We recently had the opportunity to interview Matthew Tarboton, the Regional Director of Scripture Union Amatola/East London. He shared his thoughts on the decolonisation of youth ministry, what youth are really needing in South Africa and how to go the distance in such a demanding ministry.

Matt, you have ministered with youth for over 20 years. What led you to get involved?

I grew up in a small town where the churches had a combined youth with no youth worker employed, and there was only a youth committee that ran youth. There was a need, and we met that need, obviously under the authority of those churches.

What are some of the changes you’ve noticed in youth ministry since starting 20 years ago?

A lot has happened in that time, more social needs now than then. Also, social media was non-existent when I started off, that is definitely the biggest difference. Young people are also more questioning now and want an authentic relationship with Christ.

What guidance would you give to ‘younger you’ from 20 years ago?

Find a mentor, somebody to walk with you, give you advice, someone who is genuinely interested in youth ministry. Also, get as much info as possible on everything related to youth ministry. Go deeper into God’s word.

As part of SU’s work in the region, you are involved in Mdantsane Township, which is the second-largest township in South Africa. What are the main challenges facing young people in this context, and what role do you believe youth ministry can play?

So many challenges!!! Unemployment, child-headed homes, teenage pregnancies, social issues, the list just goes on.

I really feel that young people in Mdantsane need adults who they can trust and talk to about issues concerning them, where they feel free to say whatever they want and not feel judged. Relationship is KEY to any ministry. And also young people need to be trained up and given opportunities to succeed.

Give an example of a recent ‘success’ story.

Success stories are all over the show and often seemingly simple examples which leads to significant change, which is often what we are looking for in creating a successful youth ministry.

Last evening a Gran of one of our Sunday School messaged me with a picture of what her grandson did at Sunday School. It was a door hanger with the message “God Provides”. He had decided to put it on his door handle on his own accord, no one told him to or encouraged him to. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, and nothing else.

Outline the Shoes4Schools project.

Our Shoes4Schools project has been run for over 10 years now. Towards the end of each year we send an email to the various former model C schools requesting that if their learners have any shoes that they don’t need in the future (especially matrics), that they donate the shoes to us in order that we can give the shoes to children who are in need of school shoes.

We get probably about a thousand pairs of shoes from Senior and Primary Schools, which a team of volunteers sorts into sizes, polishes if need be and delivers to schools whose children need decent shoes.

We now also get clothes, takkies, school trousers and stationery with those school shoes, and all of this is very welcome to those that don’t have such luxuries.

From your experience, what are some of the critical factors necessary to assist a young person maturing in their relationship with Jesus?

  1. Have a presence in their lives
  2. Be relevant. Know what’s going on out there, know what they are going through
  3. Listen to what they are saying and what is not being said out aloud
  4. Don’t be a fart in the wind…that really stinks.

What are a few of the regular practices that help you cope with the demands of youth ministry?

Spending as much time with my family as possible is incredibly important to me. Ministry can be very taxing on your family. Otherwise, I try and take some time out for myself, meditate on God’s Word and listen to music…especially in the car.

‘Decolonisation’ is a buzz word in many South African sectors. Do you believe there is the need to ‘decolonise youth ministry’, given that many youth practitioners still adopt Western youth ministry models for the African context?

This is a deep and extensive question that would take hours to discuss properly. We must start to discover what each other means by “youth ministry” before we can even discover how to “decolonise” it.

I would love to see youth groups from various backgrounds getting together and forming a truly South African youth ministry culture that embraces all young people.

Unfortunately, we haven’t even started to scratch the surface with regards to this. Mindsets have to change, starting with me.

What encouragement would you give to those involved with young people?

Persevere. This sounds like a nice cliché, but often it feels like youth ministry is the ministry of the Church that everyone seems to feel is important, but no one realises how important it actually is.

Our commitment to young people, which builds a firm foundation for the future of the Church (not necessarily our congregation), is the most important thing that we can be involved in. I truly believe that youth ministry is the most important ministry in the Church.