Youthwork: Something has to change

This is an article that I wrote for “Changing London” published February 2013

Something has to change!

There has rarely been a better time to engage with young people in the city than today. It is a time of opportunity, a time to hope, and a time to engage in the lives of the young, in order that we may make a difference, spiritually and socially, one life at a time. Yet, there seems to be hesitancy, even within the church, regarding people engaging with young people. You may disagree, for the number of youth workers employed by churches is impressive – yet I suspect this may be a part of the problem. Have we abdicated our responsibilities to the ‘professional’ few? And for those church members that are engaging with young people, are we doing so beyond our own walls or do we cater just for our own? There are plenty of church members who have uttered the phrase, ‘I was involved in the youth work once…’ If that is you, is it time to engage again?

In working with young people, as we all know, it would be wrong to say that there are no difficulties; our media paints a less than hopeful story of the nation’s youth, often focussing on headline stories that relate to negative behaviour; and the current time of austerity means that many statutory services which support young people are disappearing. These difficulties should not overwhelm us, however, but should spur the church into action.

Youth work essentially encompasses three things; good and trusting relationships between youth and adults, a positive peer group, and provision of opportunity. The nature of youth work, perhaps especially in an urban mission context, is not glamorous, demands much time and effort, and may feel fruitless on occasions. However, with perseverance and the willingness to be present in the lives of young people we will see that we can be effective.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that ‘every attempt to impose the gospel by force, to run after people and proselytise them, to use our own resources to arrange the salvation of other people, is both futile and dangerous.’ These words also ring true in youth work: we see that the most effective strategies demand great patience and sensitivity as we wait for the opportunities of sharing life and faith. The secret of good youth work and ministry is to have a meaningful presence, where we choose to grapple with the issues young people face (with the young people, rather than for them), over the long term. The issues will vary from borough to borough, estate to estate and even street to street, yet one thing is forever consistent: the need for sustained, positive relationships.

Projects and programmes may need ‘professionals’ to sustain them, but the need for ongoing and positive relationship is far easier to fulfil – and it is easy to begin. Who are the young people in your life? Do you listen to them? How do you engage with them? Give them some time, listen to them and journey with them.

The results may surprise you. You may discover that youth work is not work, rather an extension of your life. And you may then discover that God provides greater opportunity to work with young people. In a wider context, the Christian community is almost certainly the best placed to meet the current needs and requirements of providing good youth provision that transforms lives and communities. The opportunities are endless, the church has the resources, but to be effective… something has to change!

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