Ben Woodman was a youth pastor in Canada for ten years before joining the Alpha Youth team. He is one of the hosts for the Alpha Youth Series and heads up Alpha Youth globally. Ben spoke with editor Ruth Jackson about young people and evangelism
Ruth Jackson: What was your experience of God as a child?
Ben Woodman: I grew up in a family that went to church all the time, so I knew about God. My parents were so great. They told me: “God loves you. You can have a relationship with God.”
It wasn’t until I was 18 that God really captured my heart and imagination. I had just broken up with a girlfriend and I had a broken heart – classic – and I was like: “God, if you’re real I need you.” I still felt all the pain of the heartbreak, but I felt hope. So that sent me on a journey and I started reading and learning the Gospels. I discovered that God was real and he was alive, which led me to saying: “OK, I’m all yours…What’s next?”
So it started with the heart and it was very emotional. Sometimes I used to feel apologetic that I came to Christ emotionally, but it was very real. It was a tangible experience. I felt peace and hope, and it was a gift from God. And then it made sense intellectually.
RJ: How did that lead you into youth ministry?
BW: After I started following Christ I was just so captivated. I was so passionate that I was telling all my friends. I got the opportunity to be a volunteer youth leader and a camp counsellor, and I was like: “Yeah I’ve got to tell people that God’s real.” I had a youth leader and mentor called Bill, who was constant in my life. After God captured my heart I kept going to Bill and asking questions, and he started giving me opportunities to be a youth leader myself. I had Bill in my life, and I want to be that now for other teens and kids. Statistically, most people who come to faith in Christ do so when they’re young, so it’s such a worthwhile investment.
Once I started doing youth work I loved it. I feel like sometimes for youth (and adults too), when they hear about God or realise something about him or his love for them, and that he has a plans for their life, their eyes light up. It’s so rewarding to see that! I have been doing it for a while now, and I love it.
I ended up becoming the youth pastor at my church and Bill’s son Jason (co-host of the Alpha Youth Series) was in my youth group. Jason’s an incredible leader – even in school he was leading his friends – so when he graduated high school he took over a national ministry in Canada trying to help other teenagers reach out to their friends. We connected with Alpha because he was trying to help youth have conversations with their friends. So Jason started Alpha Youth and asked if I wanted to work for him! Years before I was his youth pastor and then he became my boss, which I joke is every youth pastor’s dream: that they go ahead of you…just not right in front of you!
There was a mentoring atmosphere, and the space we created showed that it is possible to succeed poorly and fail well
RJ: How do we help release young people into the things God is calling them to?
BW: There is something about a supportive environment. I think I stumbled into it because of the mentors and people in my life. If you’re a youth leader who feels ‘less than’ because you don’t have lots of different strategies, know that God is still working.
We created atmospheres of prayer, a culture of encouragement and dreaming. And we spoke about the larger Church, the kingdom of God, a lot. We spoke about the power of the gospel to change people’s lives. The youth group we were trying to create was one where ‘we do this stuff, we talk about our faith, we pray for our friends and God listens. He answers our prayers and we serve our school’. It was so inspiring to see our youth starting prayer groups and discussion groups, and raising money for social problems in their communities or around the world. On a Monday after school we would invite the youth who were leading in their schools in different ways, and we would make a space for them to come and talk about it and pray for each other. They just started sharing what they were doing: the wins and the hard things. We talked about failure.
I remember thinking “I should have some sort of leadership training”, but when I look back I think making a space was enough for that season. There was a mentoring atmosphere, and the space we created showed that it is possible to succeed poorly and fail well. The kingdom is upside down anyway, so we measure success differently. It’s not just about building something big at your school, it’s about being obedient and being faithful and learning.
RJ: Is there one story from Alpha Youth that sticks out?
BW: There are so many stories, but one guy comes to mind. Mark was about 15, and one of his friends was hosting Alpha at school during lunch. He invited him to come, have some food, watch a video and have some discussion. When you ask Mark why he went, he says: “I didn’t have anything else to do.”
Later, on the Alpha weekend, God touched Mark’s life. God’s Spirit filled him and his words were: “It’s like God filled a void in my heart that I didn’t even know I had.” Mark isn’t a church kid, so he didn’t know churches use that language of ‘God filling a void’. That was just his way of describing it. We were looking at him, as if to say: “Who told you to say that?” Mark’s parents were atheists, and as he grew up he was wondering: what is the purpose of life? So he started on this journey of looking for the purpose of life and that coincided with his friend inviting him to Alpha.
What I love about Mark’s story is that the context in which he heard about Jesus was his school lunch hour, so then he was able to offer it to his friends. A year later Mark is hosting Alpha for more friends at his school, having conversations and making a space for people to find faith, meaning and purpose. That’s how he would describe what Jesus has done in his life: “I have so much more meaning and purpose now.” That’s the best!
I was his youth pastor and then he became my boss, which I joke is every youth pastor’s dream: that they go ahead of you
RJ: Do you see the same questions cropping up all around the world?
BW: The cool thing about these conversations about faith and meaning is that they are universal. I think we come at it from different angles, but this longing for meaning, belonging, acceptance and love is a human experience. Whether young people are in the UK, US or Canada we’re all asking these questions, so Alpha makes it a priority to have the space to have those conversations, to address the big questions about life and to see what happens.
RJ: How can we engage with young people who don’t yet know God?
BW: If you have just a handful of young people you can start something. If there are only two or three you can invite a friend and go for coffee or burgers and hang out and start to discuss faith questions.
If there are no young people, maybe get permission to volunteer at a school or coach a local sports team. I used to coach 13-year-olds basketball at the local school. I wasn’t a very good coach and the team wasn’t a very good team. I wasn’t there just for the basketball, but to meet them and to say I was there for them, that I believed in them. We had a youth group at the time and I would invite them to the youth group. That was a great way to meet them and to get involved, to volunteer and invite them to something.
When I think about starting a youth group, if you can get the invitation out to some young people, things like Alpha are a great way to start, because the basics are food, fun, a talk and discussion. I think all great youth work should have these elements, and maybe some worship or moments for prayer.
RJ: How can we encourage young people to share their faith with their friends?
BW: We’ve got to pray for our youth, for our youth leaders and for people in our churches that we would become people who have a heart for others. When I was a youth leader, and now at Alpha, that is one of our prayers: “God give the Church a heart to reach out.”
I think making a space, running things like Alpha with your youth group and then asking along the way if any of their friends would enjoy this conversation – that’s a great way to open the door. Another way is to suggest that your young people try listening to the talks through the ears of one of their friends from school to see what they might think of it, and then ask them about it afterwards. To think about what their friends are going through and what they are wrestling with.
Prayer is the place for compassion. When you pray you get God’s heart, and that brings tears to your eyes. That reminds us that people are hurting and broken. There is so much pain and hopelessness, and God shares his heart and his love for people.
RJ: Is there any advice you would go back and give your 13-year-old self?
BW: I would encourage 13-year-old Ben to try church a little bit more. I went to church on Sundays, but I never went to youth group, so I think I would say give it a chance. I think I would also tell him not to kiss all the girls! Maybe a few, but not all of them!
RJ: What’s the best place you have visited with the Alpha Youth Series?
BW: We went to this house near Vancouver where this lady raises puppies. She had about 40 dogs and about 29 of them were puppies. Six or seven were little Pomeranians, these little fluff balls, so I think her house was the coolest place I’ve visited.
Watch the video of Ruth and Ben chatting here.