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Doing Youth Work Without Changing Shoes

Chris Henderson

Doing Youth Work Without Changing Shoes

Chris Henderson, serving at All Saints Little Shelford, speaks about crossing the generational divide.

Doing youth work without changing shoes

Recently, a few minutes before an evening service, a teenager complimented me on my shoes. “I like your shoes, Chris! You’re down with the kids.” There was, as far as I could tell, no hint of irony in his tone. Indeed, glancing across to his shoes, I saw they were a very similar style to mine. His were cleaner, though, and there was something different going on with how the laces interacted with the tongue, and our outfits from the heel up were not at all similar. Nevertheless, buoyed by the compliment, I stepped up to the keyboard for my duties that evening, and – what can I say? – with Down-with-the-kids-Chris on the keys, the music rocked that night. 

Well, maybe… 

It was of course a complete fluke that my fashion sense briefly aligned with a teenager’s, the sort of thing that statistical physics says must happen now and again. But, I reflected, perhaps there’s an illustration here about how we can be tempted to approach youth ministry – as though we need to wear the same shoes as them.

Wearing the same shoes (or trying to)

Here’s what I mean. It’s not just that we try to imagine what life is like in their shoes. Instead we actually try to put on our own pair, an awkward imitation of theirs. 

It can be as crude as imagining that anyone who works with ‘the youth’ ought to literally dress like them. Have you ever heard anyone say of a youth worker, “He’s fantastic, and he looks like a youth worker, know what I mean?” Now, there is nothing wrong in dressing in a similar way if that is how you happen to dress, but otherwise it can be embarrassing and contribute to presenting a false persona.

We might imagine that to do youth work, or even to talk to our youth, we need to sound like them, use the same idioms, know what’s trending, and so on. Now, understanding their lives as best we can is obviously important for ministering to them, as it is for anyone else, but there is a difference between understanding someone’s context and pretending to share it. 

The trouble is, if you wear the same shoes and try to be “down with the kids” when you are never going to be, then you forego the trust that is so important for genuine pastoral relationships. Why? Because you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, and that is disingenuous, even manipulative. It also makes for one-sided interactions. I will try to get to know you, but you’re not allowed to know who I am. 

If you wear the same shoes and try to be “down with the kids” when you are never going to be, then you forego the trust that is so important for genuine pastoral relationships.

And when it comes to the church family, a “wearing the same shoes” understanding of youth ministry doesn’t just split the church family into those who look the part for youth work and those who do not, it can even split the church family into those who can talk to the youth, and those who cannot. The youth sit in their little group (nothing wrong with that, necessarily), but then the only people who talk with them are those who are “down with the kids”, whilst the rest of the adults talk with the rest of the adults, occasionally mentioning in hushed tones how encouraged they are to see the youth. 

And when that split starts to happen and the generations aren’t talking to each other, then false assumptions abound over how the youth are best served, what they want, what they find engaging. We assume they will like X and they won’t like Y (interestingly expository Bible preaching tends to heads the list of things we assume they won’t be able to engage with). 

Eventually we might even end up with something approaching complete segregation, where the youth just go to their special youth group, get their Bible teaching there and (it seems) everyone is happy, job done. But surely that’s not where we want to end up. Surely the end goal is for them to be fully integrated within the church family, is it not? 

How do we do that? Well, not by a few people changing their shoes. Rather, by everyone walking alongside them, in their own shoes, just like we should for any part of our church family. If we did that maybe we might find that things like expository Bible preaching aren’t the turn-off for teenagers. Maybe the thing that pushes them away is that their church family is not much of a family to them anymore. When they were a cute child, everyone happily chatted to them. Now, few people do. How might that make them feel about church?

Walking alongside (in your own shoes)

You’re not a teenager. You don’t dress like them. You don’t understand their life. Or what culture is like for them. You don’t think you could pull off being down with the kids. 

Fine! You can’t. And you shouldn’t try. And guess what? They’re not middle-aged (for the sake of argument). They don’t dress like you. They don’t understand your life. Or what culture is like for you. 

But isn’t this one of the beautiful things about church family? The church is groups of people who don’t instinctively understand each other, who wouldn’t naturally hang out with each other, but who have been united together in Christ. As we’ve been studying Ephesians in our evening services, we’ve seen how the whole universe is being brought in line under Christ’s rule (1:10), and that we’re seeing something of that happening now in the church, as people are united together as one body, in Christ – such an amazing thing that the heavenly powers are wowed (3:10)! Even teenagers are part of this great diverse-united family!

But isn’t this one of the beautiful things about church family? The church is groups of people who don’t instinctively understand each other, who wouldn’t naturally hang out with each other, but who have been united together in Christ.

And it starts in the most ordinary of ways – generations talking to one another, without trying to be anything other than the people they are. Imagine what this does for a young person’s esteem: coming to church and finding that adults are actually talking to them, taking an interest in them, asking about what’s going on in their lives without pretending to understand but asking for clarification as needed, and doing this with an appropriate degree of openness about their lives too. 

Such a culture change cannot happen overnight, rather it needs to be nurtured and encouraged. At our church, we’ve had ‘guests’ at our youth group after the evening service: people from across the church family coming along, joining in the games, being interviewed about who they are and their life as a Christian. 

Then, once a term, we forego the youth group and invite everyone after the evening service to stay for a simple supper, with some sort of silly sketch led by the teenagers. 

And we get our teenagers to lead the evening service roughly once a month. Not much changes in the format of the service (the most radical thing is that we have refreshments half way through) it’s just that the teenagers are the ones up front, serving the church family. I hope that gives them a sense of how we assess their maturity. It was at one such service when I received the compliment about my shoes, from a teenager I was praying with, a few minutes before he stood up to lead. 

Let’s show our teenagers what church family is, by walking with them, rather than vainly trying to wear their shoes. We might be surprised at the results. For example they are not incapable of hearing expository Bible preaching, even in as dull a format as I often present it. But they are capable of feeling isolated in a group, just like anyone else.