I want to start with some verses from Psalm 77. It is incredibly hard to imagine what the future might look like right now but, as practitioners, we have to do some work – even if it feels vague and subject to change. Hence these verses,
Your road led through the sea, your pathway through the mighty waters a pathway no one knew was there!
Psalm 77 : 19 (NLT)
OK, so the first thing to say about these verses is that this is hindsight. The psalmist wasn’t there, he is recalling the story that has been passed through the generations. The time when the Lord made a way where there was no way.
As I write we are approaching 3 months of “lock-down” in the UK and, although we are seeing an easing of restrictions on activity and movement, physically distanced youth work is going to be our new normal for the foreseeable future. We are going to need the Lord to make a way! The thoughts that follow are a first attempt at some thinking around the immediate future – but might turn out to have long term implications – things will not return to the way they were before Covid-19.
Living With It
This might seem obvious – but coming out of lockdown does not mean we are heading back to some kind of normality. We are heading in to a time of “living with it” and adapting everything – from travel to how we shop to whether or not we go on holiday to whether our young people are back in school.
This will be hard. Restrictions will remain in place. “Living with it” means physically distanced practice for our youth work at least until there is a vaccine for the virus. Living with it is going to have an impact on our mental health and the mental health of our young people.
I entered lockdown with the thought that – “ok, this is for a season, for a short time – we will come out the other-side and life will return to normal.” It is hard to see that happening. Regardless of local youth work challenges – for wider ministry – such as national conferences or training events I was expecting to be involved with, I just don’t see that those will be functioning as they have been until we are well in to 2021. I can’t, for example, see the National Youth Ministry Weekend happening in Birmingham this November (maybe something will happen remotely, like with Spring Harvest Home or as is being planned for New Wine this summer).
“Living With It” might shape our practice not just for now, but for the foreseeable future and it is possible we will see some signifiant shifts in what we value and what we do.
Youthwork Questions : Sometimes we need to just “sit with” the reality of something. Can you do that? You might long to get back to what was, but right now where we are is not what we have chosen – can you avoid the temptation of trying to “make stuff happen” simply to be seen to be active?
Most youth work practice has some established routine – whether that is around mid-week groups, discipleship on a Sunday, an open youth club, a football ministry – whatever. If we think on life “before”, some of those established activities have been running for years. There will be some things which, if we are honest, their time had come – we just hadn’t got round to scrapping them or scaling back. Perhaps it is a small win that we won’t need to re-start something that was on its last legs! Other activities though had life and momentum – we perhaps long to recover those.
We have to shift our perspective – It could be that from now on, nothing becomes established – we hold lightly to all activities and realign our focus on the relationships with the young people. I’m not saying we have run youth work where young people have been secondary – but, pulling together some of our activities – setting up, needing a sizeable team, flyers, publicity, budget for food and arranging everything to make it happen week by week – all of that takes time and energy. We are going to be “leaner” and we are going to need to be more flexible.
Youthwork Questions : Can we let go of established activities? Will we try to recreate those “online” or are we willing to do a new thing? Can we hold lightly to activities whilst we hold tightly the relationships – with young people and team? Are we willing to let things “be” and see what happens?
As long as I have been involved in youth ministry there seems to have been a general resistance to engaging with the home environment of young people in a way that feels just so natural if you are a children’s and families worker. Perhaps the clue is in the job title.
We compartmentalise at our peril. We might – in this season – have continued to focus mainly on the young people themselves in our zoom chats or youtube content. Yet, for the last three months, many of our young people will have rarely left home and that environment has shaped them – whether for good or for ill.
We also cannot ignore the impact of parents as youth workers – whether it is YFC Research, Children’s Society Reports or the Theos Compendium of Research Papers and Articles exploring how faith is passed on – parental influence and engagement is key. We really have to get better at engaging with the home environment.
Youthwork Questions : What is we should be doing “youth and family” ministry? What if our number one ally in seeking to disciple a generation is the parents of the teens we work with? What if we saw the home as a place to partner with?
There is a bit of thinking being done around the idea that we are in an “ice age” scenario. In fact, Andy Crouch and others have written, “Leading Beyond the Blizzard : Why Every Organisation is Now a Startup.” Here is their basic thinking ::
A Blizzard is just something you get through. This is perhaps where we were at the start of the pandemic. The church response being “we just need to get through it!”
Winter lasts for months. A blizzard might be a feature of Winter, but it is short lived – Winter on the other hand is a season. We fairly quickly realised that we were moving in to a season of social distancing and needing to adapt, not for a few weeks – but for months.
Ice Age? Seasons though, come and go – but occasionally there are cataclysmic events that shape the world and what is happening for successive seasons. This is perhaps where we find ourselves. If we have to change and adapt for a good number of months, can we – or should we – try and head back to where we were or chart fresh territory in our youth work?
We are “All Start Ups Now” has made me really think! I’m especially thinking about the work that has – in all likelihood – completely stopped. Outreach work with young people, whether through detached engagement or open youth clubs has ceased for the last three months. That can’t just be recovered – we have to start again.
In the mix, aligning with the blizzard and winter analogy, I’d like to suggest an additional word we need to consider – thaw. Spring is coming! I see this happening in a couple of ways ::
- Prayer and Seeking. One in Four tuning in to religious services – The Guardian reported on this back in early May. Read their article here : “British Public Turn To Prayer” – Maybe there is a thaw – in the midst of this crisis – in the openness and willingness of people to engage in spiritual practices – give stuff a try they have never done.
- Collaboration within the Christian World. It has been heartening to see (maybe a thaw is implying relationships were frosty, I don’t mean that . . . ) the likes of Spring Harvest and New Wine and Care for The Family and CPO have been blessing each other with mutual promotion of online events. There has been a real threat to the future survival of some Christian organisations, and to see the rallying round it gives me hope for the future in terms of strengthening of relationships, working together and support. We are one body, we are part of the same Kingdom.
Youthwork Questions : Are the young people we work with (or hope to work with) going to be more up for exploring spiritual things? Have we been holding back? Do we have a chance to do more in the future around Christian faith and our hope in Christ with those we don’t yet profess a faith? Can we explore prayer and spiritual practices with young people who who aren’t Christians? What might that look like?
It has either been a steep learning curve, or a space you already inhabited and you have just loved it – but, creating youtube videos and hosting zooms has dominated the last three months for many of us. THE challenge in that is “what about team?”
You can create content, if it is only going to be viewed online, without any team involved at all – just do it yourself and upload. Have we, during these three months, become that very thing in normal circumstance we would loathe – the “lone ranger youthworker”? It is an important question to ask!
If we have been content producers we need to shift our mindset and practice to being collaborators – drawing both youth team and young people – in to a space of working together, creating together and – especially, championing what young people are bringing. So many have been more visible because they have helped with their digital skills, shared and spoken in online services – we need to not loose that! This should not be “a season young people have helped” but, a launchpad for greater intergenerational ministry.
Youthwork Questions : Have you slipped back in to being a lone ranger? When was the last time you connected with your team? If young people have created content or been involved in online worship – how can that be amplified and developed for the future?
I want to say thanks in this section to Andy Winmill of Urban Devotion and Tim Evans of Worth Unlimited. A couple of weeks ago they held a zoom conversation with 60+ youth workers from all kinds of contexts – some faith based, some not. Christians, other faiths and those who wouldn’t want to align themselves with anything other than a mutual passion – with everyone on the zoom call – for championing young people and creating space for them to flourish. I learnt loads and it was a joy to be part of the conversation.
What we have all discovered through this is – whatever kind of work we are involved in with young people – none of us have faced this set of circumstances before. We need a community of practice to share ideas with, bounce around our crazy schemes and to find mutual support. A generous engagement with those who think differently about the place of faith will broaden our understanding. A generous engagement with those who who serve young people with specific needs will see us grow in empathy. A generous engagement with those we disagree with theologically will stretch our faith. All to the good.
Youthwork Questions : Who have you spoken with or engaged with during this time who is doing a different kind of youth work to you? Are your streams and networks too narrow? Are you listening to those you find hard and might disagree with? How could you be more generous in your engagement with other practitioners?
Mental and Emotional Health
Our young people have been on a rollercoaster of emotions. Those who have loved lockdown – because they find school a toxic environment; those who have really struggled with lockdown – because their homes are not safe or chaotic spaces.
As we move out of the restrictions and, in whatever form, schools begin to reopen we are going to see a “flip” on those emotions as some young people psych themselves up for returning and worry about what they might face and others are delighted. Up and down, happy and sad – then back again.
This might also have been our experience – trying to hold things together, not knowing if we were doing the right things, battling with loneliness or lack of support or imposter syndrome – just finding it hard to get up and “do stuff”, experiencing furlough, the looming possibility of redundancy if church finances don’t look good.
Our operating “mode” might be – “How do I care for the young people I work with in the midst of this?” However, we have to look after ourselves. A nod to my wonderful wife Lisa for this next thought – from a training video she recently watched I think.
Just as you are instructed to on an aeroplane – as an adult, you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you apply an oxygen mask to a child or young person.
We find this hard, but it is essential we practice self care. We can bring our best to the young people we work with if we look after ourselves – we might want to encourage them to talk about how they are feeling – well, we need to talk; We might want to encourage them to take time for themselves, do something they enjoy just for themselves – well, we need to do that!
Youthwork Questions : How are you doing? Who are you talking to about how you are doing? Are you exhausted but still going? You need a break.
Finally – reflective practice is going to be incredibly important. What is that – well, kind of obviously, it is taking the time to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. It should be a regular feature of youth work – but, as I talk to practitioners, there seem to be many who are unsure what it is – or, feel they are too busy to give time to it.
Let me say, it sits right up there with other practices you consider vital for effective youth work. A very simple way of going through a reflective process with your work is to ask these three questions :
Take the time to sit with those questions – what are you doing? So – what – what difference is it making? Having reflected on it – now what? What needs to change in your practice and your engagement with young people? We might have introduced activities we have never done during this time – we might have dropped long established groups and be wondering whether to pick them up again. What? So What? Now What? Will help you think this through.
From the RSA is this very useful tool for thinking how things might be in a post Covid-19 world, I’m using it in my own practice and ministry to determine what I’m doing and planning to do.
Youthwork Questions : What have you started? What have you stopped? What needs to restart? What new practice do you need to amplify?