Walls To Dust: Learning from the edge
Pioneer youth workers Richard Passmore and Lori Passmore reflect on lessons learnt from working on the margins with young people, and more recently through the Streetspace community of practice
As someone working on the margins with young people, I’ve read countless articles about the weakness of our current approaches to youth ministry with interest. But I want to share some of what God has been doing on the fringes and apply this shift in how we work with young people. That is not to say that there isn’t a place for church-based youth ministry, but it should be seen as the sociologically narrow way of working that it is; its place is for those young people already within the Church culture who want to grow and be nurtured in the Christian faith and reach out to their friends. This ‘inside-out’ approach can work well with this niche group, but it will only ever reach the minority.
We know that our post-Christian culture can’t rely on enticing young people ‘in’ anymore. While this ‘outside-in’ approach also has a place, we have to recognise that these are church-centred approaches to mission in a time when the Church no longer holds a central place culturally or sociologically. Even our ecclesiology is probably more rooted in a Western empire construct than a Christ-centred ‘shalom’ way of being. Nor is it about simply creating an alternative structure. We need to discover a new way of being Christian, one that is not only inclusive, but fluid, one that doesn’t necessary tick the boxes of what we think of as ‘church’. We need to open our minds to a new way of being which has the capacity to not only change those young people around us, but also ourselves and the very nature of what it means to be faithful. Youth ministry, like so many other aspects of how we have thought about and practised church, has ended up creating barriers to people discovering faith, who they are in God and the real fullness of life that Jesus came to usher in. It is time to call these walls, walls that separate us from the community and see us as ‘other’, to dust. The lessons we have learnt from the edge mean that it is also time to call the walls of youth ministry to dust.
I BELIEVE IN BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Jesus’ death on the cross broke the wall between God and us, between heaven and Earth, between us and young people. Jesus broke down the barriers; wherever he went he called the walls to dust. The Church loves building walls and these get in the way of what Jesus is doing on the street. Jesus breaks down the walls between Christian and non-Christian, kingdom and Church, sacred and secular; we journey together with all the young people we encounter and we call the walls to dust.
My passion is to see young people have the space to explore who Jesus is, and not let the institution get in the way of what God is doing in the community. The work StreetSpace does is about people, place and relationship, and when you hold these three in the right balance you create a space where all sorts of things happen. (StreetSpace is a project of Frontier Youth Trust, focusing on innovative youth work rooted in local communities.) On that note…
I BELIEVE IN COMMUNITY NOT ORGANISATION
StreetSpace chose to live ‘shalom’ values as a community of practice. Organisations need structures; communities need relationships. Although we saw things differently in StreetSpace, our sense of purpose and community meant we could cope with diversity and different points of view. As Michael Curry, the Episcopalian Church Primate brilliantly preached: ‘Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all … The words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.’ In StreetSpace we learnt to call the walls of exclusivity to dust and remember that Jesus’ arms are thrown wide open to all.
I BELIEVE IN WALKING ALONGSIDE YOUNG PEOPLE TO GROW COMMUNITY
This by its nature is a spiritual discipline that calls the walls of prayer and worship times to dust. We need to adopt an ‘outside-out’ way of working: a symbiotic relationship with others that sees something new, and perhaps unexpected, grow. This is community building as a spiritual discipline. This is not radical, or edgy; this is putting one foot in front of the other, this is about being intentional in our relationship with others and growing community together. You could say this is ‘humble mission’, a way of ‘being’ rather than ‘leading’. It moves us beyond the restrictive paradigm of power that seeks control. It is the church of the unexpected, a church full of new and radical ideas. It is a church in which we can ask questions, push boundaries and explore together. It is a church beyond our imagining, a church of surprise and wonder and endless possibilities.
I BELIEVE IN PUTTING ONE FOOT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER WITHOUT NECESSARILY KNOWING WHERE THE JOURNEY WILL TAKE ME
We learnt what Rowan Williams meant when he said, ‘Church starts where Jesus is with others.’ This community approach renders obsolete our questions of ‘at what point do they become a Christian?’ and ‘when does this become Church?’ This is a lived experience, a church that’s with the people, not for the people. It connects to the organic communal nature of church that finds the answers in what we have forgotten. It rewrites its own creeds in response to what God is doing in the community, rediscovering that our orthodoxy should stem from the everyday lived experience of being the presence of God in the world, not from ivory or ecclesiastical towers.
I BELIEVE THERE WILL ALWAYS BE THOSE ON THE EDGE THAT WE NEED TO BE IN COMMUNITY WITH
To call the walls to dust we need to recognise the role that power plays. The streets are a contested space. The council and local government like to own the positive change stories. The institutional church likes to own the good news stories, but we refuse to sell out the lived experience of young people to earn a supposed place at these tables. We could tell stories of young people in hurt or pain and this might mean a bit more funding or the opportunity to speak in a particular place, but if we are really community, we cannot play by those rules and so instead we call these walls to dust.
I BELIEVE IN GETTING OUT OF THE WAY
There came a point in the journey when I felt that I should step away from StreetSpace in order to let others continue it into the next phase. It is not easy to move away from something you have poured your life into, nurtured and grown from a small seed of an idea into something that touched the lives of thousands of young people. There was some sacrifice on my part, but that wasn’t my motivation. I knew that for StreetSpace to develop it needed me to step away from it. I was also following a calling of my own to go north, and ‘put one foot in front of the other’ in a new frontier.
I BELIEVE THAT IF I’M CALLED A HERETIC, THEN A HERETIC I SHALL BE
Part of the journey has been about learning to embrace the inner heretic: the questioner, the doubter. Without this, how can we shape our spiritual selves or challenge the structures of the establishment? One group of young people I was with asked, ‘what if God is not the king at the wedding feast (Matthew 22) but is instead the guest who is not wearing the right clothes and is thrown “outside into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”?’ Shouldn’t we stand with the uninvited? The strugglers and stragglers? The undesirables? Should we not walk with them from darkness into light? This is potentially an enlightening reinterpretation of the parable and many academics I have discussed it with think it has some legs. We need to recognise that much of our current orthodoxy was only a while ago labelled heresy. As Phillip Jenkins said in Jesus Wars, ‘A religion that is not constantly spawning alternatives and heresies has ceased to think and has achieved only the peace of the grave.’
I BELIEVE THE GOD WE KNOW CANNOT BE GOD
The challenge is to find God with the community we serve. The mystics knew this truth but we have lost this through our predilection to the modernist mindset and our need to have things neatly packaged and tied up with a bow. God is always more, always calls us beyond, and the still small voice calls us to rediscover the mystery of Christ and what it means to be human. Young people on the edge always surprised me with their deep insight into the human condition and to not take notice of this was to ignore what God was doing in the community in ways that I could not even begin to imagine.
Jesus breaks down the walls between Christian and non-Christian, kingdom and church, sacred and secular
I BELIEVE WE STILL HAVE A LONG WAY TO TRAVEL
In my new role as Fresh Expressions enabler in Cumbria the local bishop said we must ‘have the courage to take risks’, but risk is a relative term. My definition of risk and his will differ. The desire for safety and control has too often meant that what is being pioneered on the streets and in the community is sanitised and lost as it is sought to be understood and communicated to others. What we discovered through StreetSpace is best described as an emerging church context. Too easily the gravitational pull of the old paradigm kicks in and people think ‘we have arrived’. Emerging is a verb; it implies we are still on the journey. To label something too quickly is to deny the mystery of God that is active and ongoing. We need artists and poets to meet with academics, practitioners and young people to find new ways to communicate what God is doing, without losing mystery of the enterprise along the way.
A couple of years ago I encountered Martin Daws, the Welsh young people’s poet laureate, at a conference and it is thanks to him that I discovered the statement ‘walls to dust’. It created a language, a call, a way of viewing the world that helped me understand what God was doing in my life and in the community over the last 20 years or so. The ‘I believe’ statements only make sense in the light of this lived experience, and I’m sure this article cannot do justice to the wonderful adventure we have been on.
As I reflect on what I have learnt from young people and my fellow travellers in StreetSpace I feel I must try and share some of the story that gives these statements their validity: to ask a young person what it felt like when he was skateboarding and hear his response that cut through the difficulties he was facing (‘you just forget all the **** of life, and flow’) helped me really understand God was already present in the community, but going by a different name. Journeying with him and his community to explore worship as a series of movements more attuned to tai chi that we ended up calling tai-flow, helped me recognise the walls of worship the Church puts up needed to be called to dust. Seeing a young person throwing naan bread across a room in one of our curry church gatherings helped me recognise that even the sacramental walls of communion needed to be called to dust and reframed in an open, inclusive space. Pulling off a community gathering for over five hundred people led by young people who lived chaotic, momentby- moment, lives taught me God can work with the chaos, and beyond the chaos to create a thin place where heaven and Earth nearly touched. It taught me to call the walls between the Church and the community to dust; that if we want to effectively engage young people and our community we must move our narrow concepts of youth work and youth ministry, call these dust, and journey beyond.
Richard Passmore is the Fresh Expressions enabler in Cumbria.
Lori Passmore is a freelance writer.