Round table: The next generation

Throughout this issue we have heard from some legendary youth work veterans but we also want to listen to the youth workers of the future. So, we gathered six young leaders and picked their collective brains about where they thing youth ministry is heading…

Bethan Ellison (BE)

Youth pastor, St Stephen’s Twickenham

Julian Powell (JP)

Youth minister, St John’s Hoxton

Naomi Aidoo (NA)

Director of interns’ Holy Trinity Hounslow

James (JA): 18

Rebecca (R): 16

Jonty (J): 18

Ruth Jackson (RJ)

Deputy editor, Premier Youthwork

RJ: What do you think are some of the big needs of young people today?

JA: We need a lot of attention all the time!

J: I’d say security. There’s a lot of insecurity especially among people younger than me. Digitisation increases that.

R: I feel like there could be less emphasis on the internet. Everyone’s focused on ‘young people like the internet’.

JA: We need more real interaction rather than text messages, Facebook and FaceTime.

JP: I’d say it’s relationships. Working in schools, especially in exclusion units, you often see that mentoring schemes work really well. It’s their time to talk about what’s going on. Often youth clubs or churches are their safe haven. When they get home that’s where the war happens. It’s not just about relationships with the young people but with their families as well.

RJ: Would you like to have seen anything done differently in your youth ministry growing up?

BE: Often in youth ministry, it’s the worship leaders who are encouraged to lead. I wish we would give young people more opportunities in all areas of leadership.

JP: Jonty and I are big introverts. Often youth work is focused on the extroverts, bringing them out as leaders and the introverts aren’t really encouraged. We need to understand our young people and where they’re coming from. We need to bring out the gold within them so that they can shine in their own comfort zone even if they’re not the loudest voice in the room.

NA: I think it’s important that we have space to be authentic: not glossing over things but creating a real space where vulnerability is welcome. That will happen more easily when people are comfortable and can relate to each other and open up. It’s about a journey, not just coming together once or twice a week. We’re living life alongside one another: how can we help each other? Vulnerability and authenticity are important.

R: Before our youth group started last year we had an old man who was great, but he treated us like we were four! He wouldn’t go deeply into anything as he thought we couldn’t comprehend things. He’d just give us orange squash and something to colour in! I think it’s important to have leaders who understand that we’re young, we’re not stupid!

BE: When I was in youth group the lady who ran my small group was in her 60s. She’d have five girls over every Monday for dinner and we’d do Bible study. She wasn’t ashamed of being 60 and didn’t try to be cool. She would listen to us and we knew she wasn’t going to judge us. We’ve got leaders ranging from 18-60 in our group now and I love it. I think if you have leaders just in their 20s you don’t have as much depth, whereas people in their 60s bring a lot of life experience.

JP: It’s like that the African proverb, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ Sometimes we lose that because we want it to be fun, active and young but it’s also important to have the older generation who you can go to for support.

JA: Next term in our youth work I’ll be back as a leader rather than a young person. I’ll be the person who is going to listen and hopefully pass on my experiences of life. There shouldn’t be an age cap on how old a youth leader should be, but keeping up with the people who are just leaving and getting them involved is so important because they’ve just been through it all and can give a heads up on what’s just around the corner.

JP: It’s good to take things from the past and bring them into our culture now but you also need to know what’s around you. There will be times when you don’t know things and you’ll need to learn from the young people. It’s important to be able to adapt.

NA: I think one thing that can be done better is youth visibility in the whole church, especially in bigger churches. The bigger the youth ministry gets, the more inclined you can be to separate it out into a different place.

RJ: Could our youth ministries be doing more to reach out to our non-Christian friends?

J: Recently I’ve got more involved in inviting friends to things. I find home groups easier to invite friends to rather than into the church building. It’s quite intimidating for them, they feel vulnerable. I think there needs to be a lot less emphasis on transforming lives initially and just encourage them to get involved with no strings attached.

JA: As an 18-year-old it’s quite hard to just go up to your mates and start talking about Jesus. It’s about security. We all find our security in Jesus rather than finding it in these other things – alcohol, drug abuse, short term relationships – and through speaking about that, questions get asked about God. You need to show it first.

JP: Youth workers need to have a time when they open up and are vulnerable with young people – especially those who are unchurched. One of the key things in youth work is just being there to listen.

RJ: When you think of some of the people who had a big impact on you growing up, what was it about them that made such a difference?

BE: The main thing is what Julian just said about listening. Also people who threw me in the deep end and got me to do things I wouldn’t normally want to do They’d push me but I knew that they’d always be there to help me out.

NA: I’d say it was knowing that I was loved. There’s that saying, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ The people that had the most impact on me were those that had unconditional love for me and demonstrated Christ-like love.

JP: When I was much younger I got a girl pregnant. My dad was the bishop of a church and I’ll never forget his words to me, ‘Son, you might have failed but you’re not a failure.’ I want to have that statement in my life and the life of every young person that I meet.

RJ: What were the key things when you were growing up that helped you in your faith?

BE: When I was 16, a lady started mentoring me and she was on fire for Jesus. I’d never  met anyone like that before and I wanted to be like that. I think the turning point for me was seeing someone who genuinely believed in Jesus and lived their life for him. When someone has a genuine love for Jesus, that’s inspiring: that’s what I want to be.

J: There were loads of events I used to go to and festivals that I found quite interesting. I was the only one in my age bracket for most of my church time which was tricky so festivals helped with that. Also, being understood as my own person, and that I had something to add to the church and I had a role to play. Worship leading was the way in for that for me.

RJ: Mal Fletcher has identified globalisation, automation and digitalisation as three defining elements of the future of youth culture. Do you think there’s anything missing in his analysis?

JA: Pressure. There’s pressure to conform all the time. It happens everywhere: how you dress, who you hang out with, what you’re doing, sexual relationships – if you’re not doing it why?

BE: For Christian teenagers, the culture is going so far away from what Christian lives are… 

JA: I feel like the pressure is around you all the time. You walk outside and there’s a bus stop with an advert with a girl in a bikini. ..

NA: That pressure to conform is literally in your face as soon as you wake up. You open up Instagram and automatically you’ve got someone doing something and you wonder if you should be doing it too. There’s this constant sense of comparison.

JP: When I was on Instagram I saw an app to buy followers. People think ‘the more followers I have, the more I am valued’. It’s a very sad world we live in where you have to buy followers to feel valued. In our country, especially in our education system, we’re not given the ocean in terms of the amount of opportunities that we should have. We’re given a paddling pool and if you don’t fit in that, there’s something wrong with you.

R: Mal Fletcher’s article says that we should meet young people using technology but maybe we should be trying to get them not to use technology! We went on a youth trip to Devon and there was no internet – for the first ten minutes everyone was panicking but after that it was great! By the end, phones weren’t important and it strengthened our faith a lot more. Also, in loads of churches there are no Bibles because everyone is using their phones. We’re losing culture because we’re trying to be more digital.

JA: I feel smart phones hinder us more than they help us. We waste so much time scrolling through Instagram, Twitter and people’s needless snapchat stories; if we just used phones to call each other and arrange a meeting point I think that people would have more authentic experiences rather than virtual ones all the time.

JP: I went to a youth event and as soon as we entered the building the young people got their phones out. It’s that block to interacting with each other. But it goes back to what your learning style is. I’m a very visual learner and I can go on YouTube and see so many videos that can have a great influence on me. But, if I listen to someone for 20 minutes it can go completely over my head. I think it’s about understanding and pulling out what’s good about the digital world and understanding how young people learn best.

RJ: Was there anything else in the Mal Fletcher article that stood out for you?

J: I think there was a lack of focus on mental health. I think that’s a huge issue.

JA: There’s been a massive rise in the number of mental health issues. Is that borne out of the new pressures that have arisen, and screen time and people feeling lonely because their relationships and interactions aren’t real? Most of the things we’re doing are reactive to what people’s experiences are, which is a lot more costly than justgetting to the diagnosis and how you can stop it.

JP: I think mental health and depression is one of the world’s biggest silent killers. We need to have these conversations with our young people and in our churches.

NA: I think it probably has got worse but it’s also more vocalised; because of the internet and technology it’s more visible. People are speaking about it more now but not in a way that allows them that authenticity. In order to actually relate to and get alongside someone you need to be in their space. It needs to be a conversation. Technology can be used for good but it can also be really damaging and harmful, especially in the area of mental health because comparison is a massive joy-stealer. Youth leaders need to get alongside young people and pray with them. Praying over Skype is not the same as actually praying next to someone. It removes a dimension.

BE: I’ve noticed that some people who struggle with mental health issues won’t talk about it in real life but they’ll post a picture of their self-harm on Instagram and that really scares me. They’ll open themselves up to thousands of people on the internet but they won’t talk to anyone in real life. They’re locked up in real life but open online.

JP: With the internet you can use it as a platform to make you feel as if you’re worth something. By hiding behind someone you feel important.

R: Having a profile is a way to sell yourself and obviously you’re going to want to make yourself seem better. Before profiles people would talk a lot more and there was less pressure to be like everyone else.

NA: The internet has got masses of influence, but equally it’s not a deep influence. It’s still the people they’re around who influence young people and sway them in terms of influence and ambition.

RJ: What do you think youth work will look like in the next 25 years?

JA: I think we’re on the right track. We’ve come away from this stigma or religion and are moving towards prioritising a personal relationship with God.

J: I think we’re at a point where we have to make some big decisions about the way we do youth ministry. We’ve called our evening service Sanctuary because it needs to be a completely different space from the outside world. It’s empathetic to society and approachable but it’s also a distinctive atmosphere that’s not swayed by culture. It makes its own decision. There are issues like mental health that we need to champion. We should be proactive in tackling those issues. I think if you’re filled with the Holy Spirit you can’t really go wrong. I think we need to have a lot more faith in walking without fear of people being offended.

R: I know that this is already starting to change but I think we need to start talking about more real issues. My friend comes to our youth group and is transgender but the group haven’t talked about it at all. I think she feels quite uncomfortable that the youth leaders haven’t mentioned it. Some people still call her by her old name and she feels really uncomfortable with that.

JA: We need to pursue being in the presence of God. Learning is really important but I think there needs to be more space to respond. Understanding and having conversations to find out yourself is important.

JP: For me it’s going to be a place that’s radically known for encountering Jesus all the time. It’s about encountering Jesus and his grace and that can only happen through relationships. I look at how Jesus was in different places and he never changed. It’s by his Spirit that we’re transformed and changed. We can go into a place and the atmosphere changes because of what’s living inside us. Once you know your identity in Christ, it will affect everyone. In the 2011 riots, young people from different gangs and groups and postcodes were united by one purpose: to cause havoc. People can unite under one cause and this generation needs to know the power of Jesus and his love. It can change the world.

NA: I think it’s headed in a direction that is more authentic. The generation coming up can see through all of the smoke and mirrors. Things don’t have to be really cool.

BE: We want to be more outward-focused. We’ve done a lot work inside the walls of the church; now we want to empower people to talk to their friends about Jesus.

JA: The job of the youth team is to lay the foundations for what God is going to do and then nurture that as soon as it happens.

JP: What I love about youth work is that my youth workers did their job - they planted a seed. They didn’t push God down my throat. They sowed a seed and prayed and I’m benefitting from the fruit of that now. I love that we are a body around this room. We have different issues in all areas but we have the solution to that and it’s Jesus and there’s nothing greater than that. That’s why it’s going to be powerful. We all come from Jesus himself, a guy who was raised from the dead. It blows my mind.

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