The Age of Collaboration

Youth ministry is in a difficult place. If we want to see the tide turn on the church’s engagement with young people, then it’s time for a new era of youth work, says Youthscape’s Martin Saunders: an age of collaboration.

Thor is swinging his hammer, Iron Man is firing energy beams from his hands and Captain America is throwing his shield around like a boss. Along with a gaggle of other superheroes, they’re fighting off an innumerable legion of robot baddies in, of all places, an old church. This is the glorious finale of Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015’s biggest blockbuster.

It’s the purest distillation of the Avengers concept: some situations are so tough, some bad guys so evil, that overcoming them takes teamwork. If any one of the Avengers were to fight Ultron and his army on their own, they’d be easily overpowered; only by working together can they pave the way for the next inevitable round of sequels.

Now, call me sad, but as I watched that incredible scene in the cinema recently, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels with youth ministry. Granted, we’re not called to fight evil robots and none of us are going to turn into an out-of-control green giant when we get angry (as far as I know), but youth ministry is full of local and national heroes, all of us facing a particularly difficult situation right now. So the question is, how are we going to address it: as a series of individuals, trying our hardest to solve the problems directly in front of us, or back to back, arm in arm, fighting together and for one another?

OUR ‘ULTRON’

You’ll be relieved to know that the clunky metaphor ends here. However, it’s important to restate just how tricky a situation youth ministry currently finds itself in. Numbers are dwindling, funding is shrinking, and there’s an exodus of talented and experienced youth workers leaving the specialism. God is undoubtedly calling some of them on to adult ministry and other things, but for many, the combination of financial and management pressures is proving too much to remain in youth work, and it’s hard to blame them.

At the same time, the cultural context in which we work among young people continues to change. It’s become more complex, thanks in part to the increased diversification of youth cultures and the massive impact of the communications revolution. It’s become more antagonistic, with the rise of secularism and the new atheism, the agendas to limit Christian work, especially in schools, and an increasing number of parents who are hostile, rather than passive about Christian involvement in their children’s lives. It’s become more logistically-challenging too, with a rightly-increased focus on safeguarding responsibilities but also changes in the education system meaning that, for instance, the traditional lunchtime CU is now impossible in many schools.

We may not be battling robotic hordes, but we do find ourselves quite suddenly in the midst of a serious battle for the future of the Church’s work with young people. At present, our best response is to dig in, seek God for his help and renewed vision, and do the best we can with what’s in front of us. Churches which ‘get’ youth work are doing their best to support their youth work team; parachurch organisations are almost all involved in soulsearching and re-envisioning. All of this is good, but there’s a real risk of rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

YOUTH WORKERS ASSEMBLE?

If we really want to make a dent on the problems facing youth ministry, I believe we’ve got to address one of the least comfortable and most avoided subjects in the Church. While the word ‘unity’ is one which has us all nodding our heads in intellectual assent, in practice we often behave like we don’t believe in it at all.

When Jesus prays for his followers in John 17, I don’t believe he’s being vaguely aspirational, or prophetically riffing off John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. When he prays ‘that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you’ (verse 21), he’s desperate that his Church stays together, fixed on the same aim. In the following verse he asks, ‘May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me’; for Jesus, unity and community are vital to the missional success of the Church.

Thanks to two millennia of Church history, coupled with the emergence of today’s more entrepreneurial leaders, Jesus’ words have been interpreted somewhat loosely. Not only are we a broad Church (or rather, a series of them); we’re also blighted by arguments and slowed down by competition. That’s the backdrop against which we are going to attempt to rebuild youth ministry, and it’s not at all healthy.

It’s been my belief for some time that our disunity is our greatest weakness. When the young people in our schools and communities see a small group of Christians gathered, they assume they’re a misguided minority following a delusion. They may not realise however, that their local area perhaps contains a whole range of these groups, scattered throughout. Now imagine how different that group would look and feel if it included every young Christian in that community; imagine how differently those looking on might respond to it.

Think also of all those who’ve left youth ministry due to lack of support. For many of them, the loneliness of youth work in an isolated context has been their eventual downfall. Yet if we were better at supporting, befriending, getting alongside and cheering on one another, it’s possible those same people might have been able to stick it out a little longer. If we could lay down our own agendas for a moment, such things could be possible.

As we rebuild then, I believe we need to be prophetic to the Church as a whole. Not only would a renewed focus on working collaboratively give us our best shot at making an impact on the young people of this nation, it would also send a strong and clear message to the rest of the body of Christ. It’s time for a new dawn for youth work, and perhaps for the Church following behind us: it’s time for an age of collaboration.

THE ENEMY WITHIN

Before we think about the bigger picture, it’s worth acknowledging that in many churches, collaboration isn’t even practiced internally. Youth and children’s ministries can exist in isolation from one another, with completely separate teams, styles and visions. And even when the thinking is a little more joinedup, work with those under 18 can operate in isolation from the adult church. To use an over-stated proverb, it takes a village to raise a child, yet in many churches we’ve erected 100- foot walls within our communities. If youth work is going to have a fighting chance then those walls need to come tumbling down. For a start, in churches where both youth and children’s ministries exist, there must be a considered journey between the two. That can only happen if the teams running both have a good working relationship with each other, and take time to share information and vision. Where possible, churches should have what Matt Summerfield at Urban Saints calls a ‘generational approach’ to youth and children’s ministry, committing to journey with young people from 0-18 and beyond. In fact, wouldn’t it be incredible if our churches saw discipleship as a single journey from 0-100, rather than as a series of disjointed fragments?

The commitment to collaborate needs to go past those who specialise in work among younger people, and has to take in the whole church family. Every member of every church has a role to play in youth ministry, from volunteering, to supporting youth ministry financially and praying for the young people in your congregation – or those in your community who you wish were part of it. Youth work needs to be demonstrably valued in our churches, and the clearest way to do that is to make it visible; putting young people on the stage (and not just in the band) and on the welcome rota, on the Fair Trade stall and the prayer ministry team.

FOR REFLECTION…

How could you improve the relationship and transition between your youth and children’s ministries?

How could you engage ‘every member’ of your church family in youth ministry?

When a visitor comes to your church, how do they know you care about young people? What could you do to make this more apparent?

THE LOCAL SPARK

Once we’ve put that house in order, it’s time to move on to the issue of local unity. Nationally, the picture is patchy: in some places church partnership is non-existent, in others there are flourishing inter-church groups which often meet to organise events and pray together. We need to go even further; if we’re going to take Jesus at his word in Mark 9:35 when he says that, ‘anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’, then we need to become youth leaders who practice the spiritual discipline of submission, and prefer one another.

I know that when I’ve led youth groups, I’ve held a moderate interest in the other youth ministries in my town. At best that’s been gently supportive, most of the time passive, and at worst slightly competitive. The old youth work numbers game is sometimes hard to resist - especially when you’re doing particularly well. I’ve been at many youth work events where youth leaders like me have found endless ways to rephrase the old, ‘my youth group is bigger than yours.’

If we genuinely preferred one another, we’d want to be on the opposite end of that equation. When inter-church or parachurch events produced the new blood of young people looking for a youth group, we’d have no sense of competition over where they ended up, but genuine hope that they find the place that is the best fit for them. Because while there are plenty of young people to go around, we often get competitive about the five per cent or so that the local church is engaging with. We should all want a series of thriving youth groups in our area: what a marvellous sign of life that would be.

FOR REFLECTION…

How could you build better relationships with other youth ministries in your area?

What are the churches and youth ministries with whom you have no relationship? Why is that?

What does it mean for you to ‘prefer’ other youth leaders and groups in your area?

THE NATIONAL CHALLENGE

All of this would make a huge, tangible difference to the state, output and outcomes of youth ministry. There’s another level to all this though; alongside the work of the local church, there’s also the significant investment of funding, resources and people into parachurch organisations and institutions. How might the picture change if they (or as someone who works in one of these roles, we) adopted a new commitment to working together?

At present, there’s still a strange degree of competition and duplication in the parachurch: training institutions struggling to fill all their places; resource providers trying to convince local churches to purchase near-identical curriculum products. There are festivals and events for young people and youth workers, which seem needlessly ringfenced by a particular theology or tradition. I’m not in any way saying we don’t need to constantly innovate in youth ministry, and create new tools and training which equip the Church for work with young people, but couldn’t we all work a bit more collaboratively?

This could also be profoundly implemented at denominational level. Having spent time in a variety of church traditions, it seems to me that there’s far less separating us all than we sometimes think. There’s no reason why the heads of youth in the various movements and streams in the UK Church couldn’t get their heads together and find ways to co-operate. It would be an immensely prophetic act if they did. 

Like the avengers, we’re greater than the sum of our parts when we collaborate 

FOR REFLECTION…

What parachurch organisations do you relate to? How can you encourage them to work collaboratively with others?

What could you do to help the leaders of youth in your denomination or church stream to engage with those in other parts of the Church?

You may say I’m a dreamer, but (I hope) I’m not the only one. If we want to turn the present crisis around, then finding ways to work in partnership, carry one another’s burdens and prefer each other might just be a great place to start.

Jesus’ best for us is that we work together, rather than against each other. When he said those words in John 17, he knew that unity offered his Church the best chance of making an impact on the world, and it’s just as true today as it was then. Like the Avengers, we’re greater than the sum of our parts when we collaborate.



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