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Fear vs freedom in youth ministry

Alan Gault takes us back to the heart of youth ministry

It was one of the most intense youth ministry moments of my career to date, sitting in a room with my pastor, two of the elders and the children's pastor, who after 18 months had all taken a sudden micro-managing interest in my youth work programme. The reason: I was planning to talk to our teenagers about sex.

The debate at hand (one of many) was whether two of the young people who were engaged in risky sexual behaviours should be barred from coming in case their evangelism of this lifestyle “infected” the remaining young people.

“What if they said how great having sex with lots of people is and convince others to do the same?”

“Of course they need the teaching but maybe we can do it separately in a safer environment?”
 
“We have a duty to guard and protect the others.”

They were scared, fearful of the need to protect young people from negative influences. Fearful of what parents would say or think.

I was scared that omitting young people from a group would destroy any sense of authenticity for everyone else. I was scared about how I was being perceived by those who held my livelihood in their hands. I was scared that not talking to the young people about sex would result in more of them engaging in the behaviour that surely it was my job to stop.

I think fear on all parts stopped everyone from making the best decisions.

As I have talked with youth workers (particularly in the last year) fear has emerged as the secret motivation for so much of the work we do and the reason we are employed in the first place.
Is my work making a difference? Is what I’m doing worthwhile?  I was told I was going to change the world but my youth group is the same size it was when I started. How can I make sure my young people don’t go off the rails when they leave for university? My contract is up in a year, I’ll need to justify an extension. The questions go on. 

We need to save the young people from outside the Church. We need to protect the young people inside the Church from the “bad influences” outside. We want to let our young people be part of interfaith events, but what if they become Muslim?
Fear. It’s written across our ministries and our churches, driving how we do what we do.
The Bible talks a lot about fear, mostly how we have no need to be afraid. Perfect love casts out fear. “Do not be afraid for I am with you,” says the Lord. We are not given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-control.

So, something is wrong with this picture. Something is wrong with our motivation and our practice. 

Samuel Wells, vicar at St Martin in the Fields speaks of this: “A lot of youth work rests on the assumption that we’re basically frightened of young people and that if we leave them to their own devices for very long something very destructive is going to happen. So our job as youth workers is to be more interesting than God.”
So, how do we turn the tide? What does it look like to operate from a place of power, love and self-control? What does true freedom in youth ministry look like? 

Firstly, an acknowledgement that we, as Christians who work with young people, are not going to be saving or protecting anyone. We are not the hero of the story. We are not even co-heroes in the story. We are examples of the hero’s grace.

The salvation of young people is not my job. And if I cannot trust God to do his job then my own faith needs a large examination. Therefore, rather than needing to play the hero that knows the solution, solves the problems and rescues the young people from their vices we can more simply walk next to them as equals, exploring faith, asking questions and sharing wisdom.

Freedom means being secure enough in ourselves to ask reflective questions about our practice and how we can do it better, to acknowledge how our own tastes and biases impact on our work and to let go of the need to be more interesting than the creator of everything. What would that look like in our youth groups?
James Fawcett, director of Concrete, which seeks to support Christians working with young people contrasts the Damascus road with the road to Emmaus. So many of us are looking for Damascus ministries, the monumental experience, the piece of the puzzle that makes it all fit into place when, in fact, we are on the Emmaus road, less flashy, equally powerful. It’s long and slow, individual to individual, conversing with each other. Then Jesus shows up and changes us both.

Ministry, more often than not, is the Emmaus road. For most people it is not the glitz and glamour of the Damascus experience.  If we are operating from freedom, we can celebrate with those who have a Damascus ministry. But we don’t need to be sucked into thinking there is something broken with our Emmaus road.

We can forget the click bait promises: “the recipe for successful youth ministry”, “the missing ingredient in your youth programme”. We can stop searching for the one ready-made resource that will suddenly have hundreds of young people flocking through our doors.

Freedom means being free to simply be with young people on their journey. To be attentive, present, partnering people as they figure out what Jesus is revealing to them.

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