is the easiest task you could hope to be given. No extra work required, aside perhaps from listening a little more intentionally.

Step two: ideate

The difference between this approach and the sort of innovation used to evolve the mobile phone is that it centres on the person, rather than the product. What we’re really looking to do here is devise youth work projects that connect with the actual young people around you. So once you’ve immersed yourself in the world of local young people, and really tried to understand the problems, gaps and issues they face, you’re ready to create something to match those needs.

Ideas tend to emerge in one of two ways. Either they’re instigated by one person, who receives a thunderbolt thought while showering, or they’re discovered through a team talking and exercising their creativity together. There’s no way to legislate for the former, although it becomes a lot more likely when you’ve been practising step one above, but the latter is remarkably simple. Just meet together with other people who are passionate about the young people in your area and talk about what could be. Discuss your dreams for those teenagers and then discuss how you might possibly see them achieved. Use brainstorming, brainwriting (Google it) and other creative techniques. You don’t need to be a creative guru to come up with an idea, especially when you understand the need you’re trying to meet.

“Our youth models may need to be different, but you already have the right building blocks”

Step three: develop

So far, this might all feel fairly safe and familiar. For the extroverts among us, however, this next step can feel like torture. Instead of simply launching a new initiative, we strongly recommend making the time to properly develop it. Interrogate your idea with a series of tough questions. Will it really work? Is there a better version? How could you make it even better?

If you’re developing an idea as a team, we’d recommend holding a completely separate creative meeting that aims to significantly improve the approach you’ve come up with. You’ll be much fresher if you do this in two stages, and you’ll also give your brain time to think about it in the meantime. Also, make sure that you involve young people at this, and at every stage of the process. Your idea is so much more likely to work if you do.

Step four: pilot

Just because you’ve had a brilliant idea, it doesn’t mean it’ll work brilliantly. And just because you’re trying something new, you don’t have to try it forever. Let’s imagine you’re launching a new project based around five-a-side football, with a bit of food and a talk about (Christian-themed) life skills thrown in. This might represent a major undertaking, and a significant shift of emphasis for your work... and, as with all creative projects, there’s a chance that it might not succeed. By launching this initially as a six-week initiative, you not only reserve the right to radically change or even stop doing it, you insure yourself against causing major disappointment if you do.

Perhaps more importantly, building a culture of piloting into your youth ministry means you can operate much more fluidly; innovating and enhancing the way you run your groups or projects as you go. Essentially, test out your ideas before you commit to a year-long project!

Step five: launch... and evaluate!

You’re finally ready to get going, but almost as soon as you do so, you should be getting ready for the last important stage: evaluation. This is about asking the hardest question of all: is what I’m doing really making a difference?

In order to do this effectively, you need to have done something else earlier in the process: set aims. If you haven’t actually formalised some objectives for your project, how on earth will you know if you’ve succeeded? Those aims can be broad, “come into contact with more young people”, or specific, “we want 25 more 14-18s on our contacts list”, but without them you’re evaluating against your own rose-tinted recollections of what you had intended (and funnily enough, you’ll tend to do well against them!).

In practical terms, it might be worth meeting again as a team after a set time period to have this discussion and to decide any changes or other action that should be taken as a result. More often than not, you’ll find that this conversation uncovers a whole new set of needs and opportunities that you could respond to... and so the wheel turns again.

Broadly speaking, that’s how we do it at Youthscape, and we believe the principles of the process are transferable to any scale of context. We’re not kidding ourselves that we’re Samsung (or Lego), and neither should you. Yet we’re all in agreement that youth ministry needs to move forward and embrace change. It seems to me there’s a few things we could learn from Lego and their ilk that might actually help us do so in practice.

Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s director of innovation.

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