Why do we stop all our youth work during the holidays?
We need to talk about some things. There are a few issues in youth ministry which, for reasons of awkwardness, pride or taboo, simply never get discussed. So it’s time for some radical honesty; time to talk about the things we don’t talk about. Welcome to The Elephant Room.
It’s a familiar feeling for many youth leaders: that rush of excitement you feel when you realise next week is half term. You’ve been caught on a treadmill of planning and delivering sessions for young people over the last six or seven weeks, you’ve exhausted every game you can think of and your ability to deliver incisive theological bombshells from your weekly studies on the book of Amos is faltering. You need a rest; you deserve one.
Your young people – and all the other teenagers in your community – are enjoying the same feeling of elation at the same time. No school for a week: a chance to sleep in, play video games for even longer than usual and completely take over coffee shops normally populated by mums with small children and small-time writers (seriously kids, one drink between 12 of you does not mean you can take over my favourite couch for three hours). Yet despite filling their time (and my coffee shop), they actually enjoy something during school holidays that is often so elusive: free time. They’re available for stuff – not caught in an endless sequence of school, homework and sports clubs.
So we have a problem emerging: young people are free, and despite the examples above, often at a loose end. At the same time, youth workers are claiming a well-earned break. Perhaps this isn’t so problematic during half-term, after all, it gives a helpful rhythm of rest for those involved in the youth work, not least the volunteers. But what about during the longer holidays, in particular the summer? Should youth work effectively shut down just at the point when young people have more time, and more need for our provision?
Do we stop our youth work just when young people need us most?
There are obviously a few things going on in the historic trend to shut down (and I recognise at this point that there are many exceptions). There’s the practical problem of holding group dynamics together when young people are constantly disappearing on holidays or to visit family. Then there’s the fact that your group may go on an annual trip together to a summer festival such as Newday, which feels like a major undertaking. As a youth worker, you might also reasonably want to take a two-week summer holiday of your own. And perhaps greater than all these, there’s the fact that this idea is so ingrained in Church youth work culture, it felt like a perk that you agreed to when you took the decision to enter youth ministry.
And yet the holidays are often exactly when young people can need us most. Institutionalised for 39 weeks a year, they’re often not as well-equipped for totally free-time as we might imagine, especially those from less wealthy families who simply don’t have £30 to blow on a casual trip to the cinema and Pizza Hut. For some young people, being asked to spend six weeks at ‘home’ makes little sense as they don’t enjoy any kind of stable home life. Some retreat to their bedrooms for weeks on end while others hang out on the streets, not out of a desire to become some sort of public menace, but because they’ve literally got nowhere else to go.
Christian youth work must have something for these young people in their moment of need, and not simply look the other way because, ‘summer’s a bit busy what with Soul Survivor and everything’. If these are the teenagers with whom we already work, then shutting down for the summer only makes us complicit in their loneliness and isolation. And if these young people are on our doorstep, then the holidays provide a fantastic opportunity for us to reach and serve them.
A friend of mine set up a quite incredible charity which spotted the gaps in provision for children and young people during the school holidays. She realised that for thousands of children who qualified under the (now revised) free school meals system, no-one was around to give them their free cooked meal outside of term-time. Thanks to that insight, MakeLunch have now served over 32,000 meals from church kitchens to children right across the UK.
In fact, you could argue that youth work should be more active over the holidays than in term time. It’s when young people are around, and when many of them have practical needs which the Church is set up to address. There are spiritual needs too; I remember as a teenager the crashing low that came after the summer festival high and how when we restarted youth group again three weeks later, the fire that had been lit in me had almost gone cold.
I am not advocating a removal of rest in youth ministry. We all work hard, we all need time to recharge, and even our groups can benefit from a refreshing break. But let’s look at the bigger picture: if we’re really here to serve the young people of our churches and communities, then maybe our current approach needs rethinking. Special programmes, perhaps with their own separate staff of volunteers, could be one solution; instituting a more informal but still-present approach over the summer could be another. I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s time we were brave enough to ask the question: do we stop our youth work just when young people need us most?