This year there are a few ideas that I want to spend time thinking about and reflecting on. One of these relates to the relationship between Christian and secular youth work – specifically how Christian youth work can be enhanced though a better understanding of both approaches to youth work.
‘Secular Youth Work’ as a descriptor is not entirely satisfactory, but is the best I can think of to describe youth work carried out by statutory or voluntary sector bodies, without a Christian aims or ethos. In reality I am mostly thinking of youth work that was part of, the now widely disbanded, Youth Service [or greatly influenced by it]. Likewise by Christian Youth work, I am broadly referring to youth work carried out by organisations with Christian aims or ethos, and in reality I am probably thinking of mostly work carried out directly by Churches.
My background in youth work has included work within both fields. Two years ago, after mixed experiences in the Christian field I took a job with a secular organisation. This organisation folded during 2011, and I decided it was time to attempt to work in the Christian sector again. Some of my initial interactions with the Christian sector highlighted the stark differences between the two fields, who on the face of it appear to be carrying out similar work but in reality are speaking very different languages.
The issue was most clearly highlighted through a pair of conversations I was part of, one with youth workers from the secular field and one with mostly volunteers from the Christian field. The first group had conversations that showed love, compassion and an understanding of young people informed by many years of experience interacting with them. But there was something in the conversation that was lacking – a deeper purpose and understanding that comes from the love of Christ. The second conversation was clearly founded in the participants desire to show young people they needed Jesus, but there was a lack of understanding of how to engage with young people, and the difference in the language used to talk about young people and approaches to work with them was stark. One group did not know what the young people needed, the other did but had no idea how to help them find it.
Clearly this is not going to be the case with every organisation, there are Christian organisations that can and do engage with young people very successfully, and organisation that have taken from the secular field things which work for them and adapted them for their Christian aims. But there is something that, at least some of the Christian field, can learn from the secular field and I am really keen this year to see how my experience of both sectors can help develop and enhance the Christian youth work field.
The gaps left in society through recent funding cuts make this more pressing and timely. There is an opportunity for the local church to make a significant impact, stepping up to the mark and holistically supporting their local communities. But I believe this can be so much more effective if the church is willing to learn from good practice, and speak the language of the secular partners.
This is very much to be continued…