What I learned from feeding goats

For the first time ever, Youthwork opened up its doors for a one-day writers masterclass. Sixteen youth workers gathered from all corners of the country to share ideas, learn skills and to hone their craft. In the coming weeks we will be posting guest blogs from the attendees – here’s one from Nick Francis.

 It was half term, so my wife and I duly packed the kids in the car and set off to a local park farm. We met my mum and spent the day looking at various animals while watching our kids hurl themselves around a soft play area, secretly wishing we could all have a go.

It was there, feeding a goat, that I learnt something. Part of the park farm ritual is the ‘feed the animals’ experience. My oldest son is four and is high-functioning autistic and I was well aware that this experience could be at best a little bit scary and at worst completely distressing for him. So I went all out with my enthusiasm hoping to bundle him along with me so he'd quickly overcome any fears or worries he had.

 When we entered the barn the sheep and goats were definitely eager to be fed by us. We all had little bags of food for them and it was quite simple - put some in your hand, hold your hand out flat and have it licked rather creepily by a giant cotton-wool ball on legs. We entered the barn; I grabbed a handful of food, grinned at my eldest and confidently so he could see me and held out my hand to the nearest goat. It all went without a hitch and I went over to him with all my fingers intact.

 Once he saw that I had done it and that I was smiling there was no stopping him. He leapt at the opportunity to feed any goat or sheep that could get near him; small ones, big ones, ones that could easily step over the fence. He even reached in through the fences and patted and stroked some of them. He breezed through it, and I was very proud of him.

 On the drive home I was reflecting how this was similar to youth work. We tell our young people our expectations for how we want them to live. We challenge their behaviours and encourage them to live Christ-like lives. But instead of just talking we need to be confidently showing them. Not just telling them we live that way, but showing them, encouraging them to observe how we live and act. To see for themselves that the way we live - the way we follow Jesus - is amazing and totally worth it, and that sometimes going against societal and cultural norms does not make you an outcast.

 Paul left a similar challenge to the Corinthians: ‘Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.’ (1 Cor 11:1) What a challenge! Can we confidently and easily say that to our young people? Can we let them into our lives? Can we show them, confidently, how we live as examples of Christ?

 The second thing I learnt is this: While I wasn't afraid of feeding the sheep and goats my confidence and enthusiasm to do so was certainly boosted by my desire to see my son do what I was doing. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and we can do the same in our youth work. We can use our passion for our young people, our desire to see them grow as disciples, to help us overcome our own fears in our work or in how we live.

 Nick Francis is a youth minister in a Methodist, URC & Baptist LEP church in Buckingham. He is married with two kids, is a bit of a geek and if he wasn't landlocked would love to surf every day.