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Q&A: Neil O’Boyle

In autumn 1946, evangelist Billy Graham spent six months in Britain. Thousands came to Christ, lives were transformed, families reunited and prayers answered. Because of this great move of God, a passion to reach Britain’s young people was ignited and British Youth for Christ was born. 

It now has more than 70 local centres and projects across Britain working in schools, prisons, churches and local communities. Over the last 18 months, Youth for Christ has been working alongside partners, trustees, donors, volunteers, staff, local authorities , schools, churches and young people on a rebrand. It has refocused on being “a dynamic, gospel-centred and courageous movement made up of one team, one brand and one mission”.

Ruth Jackson caught up with national director Neil O’Boyle about his time in the role and the renewed vision for young people.

Ruth Jackson: What have been your big highlights over the last two-and-a-half years?

Neil O’Boyle: That’s a tough question, just because of the vastness, but I think when you get to be the CEO of an organisation like Youth for Christ, and you have 500-plus youth workers who are passionate about Jesus, that is a highlight in itself. When you hear stories about people being changed and what Jesus is doing in young people’s lives, you can’t help but be moved because it’s significant. We could tell story after story of what youth workers are doing, the opportunities that are coming our way and the lives that are being changed by Jesus. We’re in some really tough places. We’re in some places where young people are being stabbed to death. But we still go back and we still tell the good news, and we’re passionate about that. So my team, our Youth for Christ workers, is the answer to that question.

RJ: Tell us about your rebrand…

NB: My role when I came back to this country was to really analyse what the state of play was in this nation. I spent a lot of time talking to national leaders. I spent a lot of time with our staff. I visited almost every centre; all of our clusters. I spent time with other organisations, just asking the questions of what is going on with youth ministry in this country; what the lie of the land is; what the opportunities are. And that then formed a strategy for us.

First and foremost, the biggest thing was the intentionality of evangelism. We had to get back to our roots of talk­ing about Jesus and empowering young people to share their faith in Jesus, which then took us on a rebrand jour­ney. Because we realised we’ve really got to simplify our message. We’ve got to be able to say it in such a way that it just comes straight off what the heart­beat of this organisation is.

So our new mark is a Y with a heart in it. The Y represents young people and the heart represents God’s heart for young people. Our tagline is: “Seeing young people’s lives changed by Jesus.” If we’re not about that then we might as well pack up and go home, because we are called to share Jesus. We are not called to be good youth workers. We’re not called to be professional social workers. We’re called to be evangelists. We’re called to see young people’s lives changed, and this nation changed, by Jesus. So we have to be passionate about that, we have to be courageous about that, we have to take risks and we have to go out there. And therefore we’re calling this organisation back to our roots.

We’re saying we’re not going to call ourselves YFC anymore. We’re not going to be hiding behind the abbrevi­ation. We’re actually going to declare every single time what our mission is. And our mission is reaching youth for Christ.

RJ: What does going back to your roots look like for the future?

NB: We think the landscape is chang­ing massively, and we really sense that change is on the horizon. We don’t yet have it fully nailed, but we did a piece of work called Gen Z: Rethink­ing Culture. That research told us a number of things. One is that 32 per cent of young people believe in God. It’s really concerning that so few would say they believe in God. It also told us that almost one out of five young people want their friends to tell them about Jesus. That’s massive! That’s a huge number! So we can’t just ignore that.

“In a broken generation, we know that Jesus can bring change. So why try to be experts when we can just introduce them to Jesus?”

But what it really told us is that God’s simply not on the agenda. So the role of Youth for Christ is to put God back on the agenda. It’s to introduce God to young people who are spiritual people looking for answers, but they are just not looking to God. We actually believe that our call is to point them to him.

RJ: Why is evangelism important?

NB: Because Jesus changes lives. He gets into the darkest of places and brings light. He heals the most broken of hearts. He brings order to chaos and he brings transformation. We are not experts on anything, but this is what we know: in a broken generation, we know that Jesus can bring change. So why try to be experts when we can just introduce them to Jesus?

RJ: How do you balance reaching and supporting individuals with wanting to see everyone come to faith?

NB: As an organisation, we believe that we come into contact with around 250,000 young people every month. Our desire is to get that up to one million, because we believe that’s the tipping point when we will see cultural transformation across this nation. So we’re passionate about reaching out at a mass level.

But we can only do that by recognis­ing that we have to introduce Jesus to every single young person. We can’t do that en masse. It’s got to be on an individual basis that we’re committed to reaching every single young person in this country. We don’t quite know how yet. We know that technology will play a part in that, but we are just exploring the lay of the land. So yes, we’re about the one, but we’re also about the X million young people in this country.

RJ: What does the future of Youth for Christ look like for tweenagers?

NB: We have been very clear to our centres and staff that we’re committed to reaching 11 to 18-year-olds. They are our core target age group. But we also realise we’ve got to change our strate­gy. We do have a focus from the 7s right through to the 25s, and we changed our demographic because we recog­nise that actually by the time we are working with 11 and 12-year-olds it’s already too late. They’ve disconnected themselves from the gospel. Therefore, we need to be working with children in primary schools, connecting with them there and journeying with them there through to secondary school, continually getting alongside them and bringing Jesus into the equation. We recognise that we need to be resourc­ing the Church far more.

However, here is one of the areas where we need to look at things differ­ently. There’s a piece of research by Theos called Passing on the Faith. It gave us a statistic that 50 per cent of young people raised in Christian homes will go on to inherit the faith for themselves later in life, which means that 50 per cent won’t, which actually means there is a mission within the Christian home.

We have seen a whole lot of organ­isations rally around that, which is great. But at Youth for Christ we’ve said: “Great, let other organisations do that.” We’re going to do something different. We’re going to address the fact that every year right across this country there are thousands of holiday clubs. Hundreds of thousands of children go through those holiday clubs and many make decisions to follow Jesus.

What then happens is that on the Sunday they have a service, their parents come to it and then they disap­pear for the rest of the year. So how can we address that group? We’re working on a resource, which is a discipleship tool that the child will take back to their homes, to a non-churched home environment, and say to a mum or dad: “I made a decision about Jesus and they gave me this book and they said you need to help me read it.”

We’re going to ask the parents to disciple their kids when their parents aren’t even Christians! We believe there is going to be a peer or mutual discipleship process going on in the home by using this resource. We don’t how it’s going to go, but we’re going to have a go at it! And it’s going to be a little bit different, but we believe that nobody is addressing those who go to holiday clubs every single year.

RJ: What would you say to the parents of kids who have walked away from their faith?

“We are not called to be good youth workers or social workers. We’re called to see young people and this nation changed by Jesus”

NB: I would say: “He who has begun a good work in them will see it through to completion.” God has not given up on anyone. And where seeds have been planted they will grow and develop, so don’t lose heart.

But I think what I want to say to parents who have children who are Christians is: it’s your job and your calling to disciple your children. It’s not the role of the Church, or the chil­dren’s worker or youth worker. They are there to support you, but it is your calling and your role to get involved in the discipleship of your child at the age of 6, 7, 8, and so on. You can’t just leave it to the so-called professionals to do that.

RJ: If you could go back to your 13-year-old self, would you have any advice?

NB: I came from a fairly broken, dysfunctional, at-risk environment. It was a tough place to be, and I made decisions that were not good. But in the midst of all that I found Jesus. I found Jesus by walking into the back of a Youth for Christ event, and there came the transformation where I encountered him.

I don’t know what I would say to my 13-year-old self, but I’m just so glad that at the age of 16 I discovered who Jesus is, and that he brought trans­formation. That’s what fuels us in this organisation because we know Jesus is powerful and that, when we introduce people to Jesus, he brings change.

Check out more about the vision behind Youth for Christ’s rebrand at yfc.co.uk/ourstory.

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