On Well-being and Training Christian Youth Workers

by Robin Barden January 1, 2018 A

Mike Pilivachi recently caused a stir within Christian circles by seemingly asserting that Christian youth work training was not fit for purpose. A well-known Christian publication duly contacted me for a response in my role as director for lay ministry at Ridley Hall (RLM), and I went on record as saying I was surprised and disappointed at what seemed to be an unconsidered comment.

Yet, as some of my colleagues reminded me, was Mike not simply shining light on a conversation that many involved in the training of Christian youth workers had been having for some time? Indeed, hadn’t Ridley Hall just overhauled its courses for those working with young people precisely because we felt that the training we had been providing was ripe for such change?

Of course the answer is yes. Having been involved in the training of Christian youth, children and family workers since 1998, Ridley Hall had made the decision to overhaul its courses in an effort to better resource the church with godly, holy spirit inspired, Christ following, effective, children, youth and family ministers who were in it for the long haul. Our thinking was multi-faceted and, regrettably, easily misunderstood. Even by us! But to try and sum it up, we wanted to ensure that graduates of the course went into ministry understanding their identity as inherently located in the church, whatever the focus of their work. To express this in a different way, our desire was and is for graduates to understand their ministerial professional identity as rooted in the mission, evangelism, and discipleship of young people, out of which springs a desire to ensure the well-being of all. In our mind this turned on its head what we saw as a slide towards locating our ministerial professional identity in the well-being of all, out of which may emerge mission, evangelism and discipleship. The inherent tension in this last sentence continues to jump out at me, even as I write. Surely focusing on the well-being of young people is the ministry of Christian love and service? But on a theological, experiential, personal and practical level, we began to believe this was no longer a helpful way of thinking about ministry with young people, children, families or, indeed, anyone.

On a theological level it is widely acknowledged that trapping God within a concept is only one step from falling into error. Even those concepts that point to God can easily result in a degradation of God when given to much weight in how we view God. This is especially true when the concept in question is central to a cultures self-understanding, as precisely because of this it gains a greater confidence in its own righteousness and is more resistant to challenge of any nature. At worst, this ends up in the church favouring those people the world favours and double oppressing those the world oppresses. We don’t have to look far in the Gospels or, indeed, in any of the bible, to realise that this is the easiest way to miss the Holy Spirit’s work and, therefore, move away from God.

Relating this to well-being, no-one is going to disagree that well-being points to something about God and God’s desires for God’s creation, but God and God’s desires will always be more than what we understand to be caught up in the concept of well-being and, in being more, must be allowed to continually redefine how we understand well-being.To phrase this differently: it is important for us to understand how well-being reflects God, but this is different to thinking we know God if we understand well-being.

On an experiential level, it is not unusual to find trained Christian youth workers who believe well-being is ‘done’ much better outside the church than it is within it and, as a result, seriously struggle with the church and even their faith. Not discounting the learning that is required within the church to understand well-being as a reflection of God this, to my mind, reflects something of how our cultural understanding of well-being sits within a humanistic world-view. I am not saying the graduates in question, of whom I was one, lacked integrity, but we were in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Speaking only for myself, underneath this critique of the church as uncaring was a mixture of past hurts and not a little arrogance. The recognition that I had been caught up in, what was for me at least, a rather too easy critique of the church, required and continues to prompt much personal heart searching.

In practice, our desire to better resource the church with godly, holy spirit inspired, Christ following, effective, youth leaders, required a change of curriculum, which ultimately required a change of degree – from Youth and Community Work and Practical Theology, to Theology, Ministry and Mission. In making this change we tried hard not to make the reverse mistake and see nothing good in what we had been doing but, instead, to build on that which had been fruitful, while developing and strengthening other areas in light of our new focus. In practice this meant keeping the placement and reflective practice element of the degree; providing even more space for students to think about their own faith development and spiritual gifting’s; while expanding the amount of modules given over to biblical and theological study alongside the more practical ministry and education modules. In this way we hope to better support students to grow in their love of God, church, and ministry and, in doing so, facilitate them to move even more powerfully in the Spirit of the Lord which, the writer of Isaiah tells us in chapter 12, verse 2, is the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord.