In the first of our new blog series, Martin Saunders takes a long, hard, honest look at the state of youth ministry in the UK
Friends, I think we might have a problem. Youth ministry in the UK finds itself, all of a sudden, in a very different and more challenging place. We’re not, as Dorothy once said, in Kansas anymore.
Twenty five years ago, churches were falling over themselves to employ youth workers. Training colleges were rapidly developing new courses to cope with the demand of people who wanted to respond to the greatest calling God can bestow. Existing para-church organisations were expanding and others were launched. A new magazine was launched to support this ministry niche, and quickly found a huge subscriber base. British youth work superstars were born: Roy Crowne, Bob Moffett, Mike Pilavachi, Steve Chalke.
Meanwhile, the ‘fields' were pretty ripe for harvest. Schools were still happy for Christian workers to run 'mission weeks' on their premises. Town-wide youth events across the UK regularly drew hundreds and even thousands of young people. Christian Unions and youth groups were thriving. Many of us became Christians in that period - including me.
Twenty five years on, British youth ministry suddenly finds itself in a rather different and more challenging place. Most schools are no longer happy for Christians to give an evangelistic address during a 9am assembly. Those town-wide events are a success when they draw 50 young people. Christian unions are, in some areas, a historical relic. Many churches are shutting down their youth work altogether.
Meanwhile, vision for and within youth ministry seems to be petering out. The numbers of youth-workers-in-training is down almost across the board. The trickle of people leaving for so-called ‘grown-up’ ministry is threatening to turn into an exodus. In part at least, they’re responding to a shove in the back from churches cutting their budgets, ‘deleting’ posts, and merging youth and children’s ministry (which is a bit like merging the police and the fire service). I wonder if it is too much of a stretch to suggest that the Church has lost faith in youth work.
Something has got to change. And I’m talking major change. There’s no point in tinkering around the edges. Youth ministry needs nothing less than a full-scale rethink, and then rebirth.
As the flame has flickered over the last decade or so, we’ve sort-of recognised this, and put our energies into ‘initiatives’ to solve the problem. City-wide and even nation-wide missions; new programmes, resources and events. We’ve found one or two things that ‘work’ - like Soul Survivor and Alpha - and we’ve clung to them for comfort. They’re not enough. It’s not enough to sub-contract the responsibility for effective youth work to one or two well-resourced para-church groups. If it’s going to turn around, then it’s a job for all of us.
I’m not then going to suggest some grand solution to this near-apocalyptic picture. But I am going to ask you to join me in a few things.
First, we need a workforce committed to youth work, and to young people, for the long haul. People who are determined to keep going despite the challenges; women and men who will prioritise their own spiritual formation so that they’re equipped to lead and serve the young people in their communities. Who are prepared to invest, long-term, in a group of young people, even if that means turning down a dream job.
Second, we need dreamers, and not just one or two. All of us should be getting on our knees and asking God for a vision for the young people in our community. Stop holding up one or two leaders as visionaries; you’re one too. We need nothing less than an explosion of new ideas in youth ministry - well implemented - which catalyse a new sense of momentum within the local church.
Third, we need the local church to be re-envisioned. Youth ministry can’t just become a phase that the Church went though. Young people are its future and its present, and it needs people to pastor, attract, keep and care for them. Every church leader should have youth work at the top of their agenda again; every denominational and para-church head must bang the drum as they did in the 1980s and 90s.
All of which could make a real, sustained difference, but will be largely useless if we don’t wrap the whole thing up in prayer. If we really want to see things change, then in all of this ‘we lean not on our own understanding’, but ask and trust God for his help. Every single day.
All is not lost, but it’s high time we recognised the state we’ve got ourselves into. Youth ministry needs a revolution. More importantly, the young people of the UK need and deserve that from us. So what are you going to do about it?
Martin Saunders is the Deputy Chief Executive of Youthscape.