Article: Making room at the table: A response to Clyne’s ‘Uncovering Youth Ministry’s Professional Narrative’ in Y&P 2015

Author: Andy Du Feu | Tags: , , , ,

In this article, Andy Du Feu responds to and builds on Allan Clyne's article 'Uncovering Youth Ministry's Professional Narrative', published in issue 115 of Youth and Policy in 2015. Du Feu argues that, despite an ongoing separation between youth ministry and youth work, Christian youth work draws on many of the principles of wider youth work. Whilst acknowledging that Christian youth ministry is distinctive from wider youth work, he argues for the sectors to come together in dialogue around their shared values without denying their distinctiveness.

Clyne’s analysis of the embedded narratives within youth ministry, published in issue 115 of Youth and Policy, was both timely and acute. Timely, because of the position much Christian work with young people found itself in following the decimation of youth work delivered by statutory services, decoupled as it has been from the solid moorings of the DfE (see the excellent analysis by Tony Jeffs in ‘Innovation and Youth Work’, Y&P 114, 2015), and acute for its brutal assessment of the subtexts within youth ministry literature, which he suggests lack ‘academic rigour’ (Clyne, 2015: 35).

Clyne’s article suggests that a narrow-minded view of young people is promulgated by youth ministry writers obsessed with theories of adolescent psychology, generationalism, youth culture and postmodernism – much of which has been challenged as tenuous or dated (2015: 30-31). Here, I will be offering a challenge to go further in articulating the youth ministry narrative, particularly within the UK context where a relationship with youth work already exists both in literature and in practice. I also assert that space should be created for genuine dialogue between the disciplines, youth ministry and the wider youth work sector, allowing for a conscious use of self by those involved in the conversation, being free to own and explore the impact of their convictions.

Clyne works hard to distinguish two dominant, and often separate, narratives that exist within Christian youth work/ministry – which incidentally are supported by a quick glance at my own bookshelves! Both Christian youth work and youth ministry can be classed as work with young people. The clear difference, however, is that Christian youth work has a relationship with youth work theory, histories and professionalism, however explicit or not that is. Youth ministry literature, particularly from the US, makes little or no attempt to engage with professional approaches to youth work, and a professional framework does not exist. The conversations focus more on the idea of a ministerial vocation, or calling. In the UK, Brierley (2003) mapped the four values established by the Second Ministerial Conference for the Youth Service in 1991, (namely informal education, equality of opportunity, voluntary participation, and empowerment) with Biblical concepts, in a genuine attempt to reconcile the relationship, positing that ‘the life and work of Christ Jesus makes them biblically justified’ (2003: 135). His notion of Christian youth work and ministry tried to satisfy all parties, with Jolly (2015: 25) summing up his position:

that Christian youth ministry should be seen as a specialism within wider youth work practice and where faith based work adopts general youth work principles it should not be in conflict, even if there is a focus on evangelism.

The primary weaknesses of this approach is downplaying the theological concepts that would be at odds with the correlation (Caldwell, 2014: 2,6). It largely ignores the weight of US literature shaping the youth ministry discourse (Pahl, 2000) where young people are referred to as ‘kids’, and a concept not unique to the Christian faith, ‘incarnation’, is framed as the ‘Christian’ distinctive. Incarnation translates as ‘God made flesh’ and refers to the belief that his followers embody his spirit in their interactions with others.

Youth work and the church

In 2013, Mark Smith sounded the death knell for the term, ‘youth work’, attributing both its historic growth and recent demise to the status of the statutory Youth Service. He checked its pulse again at the 2015 celebration of ‘100 years of youth and community work education’ at YMCA George Williams College, confirming, in short, that youth work as we know it, is dead. The stats back this up, with Unison (2016) recording that between 2012 and 2016, some 3,652 youth work jobs were cut, and 603 centres closed, including, with a real sense of personal sadness, one that I sat on the management group of.

Jon Ord, who was on the event panel at the same conference, later responded to an In Defence of Youth Work campaign blog to say that ‘to assume [the youth service and youth work] are one and the same is simply wrong’ (cf. Taylor, 2015). Arguably, the largest example of such is ‘youth work’ in the UK church, which is still standing, even flourishing, free from the twin towers of professionalization and a reliance of state funding (Jeffs and Smith, 2010). The ‘on the ground’ reality in churches is that the terms ‘work’ and ‘ministry’ are used interchangeably, as are the job titles. Yet, they each suggest differences in purpose, remit and understanding of the particular role.

These different understandings of work with young people in the church can include a resistance to ‘secular’ youth work values and frameworks. Back in 2006, Campbell reflected on the direction of travel and asked, ‘ultimately, is the professionalization of youth work going to be good for the gospel?’ (Campbell, 2006: 12). First, the National Occupational Standards provide a robust framework for rigorous and safe practice. Secondly, for all of the concerns voiced about ‘statutory requirements [taking] precedence over theological rigour’ (ibid.: 13), most Christian training institutions validate ‘contextualised programmes’ which are framed ‘in line with the context of their underlying philosophical faith base or pedagogy’ (NYA, 2015: 6). This allows for the faith commitment, and even, dare I say it in light of Clyne’s reading, a recognition of the value of some youth ministry literature, in forming professional youth workers who ‘profess’ faith. In practice, at my Christian institution, as I am sure is true at others, this means some sparky discussions as students wrestle with the relationship between faith commitments and youth work theory.

Some of the tensions for church-based youth work that emerge from such discussions and that will be explored below include:

  1. Conceptualisations of the church (such as a body, a family, the bride of Christ, etc.)
  2. The complex relationships between youth workers and parents (whether part of the church or not)
  3. A commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ

1. Conceptualisations of the church

While there are over fifty images of the church in the Bible, some are more problematic for youth work than others. I can only cover one such image here for sake of brevity. It is true that much work within churches is age-specific and appears to focus on young people (Jeffs and Smith, 2008: 277-279). However, the ultimate goal is realising the theological purpose, namely:

to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:15-16)

This view of the rationale of youth ministry is supported by Thomson (2007: 224-5). A church-based youth worker may well deliver open access youth work and support young people, and meet many of the fundamental elements of youth work, but they are ultimately employed to build the church. Their primary client may not be the young person in front of them, but the vision of the church, the pastor, or even Christ, who said, ‘whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me’ (Matthew 25:40). I set an assignment question in 2016 asking students to reflect on Sercombe’s assertion of the primacy of the young person, which:

places youth work in radical distinction to most other forms of engagement with young people [which] is not primarily concerned with what the young person wants to happen, but with sorting out a situation or alleviating problems or discomforts that young people might cause others (Sercombe 2010:26).

The better papers wrestled honestly with the tensions, both theoretically and as experienced in their practice, with some concluding that, while their work is not based on a deficit, problem-solving model as Sercombe warns away from, the greater primacy was the church that they served.

2. The complex relationships with parents

In my previous role as an outreach worker for a local authority, I met young people on their turf. When running open access groups, the majority of young people turned up unaccompanied, and left in small groups, hoods up. But in many church contexts, the parents are far more visible, and potentially key stakeholders. They may have implicit or explicit influence over the employment of the youth worker, or demand to know what is going on in the life of their child. The voluntary nature of the relationship, for some the defining characteristic of youth work (Davies, 2005; Jeffs and Smith, 1999), between youth worker and young person is under pressure, with attendance at youth work provision sometimes a family requirement. US youth ministry literature expends plenty of ink on ‘partnering with parents’ (Cannister, 2013: 180), with one line of thought being ‘family-based youth ministry’ (Devries, 2004), and another ‘family integrative ministry’ where the role of youth worker or minister is redundant, as faith formation (one of the primary goals of youth ministry) is: ‘not a job for specialists. It’s a job for parents’ (Barna, 2007: 12). Where parents are not Christians, ‘the church family becomes a “surrogate family” for students’ (Cole and Nielson, 2016: 99).

Work with parents is conspicuous for its absence in wider youth work literature. My colleague, Colin Bennett, tells me that when he trained at Westhill thirty years ago, some time after its shift from Christian to secular training, ‘parents were seen at best as an irrelevance and at worst “the enemy”!’  (Bennett, 2014: 215). This is one area where dialogue could open up between the disciplines that could potentially strengthen all of our work with young people.

A concern shared by many practitioners in Christian youth work or ministry is the sometimes true, but often unfair, accusation of being ‘indoctrinators and brain washers’ (Pugh, 1999: 12-13). Christian workers typically know that ‘shutting down open discussion provokes young people [and parents] to think more negatively about Christianity’ (Jolly, 2013: 28). When I have run sessions that have helped young people explore faith, I have always stressed that ‘our word should not be taken as gospel’ (pun intended), and young people should ask critically, explore widely and hold ideas lightly. One fifteen-year-old young woman returned home from a faith-based group I facilitated to a barrage of anti-church rhetoric from her family, only to burst their bubble by repeating my mantra above. This mantra has not only saved my bacon from angry parents, but more importantly, emphasises the voluntary and exploratory nature of youth work.

3. A commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Richards states that:

there is a priori set of criteria that the concept of  ‘Christian youth work’ must satisfy: those of Christian theology itself… to be authentically Christian, it must stand in some relation to the unique person of Christ. (Richards, 1999: 5).

Hence, we have contextualised training courses for Christian youth work, such as that in my own institution. Brierley (2003) is not alone in recognising the many informal educative tools employed by Jesus, using story-telling, metaphor, questioning, and conversation in ways that broke social convention and oppressive norms (see John 4:7-9 as an example), to bring change. That said, to operate solely on these concepts is to narrow the frequency in a potentially deceptive manner. The Christian faith ‘is an absolute claim and informal education is committed to relativism’ (Caldwell, 2014: 6). Any reflection on the Christian faith and underpinning values of youth work must wrestle with the difficult edges, not simply accept the comfortable middle ground.

In his Youth and Policy article, Clyne rightly critiques Pete Ward’s influential work on youth ministry in the late 1990s for ethical concerns around the conception of relational ministry where proselyting intentions may not be disclosed at the outset of the relationship (Ward would unlikely say the same today). Similarly, Clyne exposes US-based Andy Root’s concluding material in his 2007 breakthrough title, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, as being based on a Hollywood film script that actually displays violence on part of the counsellor working with a young client! However, he could go much further in critiquing the commitment to ‘incarnation’ and the notion of ‘being with’ (Ward, 1997: 13; Root, 2009: 113). Bright contends that ‘”being there” is the theological outworking of being like Jesus’ (Bright, 2015: 151) but this falls into a trap he accuses others of, that of theological thinness (ibid.: 150). The problem is that Jesus did not come to ‘be with us’. For Christians trusting his words in the Bible, he came to ‘seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10, cf. 1 Timothy 1:15).

In closing

Clyne was right to push back against the rampant adolescent pop-psychology, and the notions of post-modernity and generationalism, in youth ministry texts. They objectify and belittle young people, often offering a one-size-fits-all answer to fixing the ‘problems’ of the youth, viewed through a lens of deficit. In some senses, without a compelling framework for professionalism, youth ministry is a sitting duck, and it is easy to take shots at it. I want to suggest, as Naomi Stanton did so eloquently at the IDYW conference in 2015, that ‘We need to be thinking a bit more about the relationship between the sectors (statutory, voluntary and faith-based) because that relationship historically just has not been there’. Faith-based youth work has had increasing space in wider youth work theory over the past few years. My encouragement is for this dialogue to be mutual and multi-directional, and, rather than reject wholesale the narratives within youth ministry, thus contributing to silos of work with young people, the wider sector welcomes us to the conversation.

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Last Updated: 5 November 2018


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Andy Du Feu is Director of Youth and Community Work, and Acting Vice-Principal (Academic) at Moorlands College. He has done youth work for over 20 years with experience on three continents, and in the three sectors: statutory, voluntary and faith.