The Holy Grail of Youth Ministry

by Robin Barden June 29, 2018 A

The holy grail. A mythical dish or similar that contains all one needs to sustain life. To obtain the holy grail is to find freedom from every day striving. To obtain the holy grail is to be free from the worry, stress and anxiety that such striving induces. The promise of the holy grail is one of contentment and rest. Of course, having received such rest we may be forced to ask the question where we will now find our purpose and reason to get up in the morning, but this seems to misunderstand the power of the grail.

The point is not what will happen after, but rather the hope of a future that will rid us of our present painful reality. A major attraction of any quest is the excitement, purpose and hope that it induces in the yet to be hero: an excitement that rests on the possibility of obtaining that which is of greatest worth by simply enduring and not losing focus on the way. Often stoic in nature, it is clear thinking freed from destructive emotions that is valued above all else. Greed, lust for power, slothfulness, all of these are a recipe for failure, but a virtuous search, and here what is considered virtuous is often dependant on the time and place of the writer, is the recipe for success. The underlying assumption is we are all capable of being virtuous. This is the basis of the hope – we all have the capacity to exhibit the necessary virtues to obtain this goal of goals: the holy grail.  Why this short precis of the holy grail as a narrative device? Well it may be an overused motif but at its heart I think it still captures something of our modern motivations and, as such, holds a message relevant to our late capitalist society and all of us who exist within it. This includes those of us engaged in youth ministry training.


Conferences, debates, argument, discussion all abound seeking to answer the question: what is the holy grail for youth ministry today? What is it that will bring success, a church ready for the twenty first century, disciples, fruit, god’s kingdom? The notion of success may be fluid, but the question is the same, what do we need to do to achieve it? Of course, I am not saying that any of these questions are wrong in and of themselves, in fact many are vital! Rather, what my short exploration of the holy grail is trying to provoke is why are we asking these questions? Is it to find rest from the striving (and I blame no one for this desire least I condemn myself!)? Is it to be reenergised with a sense of ‘this is the path!’? Is it simply to prove to oneself and others that I can be a success?  My intention here is not to push us all into a Freudian induced anxiety over our inability to determine this or any other motivation, but rather to attempt to show up how this rather stoic approach to life, let alone ministry will, without critique, miss its mark.


The rarely acknowledged reality of much success, and in my experience youth ministry training is not immune from this, is the seemingly accidental nature of things – what youth ministry graduates end up understanding as the benefit of their training is often as much as a shock to those involved in the training as it is to the graduate! Even if the story can be retold to make it seem as if this was the plan all along! This is perhaps not surprising when we consider we are working with people, but it is compounded by a number of other factors too.  In youth ministry training, this includes the inconvenient truth that the nature of what we think will be useful is heavily dependent on how we understand and frame the world. This is by definition flawed and therefore warps the possibility of its logical abstraction in the design of a course. Throw into the mix an incomplete understanding of God and God’s purposes and you start to despair how anyone can write a course let alone argue that it will be beneficial to those who attend it! But we don’t stop there. If these are inconvenient truths for those of us delivering youth ministry training, then let us not forget that those deciding on where to train will have a very limited understanding of what they need. As unpopular as such a comment may be in our technologically driven late scientific culture with its instant upgrades and easy knowledge, professional competence of any type, let along ministerial competence, has always been a question of transformation and developing practice wisdom over time and therefore ‘what I need’ for this future is never easily understood (sorry graduates!). Throw into that mix the further inconvenient truth that we all resist the challenge to our ego that wisdom brings and are skilled at projecting our own limitations onto everything and anything, including teachers and courses (as well as the church), and you start to wonder if any feedback has anything to say to anyone!


So where does this leave us? Without hope for youth ministry training? Without direction? Dependant on luck and fate! Well maybe if this was the full story, but in faith I personally believe there is more. Specifically, a hope that is not rooted in a quest narrative but one that is rooted in the objective truth of God. This is not to deny the power of the quest narrative on me as much as anyone else! After all, we all live in the age we do and are all socialised into its deepest myths and truths. But rather, it asks the question: what happens when the quest narrative and our faith narrative meet? In what ways does our faith narrative show up and expose the limitations and holes in the quest narrative? And, in doing so, how does this transform how we understand youth ministry? Without wanting to disappear down the rabbit hole of hermeneutics this is of course not as easier as it may first seem. The unescapable socialisation of us all into our age means that our initial frame of reference for understanding God is in-itself limiting and prior to being caught up in God, we can never fully break free from this limitation. This sets up a complex interaction between a relative cultural frame, an objective truth and an incomplete and somewhat fluid interpretation of both! Oh, and least I forget, and as an easy narrative device for including something else that would take more than one book to explain (even if I could), all of this needs to be embodied in our everyday reality – God is an incarnate God. I.e. God’s truth is really true, for us, in our lives, today!


So where does this leave us! Accepting that only the most optimistic of reader is likely to still be reading! To my mind it starts with a subtle shift in the virtues we believe are necessary within youth ministry training. In its interaction with our age, the Gospel narrative seems to break open our common quest narrative by highlighting different virtues that would be required in the quest and then reframing the whole as these values interact with each other and the nature of the quest itself. A primary and influential case in point being the virtue of humility. If the reality I spoke about above does anything, then arguably it forces us to our knees in awareness of our own limitations and dependence on God. There are multiple fissures within which humility can develop in youth ministry training, including but not limited to, its relationship with the field, the church, each other, and various pedagogical approaches. What would be interesting to me is what youth ministry training might end up looking like if humility was actively pursued as central by all – theological institutions, teachers, students and the church as a whole. To my mind this is a quest worth going on.