“Where two or three are gathered”: youth ministry with small numbers

“We can’t really do anything for young people at our church – we’ve only got one or two – there aren’t enough of them.”

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard someone say that I’d have..… a substantially better-resourced youth ministry! I’ve heard it from clergy, parents, volunteers, members of congregations. Even on occasion from a despairing youth worker.

I’ve never once heard it from a young person.

And to some extent it resonates with my own experience. The church where I work has reasonably well-established groups for children and young people up to the age of 13 but, until recently, nothing beyond that.

This time last year, I knew that my oldest young people were about to “fall out” of the top end of our existing provision. They were about to go into year 9, and our oldest group only went up to year 8. What to do?

We started “Engage” – a name suggested by one of the young people to follow on from our existing youth group, “Encounter”. Because, as she put it, “first you encounter God, then you really start to engage with God.”

Engage meets fortnightly. We have never had more than 4 young people at a session. Usually we have 2 or 3, sometimes only 1. And very occasionally, none.

Does that sound like a success? In a church hungry for growth, maybe not. It certainly doesn’t look brilliant on the annual Statistics for Mission form. It might not look like an efficient deployment of resources.

But as a witness to the faithfulness of God, I think it is about as “successful” as we could get. We talk a lot in children’s and youth ministry about “modelling” the love of God to our young people. Rightly so. If we give up because there aren’t “enough” of them, what model of God’s love does that present?

God isn’t into the numbers game. One person, any one of us, is “enough” for God. Enough for God to be born on earth as one of us, to suffer and die for us, to be raised to new life for us, and to send the Holy Spirit to be with us forever. For each one of us – for any one of us – God does that.

And if one person is enough for God to do all that, then they’re surely enough for me to turn out on a rainy Thursday evening, with an activity I’ve taken time to prepare, in the full knowledge that it may or may not be used.

Yes, we have some amazing conversations at Engage. Yes, these very few young people have chosen to do things that have had a significant impact on the life of our whole church.

But mainly it’s about being there. Because God is there. And not giving up on even a single young person. Because God never will, and they need to know that. In a world where they feel constantly measured and judged and found wanting, they really need to know that.

Is it an “efficient” use of my time? Probably not. But there are more important things that efficiency. Perhaps that is one of the ways in which the church needs to be counter-cultural.

Recently I revisited (for about the thousandth time) Matthew 18, a key passage of scripture for anyone who’s dedicating their life to serving children in the name of Christ. And I heard, as never before:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

One such child. Even one. Even if there is only one child, one young person in your church, you have an opportunity to fulfill Jesus’ command by welcoming that one person as you would welcome Jesus. You have an opportunity to serve and nurture and learn from and with one of those whom Jesus called “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”. Even one is “enough”.

Youth ministry shouldn’t be about numbers. (Nor should church as a whole.) Perhaps that requires a quite radical rethink in how we do things. Perhaps it should.

I wonder how we can show every young person that they are loved totally and unconditionally by God – that they really are “enough”?





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?

Shared Conversations – shared with whom?

Today I attended the “Common Ground” event in Oxford, aimed at allowing a wider range of people to have some participation in the Shared Conversations about sexuality than the small number from each diocese who can participate in the official Conversations themselves. There is much that could be said about that event, but that is for another time.

What struck me the minute I walked in the door was this: the age profile. At 28, I was certainly among the youngest there, if not the youngest, and most of the other people there were (I would guess) at least 20-30 years older than me – a whole generation.

So, being who I am and doing what I do, I immediately thought “never mind my generation, what is being done to engage actual young people? as in, people aged 18 and under?” Where are their voices in the Shared Conversation process? My guess is, nowhere.

I was glad that I got a chance to pass that question on to those organising the event, and I hope I will hear back about what can and will be done to listen to young people on this issue. But I won’t be holding my breath.

And here’s why I think it’s vitally important that we do hear the voices of young people in these conversations: the difference even between my generation and those who are currently teenagers is enormous. In all sorts of ways: they are ‘digital natives’, I am not; they are growing up in an information landscape, and an educational environment, which is entirely unrecognisable from my own teenage years.

We keep being told in the discussion about sexuality, and it was said again today, that things are moving fast. Too right. If we’re only hearing from people my age and older, we’re already behind the times.

In the context of the Shared Conversations, perhaps the most significant difference between my generation and the one below it is the repeal of Section 28. The whole of my compulsory education took place under Section 28. And as a piece of legislation, it worked. Not once in my whole time at school was homosexuality mentioned. I studied Catullus at GCSE and The Great Gatsby at A Level, all without anyone mentioning the word “gay”. I never experienced homophobia at school – the concept of sexual orientation just might as well not have existed. And, like it or not, that education informs my engagement with the topic.

It isn’t like that for the young people I work with today. Their teachers are not censored in the way they handle issues of sexuality. Their schools are not banned from addressing the topic, and an increasing number of schools are doing a great job at presenting their students with a positive, affirming education about all sexual orientations, with a current drive towards more inclusive sex education. And, like it or not, that education informs these young people’s engagement with the topic.

There were people in the room today, many of them, who were educated when homosexuality was still illegal. And, like it or not, that education informs their engagement with the topic too.

But the world has moved on and is still moving on, faster than ever. If we exclude, or fail to intentionally include, the voices of young people in the Shared Conversations process, the church is missing out. Missing out on a different perspective, perhaps a challenging perspective, but also missing out on what God is saying to the church through our young people.

God’s gender: a cautionary tale

Is God a man?

Is God a woman?

Does it really matter?

These and similar questions seem to be doing the rounds again, on social media and elsewhere. My answers, in brief, would be “No”, “No”, and “Yes, very much.”

Why does it matter so much? Why does it matter what language we use about God, what pronouns and names and titles we use to address and describe God?

Let me tell you a story.

You know those arguments children have which go “boys are better than girls”, “no, girls are better than boys”, “no, boys are better than girls”, on and on and on? They’re especially annoying on long car journeys or in waiting rooms.

A while back, two of the children I work with, then aged about 5, were having just such an argument. I wan’t paying much attention, just keeping half an eye on things in case anyone seemed to be getting upset, but it was all fairly good natured, so I was inclined to let it run its course. They’d moved on from the “yes they are”, “no they aren’t” stage to some more specific examples (“girls are better at x”, “boys are better at y”) when I heard something which stopped me in my tracks.

“Boys are better than girls, because God’s a boy.”

There it was: the trump card. We all know that God is the very best there could be, so if God’s a boy, boys must be better. Incontrovertible 5-year-old logic.

Except, of course, it’s not incontrovertible. I challenged that statement, and we had a discussion about how God isn’t a boy or a girl or a man or a woman, because God is big enough to contain all those things and more. And for good measure we threw in a bit about everyone, whatever their gender, being made in God’s image.

But it was one of those moments which happen when you work with children, when a single comment shifted my entire perspective. It moved me from “I know God isn’t either a man or a woman, but there’s no need to labour the point” to “I will take every opportunity to point out that God is neither a man or a woman, and to use the widest possible range of pronouns and titles and images when I speak about God”.

“Boys are better than girls because God’s a boy.” I can’t imagine many of the adults engaged in the debate around this issue this week would put it quite like that. But it does point up one of the problems with referring to God exclusively as male, which is that aligning “God” with “man” privileges the masculine. Which, quite frankly, doesn’t need any more privilege than the quite excessive amount already accorded to it by church and society.

That may not be the intention, but it’s what happens. It happens even before children start school. God = male, so male = superior. That is what using exclusively or predominantly male language to refer to God conveys to a 5 year old.

So I choose to use both male and female pronouns and titles to refer to God. I don’t do it because I want to be “politically correct” or “radical” or “controversial”. I do it because I want the children I work with to understand that God is bigger than the words we use for God. I want that understanding to shape their perception of themselves, and the world, and their place in the world. And I never again want to hear any 5 year old for whom I am responsible using God as an argument for male superiority.

Language shapes assumptions, which in turn shape beliefs and behaviour. The language we use about God shapes the assumptions we (and others) make about God. And that is why the language we use matters so much.

Church: may contain offensive language

Language matters. It has power. How we use language matters. It has power to wound, to comfort, to offend. What we think we’re saying isn’t always what other people hear. Language is tricky like that: complex, slippery, beautiful, dangerous…..

Sometimes the church is brilliant with language. We use it to elevate, to inspire, to transform. Sometimes the church is terrible with language. We use it to hurt, to divide, to oppress.

I discovered something yesterday about the language I use. I have a colleague – a wonderful godly woman, a Licensed Lay Minister for 25 years, a true saint – who finds the word “Mass” offensive. I only realised the extent of this yesterday. “Please don’t use that word,” she said, “it really hurts me.” I could hear the pain in her voice.

And so I will try not to. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with saying “Mass”. I think it’s a good word, it’s certainly part of my natural vocabulary, and I imagine remembering not to use it, at least around this particular colleague, will be difficult. If I’m honest, I don’t see why she finds it hurtful.

But that really isn’t the point. My colleague, my friend, my sister in Christ, has told me that something I do is hurting her, so I will try my very best to stop doing it. Not because I think I’m doing anything “wrong”, but because I love her and don’t want to hurt her.

And my point is? We need to listen to each other, to hear how our language is heard by other people. We need to be willing to give up words we think are good or right or beautiful if we discover that they hurt or exclude. We need to be ready to sacrifice the language we love for the people we love more.

This isn’t a pro-censorship argument. I’m as much in favour of freedom of speech as anyone. I have every right to refer to “Mass” as often as I like, in the full knowledge that it will offend my colleague. But I will choose not to.

This isn’t a pro-censorship argument, it’s a pro-humility argument. The humility to listen to someone else’s pain, and realise that it trumps our own preference. The humility to be willing to change by putting the “other” first. It’s one of the ways in which we can bear with one another in love: by listening when someone tells us they are hurting, and not questioning their right to that pain, but doing what we can to avoid causing further hurt.

It’s all the more important when the language we use comes, whether we realise it or not, with the baggage of systemic oppression. If someone tells me that something I’ve said has offended them because it was racist, my instinct might be to say “no, it’s not”, because I didn’t mean it to be. But in that knee-jerk reaction, I’m effectively dismissing their pain, refusing to listen to how I’ve hurt them. By saying “no, it’s not” or “I didn’t mean it like that” or “but you know what I mean”, what I’m really saying is “my desire to be right is more important than your pain”.

It’s the same with misogynistic language, and homophobic language, and probably a whole host of other things besides. What sounds ok to a person of privilege (a straight person, a man, a white person) can be deeply hurtful to the person they are speaking to, who doesn’t share that privilege (an LGBT person, a woman, a person of colour). It’s all about perspective.

And that’s where the listening comes in, because language is not just for speaking, it’s for listening too. We have to learn how to listen to each other if we are really to know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And when that listening reveals that we have, intentionally or otherwise, hurt someone by the language we use, we have a choice. We can try to drive our point home, to use our linguistic arsenal to “prove” we were right all along. Or we can look and listen for the ways we can use language to serve Christ in the other, to repair damage and heal wounds.

Language matters. We have a responsibility to think about how we use it.

What I learned from a grammar school education

I am a product of the grammar school system. I am exactly the sort of person pro-grammar school campaigns would use as a poster-girl: child of a single parent, brought up in poverty, went to grammar school, got into Oxford. Because that’s what grammar schools are for, right? Social mobility, a chance for the poor-but-bright child.

Except that I’m the exception to the rule.

Every study of the effects of academic selection at age 11 that I have seen has certain conclusions in common:

  • children who go to grammar schools do better than their peers do in areas which don’t practice academic selection.
  • children in areas with academic selection who don’t go to grammar schools do worse that their peers in non-selective areas.
  • grammar schools have a significantly lower proportion of disadvantaged children than non-selective schools.

So: grammar schools “work” for those who go to them, and don’t for those who don’t. No surprise there. In any area which still practices academic selection at 11, a minority of children will go to grammar school. Which means the majority of children in that area are disadvantaged by the selective system.

But what of the “social mobility” argument? Quite simply, it doesn’t add up. Grammar schools have a higher proportion of children from affluent families, and a lower proportion of children from poor families, than other state schools do. That isn’t because rich kids are brighter, it’s because by 11 (and long before) the amount of money you have and the background you come from makes a significant difference to your life chances.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who works with children anywhere which still has academic selection at 11. The children who get into grammar school are, by and large, the ones who have been privately tutored, hothoused for the 11+ exam. They are the ones whose parents have the time and ability to help them with their homework. They are the ones who have a desk at home, and enough to eat. The ones who aren’t worrying about caring for a parent, or when the bailiffs will turn up on the doorstep.

By and large, the children who already have the advantages get the advantages of a grammar school education. By and large. There are exceptions (like me) but that isn’t enough to justify a system with a bias to the rich.

And what of the children who don’t get in to grammar school? The ones who “fail” the 11+? Remember, that’s the majority of children in areas which still have academic selection. Imagine how it feels to be told at 11 that you’ve already failed. Imagine the impact of that. I don’t have to imagine it – I see it every day in the devastatingly low self esteem of many of my young people.

That’s what the academic studies and political arguments don’t talk about – the human cost. And that’s what we should be concerned about. Our education system shouldn’t be primarily about ideologies or attainment figures. It should be about nurturing human beings and enabling them to flourish in ways which include, but extend far beyond, the achievements we measure.

People ask me how, as someone who has clearly benefitted immensely from the grammar school system, I can call for its abolition. The answer is simple: this isn’t about me. It isn’t about what worked for one bright child 20 years ago. It’s about what works for every child, of every ability, now.

Why I’m not a fan of inclusive church

First of all, don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of the organisation Inclusive Church. If you’re not familiar with their work, check them out here: http://www.inclusive-church.org.uk/ They’re brilliant, really they are, and they’re doing wonderful, Godly work.

What I’m not a fan of is the habit of churches describing themselves as inclusive of a particular group: “at St N’s we’re inclusive of children/women/LGBT people”. Undoubtedly this is well meant. But it inherently sets up an uneven power dynamic: one party (“us”) is doing the including; the other (“them”) is having the including done to them, as it were. One is active, one is passive. And the power, the decision making, the choice to be inclusive (or not) is all with one party, the “us”.

So when I see something about a church (or any other group of people, really) being inclusive, I want to ask myself three questions:

1.  Who is doing the including?

2. Who is being included?

3. Is the relationship between the two a relationship of equals, with an equal balance of power?

The answer to question 3 is, almost inevitably, “No”.

So am I saying that the church can’t be inclusive? Absolutely not! Because there is One who can do the including, who can and already does include everyone: God.

God already includes everyone, already invites everyone to the table. Our job is simply to pass the invitation on. God’s church is sometimes a bit slow (or more than a bit!) to catch up with the absolute, boundless, radical inclusiveness of God.

But we have to keep on trying.