Confessions of an accidental youth worker

Today I spoke at the Mend The Gap event in Oxford Diocese. This is (roughly) what I said:

Making it up as we go along: confessions of an accidental youth worker

No resources, no youth worker, and almost no young people…

How a handful of children built a community and changed a church (and how one adult tried not to get in their way).

I am not a youth worker. I am a children’s worker. But I work for a church which doesn’t have a youth worker and so as ‘my’ children have grown up, I’ve had to grow up with them.

Two and a half years ago I had a group of children who were falling out of the top end of our existing children’s work, and in danger of disengaging from church altogether. I needed to do something with them, but I didn’t know what. So I got together the young people in years 6,7 and 8, half a dozen or so of them, asked them what they wanted to do, and together we formed a group called Encounter.

And I didn’t know what I was doing. Which turned out to be such a blessing, because it meant we went into this not as the leader and those who are led, but as fellow pilgrims. I made a lot of mistakes (and I still do). But there were two things that made that group work, in spite of me.

One was a bible verse, Matthew 18.20: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus says. Well, to start with that’s all we had: two or three (sometimes literally) and a conviction that Jesus would be with us.

The other thing that made Encounter work was the young people. In particular, their willingness to tell me and show me what they wanted, their confidence to correct me, and their humility to do so gently (most of the time). And so I discovered the most surprising things:

They didn’t want youtube clips.

They didn’t want anything that looked anything like any sort of activity sheet.

They didn’t want computer games.

They did want time to just hang out with each other, and their favourite way of doing this is over the battered old board games we found in the cupboard (which they think are retro).

They want to discuss things, but rarely the things I think they’ll want to discuss. And we all learn more when they listen to each other rather than to me.

They love silence. They want the time and the space to get to know God and get to know themselves. They need tools to do that, sure, and we’ve enjoyed exploring different ways of praying, in fact that’s been central to the life of the group. But what they most crave is time, space and silence, which isn’t filled with activities.

And so Encounter has grown. Not particularly in numbers – we currently have 11 members – but in faith and in our relationships with each other and with God.  We’ve all grown, and it’s been extraordinary.

After a while, I realised we had something amazing going on here: a spiritual maturity and commitment to prayer which, quite frankly, I wasn’t seeing anything like as powerfully anywhere else in the church. So, gradually, we started to look for ways that Encounter could serve the church by sharing something of that with people of all ages.

So far they have:

  • led the Christingle service
  • created interactive stations of the cross, which were in church through Holy Week.
  • preached
  • planned and led All Age worship
  • created prayer stations throughout the year for the whole church to use
  • given the annual church picnic a complete overhaul, and taken it from a rather tired event to something the whole church looks forward to, including displays of musical, sporting and other talents, workshops to share their gifts with others, and activities for younger children.

And there’s something about these young people that is infectious. Their love of prayer, their willingness to explore challenging questions, their strong bond as a community of faith. All these have started to rub off on the wider church.

This year I took Encounter to Greenbelt. It was the first time we’d been away together, and we were exploring what it means to live in community together. Before we went I asked them what sort of community they wanted us to be. They said:

  • welcoming
  • friendly
  • collaborative
  • reflective
  • inviting
  • relaxed
  • loose and steady.

I think that sums them up nicely. And I pray that the rest of our church will become more and more like that as they learn from these children in their midst.

I have learned a huge amount from Encounter. I have learned that I don’t need to be in control, and it’s often better when I’m not. I have learned that community, church, isn’t something I can impose on young people, it’s something they have to build for themselves. I have learned that I don’t have all the answers, or possibly any of the answers, and I’ve learned that that’s ok. God uses my weakness to demonstrate God’s strength.

There’s a quote I’m fond of: “Christianity is one beggar showing another beggar where to get bread.” That’s how it is for us at Encounter. And I’m not always, not even usually, the beggar who knows where the bread is.

And our journey together goes on. Some of the young people have now outgrown Encounter, so after half term we’ll be starting Engage, for year 9 upwards. I can’t tell you yet what that will be like, because I don’t know until we start doing it.

I’ll leave the last word to my young people. I asked them what they wanted to tell you about Encounter and they said:

“It’s sociable”

“Fun, but reflective too.”

“You get to see different people you don’t see at school and make friends.”

“I like it because you treat us differently from how other adults do, like we’re people.”

“I need Encounter. It’s where I come to sort my head out.”

“I’m different here to how I am at school or at home. I can be me.”

“You don’t have to do anything, you can just be quiet. There aren’t many places where you don’t have to do anything.”

“It’s about being given time and space for God… it’s really about being peaceful enough to listen.”

Question: How do we create space and opportunities for children and young people to lead their churches into growth?