As we start to see the first shoots of hope with the Government’s road map ahead, it is important to take some time to think through what we have been learning, as youth workers, over the past year.
It would be all too easy, and maybe tempting, to long for what life was like pre-pandemic, but I think it is better not to look backwards, but to hope forwards and to long for a better future than our past. With this in mind, I have been thinking of what we can learn from our experiences during the pandemic and what I have learnt, talking to different youth ministers recently.
Here are five lessons we need to learn:
1. Too much of what we do is entertainment
Ouch! Tough from the start, I know! But I really do think that youth workers have often been more entertainers than disciple-makers. We have longed to be liked more than we have longed to see people come to faith. Many have seen that when the entertainment stopped, the young people disconnected. Don’t misunderstand me, having fun is an important part of youth ministry, but it shouldn’t be the main thing, or the principal reason people attend.
2. We need to help young people learn to walk daily with Jesus, with or without us
Many young people in our youth groups assume that walking with Jesus is going to church. We need to help them understand that they can walk with Him every minute of every day, and give them the skills and tools to be able to connect with Him. We need to help them learn how to enjoy the Bible, to talk in prayer and to meditate and wait on Him. There are so many apps available that can help, but many young people don’t bother. We need to make this our priority, and make sure that we are modelling these things, as leaders, too.
3. Christian parents are the primary disciplers
Parents and leaders alike might have assumed that the youth leaders are primary disciplers of young people but the pandemic has made it infinitely clearer that this is the primary role of the parents. We, therefore, need to be equipping them to do this as best they can. The reality is that many, if not most, Christian parents have not had fantastic models of discipleship in the home, themselves, and so don’t really know how to do it. We need to encourage and resource them, helping them to live out their faith explicitly with their children, and to help them learn to engage their children in spiritual conversations, prayer times and Bible exploration.
4. We can use social media to keep better relationships
The use of social media amongst youth leaders has grown massively over the lockdowns, as we have looked for new ways to keep connected with our young people. Whilst we might not have been able to meet up, we have probably been in more frequent contact than we used to. Many leaders are posting messages several times each week, and having young people check in and engage. This is much better than just the once per week gathering, because we are walking with them throughout the week. As we re-emerge from lockdown, we need to keep using social media to keep connected during the days when we don’t naturally meet.
5. Young people’s mental health has suffered greatly
Whether Christian or not, it doesn’t seem to change the fact that most young people’s mental health has deteriorated over the course of the pandemic, and probably the mental health of the leaders too, if we are honest. This is hardly surprising as we have been starved of so much – connection, relationship, physical touch, community, communal worship, eating together. We are made in the image of a relational God, and born into family which reflects the trinity, as well as belonging to the family of God. It is not God’s design to be separated.
But what might have helped them be more resilient, had we known this pandemic was coming? I wonder if we need to help young people to be more honest, to be themselves more, to vocalise their fears and anxieties, as well as to recognise that everyone has them. We need to help them build friendships centred around a love for Jesus, and a personal daily relationship with God.
There are many more lessons we need to learn but here are five to start us off. I wonder what lessons you think we need to learn? Write them down, share them and make sure we learn from them. We must look forwards to the future and how much better it could be, rather than look back to how youth work used to be. Let’s encourage each other to hope ahead.