The recent holiday club season highlighted some of the challenges those in youth ministry are facing.
A young 13-year-old, known as ‘the hitman’ from a gang in Port Elizabeth, brought his gun for self-protection to a holiday club. We had a gun drawn at a local holiday club on the Cape flats, faced a case of sexual abuse, had two young homosexual boys apply as leaders and a shooting in the local vicinity of a club, dropped the numbers overnight from 400 to 100.
How do we deal with these and the other challenges facing youth ministry in South Africa?
Sustainability – The right focus!
Research seems to indicate that those working with youth generally only last for 1 to 2 years. The feedback from those in leadership indicates a lack of support as the key contributing factor.
Some years back my Youth Culture professor shared this insight as I was starting out:
“Don’t do any ministry for the first 3 months but rather build your support team—so that you will last longer.”
Youth ministry is not for babies but the tough. It can be a thankless task and seeing those you have worked hard with, fall away, can be soul destroying. I am so glad that I took his advice and built a team of twelve people who became my allies and fought many battles on my behalf. They listened and prayed for me when I needed it most. Fast forward. At the age of 56, I still have a team around me!
A factor that influenced a holiday club in a low economic area not to run this year was the high cost of obtaining a police clearance certificate for each leader. In a recent trip to the U.K. and other parts of the world, I have to admit that their laws around working with children are far more stringent. We must prepare for this eventuality!
Recent stories of abuse and technology has eroded the confidence of Principles to continue to allow us to work in schools. It stands to reason therefore that laws will continue to make it challenging for youth work to be sustained in the way we know it. Although this is right, I can’t help but feel there is something lost in our ministry.
Training and preparation
Most seminaries have tended to focus on qualification, certificates and preaching. I am not sure if there are many places of learning preparing youth workers adequately for the kind of young person we are working with these days.
I was hanging with a group of unchurched boys and was sworn at, my face intentionally nearly kicked in by a soccer ball, and mocked when I tried just saying hello. My inability to connect with unchurched youth is clear evidence of how unprepared I am. I know that I am not alone. S.U. England and Wales have researched that 95% of children don’t attend church.
Have we raised up a generation of youth leaders who can run great church programmes but have no idea how to reach out to the majority of youth in their area who have no interest in attending a programme?
How do we prepare our leaders for the kind of violence we see in our young people? Where do we draw the line. How do we manage the high levels of drug abuse and family breakdown? What should our response be to the current gender related issues?
Even though I have more questions than answers, I am reading as much as I can, educating myself and looking for ways to improve our training and preparation of our leaders.
In the light of increased social media and lack of young people’s personal skills to communicate, my experience is that many young people are very lonely and feel quite isolated. Our challenge is to find ways to cross this intergenerational barrier, as well as finding meaningful ways for them to network with other young people.
Silo thinking in youth ministry
I find that many of our churches think in a generational way with little or no intergenerational activity.
For instance, most young people have by the age of 14/15 already formed some of their core beliefs and values. Does discipleship start at age 0? Are we connecting too late perhaps with a generation already lost? That same thinking sweeps across the lack of intentional diversity thinking. Exploring ways of intentionally exposing our youth to others who are culturally, racially and economically different. Instead of focussing only on teenagers in isolation, our children’s ministry needs the greater context of all generations.
Leadership and succession
Often ministry moves in cycles. The need remains to continually refresh our leadership teams, talent scout and pass the baton along. When one leader of a C.U. group leaves matric, or a youth pastor moves on, insufficient support or lack of guidance results in a loss of what took years to build up. Surely we are called to give input, offer support and bring guidance in succession planning.
My own personal experience these past holidays reflected a shift in focus of my role. I always thought that the holiday clubs were for the children but I have shifted my position to say it is both for the children, as well as the leaders. These past few weeks I prayed for and supported more than 350 leaders who are broken in themselves. It felt like a wise investment!
A closing thought
Although my heart broke a thousand times in the past few weeks grappling with issues, I still left with hope in the Good News. It is the eternal hope that is an anchor for the soul. A sure foundation for the times we are living in! The times they are indeed changing in youth ministry but perhaps there is yet hope for that grade 7 boy and his gun at holiday club.