Even before the pandemic hit the country, it has been clear for many of us that the model that most churches use for youth ministry no longer works, or, at least, is not as fruitful as it used to be. Then the pandemic struck and has highlighted strengths and weaknesses in our youth work.
Andy Castle set up a new initiative called The Phoenix Project, to help youth workers discover together what a fresher model of youth ministry needs to look like going forwards. We want to use the pandemic as a springboard to launch into something new, not go back to a broken model.
The project was invite-only for two reasons. Firstly, we wanted to keep the size small so there was enough time to hear from each other and get to know each other, and secondly, because we wanted to have a group of people who would commit to the whole process and not dip in and out.
Ten youth workers, coming from eight different churches from across the area, gathered for six hour-long Zoom sessions, recognising that in usual circumstances we would have met for a day to do it all, which would have lasted about six hours.
Each session explored a different aspect of ministry and homework was set each time to read and meditate on a passage of Scripture in connection with youth ministry.
As the six sessions concluded, it was very clear that it is by no means completed. We have shared plenty of issues, concerns and struggles but have only started to wrestle with the alternatives. What is apparent is that the group will need to continue to meet together to keep the conversation alive but will probably meet less frequently.
Each youth worker presented at the final session what they had been hearing from God and how their thinking had developed over the course of the project. We recognise that each church setting is unique and rather than looking for a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model for ministry, each church needs to discover what their model should look like.
Having said that, there were a number of similarities. Three things that stood out were:
1.Relationship building is essential
Too many of us have prioritised activity above relationship building. The event is not the important function of youth ministry, as COVID has demonstrated. We need to grasp anew how to invest in young people as individuals and journey with them as they discover a faith in Jesus and put this faith into action. The youth group or gathering should only ever be a tool for relationship building, not the destination for measuring ‘successful’ youth work.
2. Young people should be the evangelists
Far too much expectation is put on youth workers as being the magnet for young people to come to church and, in turn, to God. This puts an unhelpful pressure on the leaders and is also increasing difficult to accomplish, especially with increasing safeguarding restrictions. What became apparent was the need to help young people see that the way they live their lives is an important witness of their faith and that they need to be equipped to be able to talk about their faith in a natural way with their friends. Faith sharing peer to peer will be more fruitful than leaving to adults.
3. Worship needs to be central to all that youth workers do
Those who have used their personality or games and activities to attract young people, are more likely to have struggled over the past year. Once the novelty of Zoom passed, those young people who were not worshippers largely disconnected. We need to work out how worship can be the central of all we do. We want to help young people learn how to worship when they are gathered together but also how they can learn to worship God when they are on their own.
Some feedback from participants at the end of the six sessions:
- “It was great to think Biblically about my youth work and then gather together to share and pray for what we are hoping to do in the future.”
- The best thing was “feeling heard, seen and being able to take some intentional space to hear from the Lord both through his word and others.”
- “For me it has helped to clarify my thinking about how God wants the overall shape of our youth ministry to look and helped me to work out what the next steps are to go in that direction.”
- “I liked having time to reflect on what we are doing and think about ways forward. It was helpful to talk through this with other youth workers too. This has meant that I have a clearer way forward than I would have done without the project.”
- “It will help me to consider the role of youth work as part of the larger body of Christ. I would now like to focus less on opening up and getting back to what was but moving forwards seeing these young people grow as disciples within a church setting.”
This has been such an important project and there is much more to learn. But even if we can move forward on these three issues, there will be significant advances in youth work across the area. Please do pray for the youth workers that you know, and, if they were part of this project, ask them for their thoughts from it. If they weren’t part of the project, tell them to get in touch with Thrive so we can invite them to be part of any future Phoenix projects.