Youth Ministry and Liminal Spaces (Part One)

Mike Rutt June 14, 2023

Let’s start with being honest with one another for a moment - the last 18 months have been hard work, really hard work.

Let’s start with being honest with one another for a moment – the last 18 months have been hard work, really hard work.

Overnight the ministry (and young people) we had been building and investing our time, energy, hopes, dreams and prayers into was, overnight, sent tumbling to the ground like a Jenga tower after an overconfident brick removal.

Throughout the pandemic we were forced (and encouraged) to build something new from the scattered remains. Our work has had to be reactive, agile, and creative as we have responded to the needs of young people and responded to the various government restrictions placed upon us. We’ve had to risk-assess the benefit of working with young people in person versus the local case load and the risk caused by in-person gathering, longed for after retina burning hours on Zoom.

It’s been exhausting.

Part of the reason working throughout the pandemic has been so tiring is, for us, it has been a liminal space.

‘What’s a liminal space?’ you might ask.


Liminal Spaces (an Introduction!)

Liminal and liminality are both derived from the Latin limen, meaning threshold. In Latin this refers to the stone placed at the threshold of the door that had to be crossed to go from outside to inside, or viseversa.

In her book on leading in a liminal season, Rev. Susan Beaumont describes this space as being “stuck at a threshold between something ending and a new beginning” (How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. Susan Beaumont. p.1).

The threshold between something ending and a new beginning.

I think the pandemic has certainly felt like that – we were neither here nor there.

Due to circumstance forced upon us, the way we had been working with young people had ended, but due to the restrictions, we were not yet at a new beginning. We were ‘stuck’ in the middle, were we couldn’t go back to the old, nor could we push forward into the new.

Over the course of the last few months I’ve spent a bit of time recently talking and engaging with Christians who work with young people both in the UK and the USA thinking about what comes next in Youth Ministry. Helping youth workers reflect on the impact the (ongoing) pandemic has had on their ministry and practice. Helping them think through what the post-pandemic reality of faith-based work with young people could (and potentially) should be.

From those conversations, one thing has really struck me recently – it feels like we are longing for Egypt.

What do I mean when I say this?


The Desert

“Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur.” (Exodus 15:22)

In the wilderness of the desert the Israelites were stuck in a liminal space.

This was the reality for the Israelites. Their slavery and oppression had ended in Egypt – they’d escaped Pharaoh’s entrapment, God has led them through the Red Sea. But, they were not yet living in the reality of their new beginning. They weren’t yet in the Promised Land. They were stuck.

Like the Israelites I think we also feel stuck. We can’t ‘do’ what we were doing before, ministry doesn’t look like it did in 2019, we keep getting told that there is ‘something new’ out there, a different way of working with young people, but we’re not there yet, we’re not yet living into our new reality of post-pandemic work with young people.

Like the Israelites after fleeing Egypt, we’ve been stuck in the desert, it feels like we’ve been there a long time, and it feels like it’s never going to end.

Watch any king of nature or adventure television series that explores or experiences life in the desert, and you see that life in the desert is hard. The sun is exposed and hot – there is very little shade. Water is at a premium. Walking is hard – you have to trudge along step by step. Progress is slow. You feel burnt out. The desert is a place best avoided, or at best, a place you should spend as little time in as possible.

For us the COVID-19 pandemic has been our desert place.

Rev. Susan Beaumont describes it like this — “Liminal seasons are challenging, disorienting, and unsettling. We strive to move forward with purpose and certainty. Instead, we feel as though we are trudging through mud, moving away from something comfortable and known, toward something that can’t yet be know”. (How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. Susan Beaumont. p.2).

Until I read this, I had never seen my experience of the last 2 year so clearly articulated.

The reason the last 2 years has been so hard? We’ve been stuck in the desert.


Longing for Egypt

The thing about being in these seasons – it the desert – is that the only thing that is truly known is what came before.

Susan Beaumont says this about liminal seasons. “(In liminal seasons) we have clarity only about our past. This condition can invite an unhealthy relationship with the past. The temptation is to glamorise our glory eras. We create thin narratives about how wonderful things were back then. Or we truncate our memories to block out experiences of pain and shame”. (How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. Susan Beaumont. p.ix).

This was certainly true of the Israelites in their liminal season. As they found themselves in the desert, rescued by God from their slavery in Egypt, they longed to be back in Egypt.

“In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘if only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death’”. (Exodus 16:3) 

I think it’s fair to say that in this moment the Israelites are creating a thin narrative about their experiences in Egypt and are truncating their memories to block out the experiences of pain and shame they felt whilst slaves in Egypt.

I think, regardless of whether we have been in a liminal space or not, youth ministry has long had an unhealthy relationship with the past, and has been guilty of regularly glamorising ‘the good old (read: glory) days’. This has only been made more difficult during the pandemic as people have compared ‘pandemic provision’ and ‘pandemic engagement’ with the activities, engagement and numbers that were had before COVID-19.

With this ‘noise’ around us it’s easy for us to pine for what was before. To, as soon as possible, revert to the status quo (which if we’re honest wasn’t really working before), and appease the glory days advocates in the pews.

Ed Catmull (of Pixar fame) says this – “there is a sweet spot between the known and unknown (a liminal space) where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.”  

Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this: “All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of the ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where the is a betwixt between the familiar and the completely unknown,. This alone is where our old world is left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good place where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This sis the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space is our lives, we start idealising normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor” (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. p.155-56)

Do we, as Christian’s who work with young people have the confidence and the patience to linger in the space we currently find ourselves in? To not rush back to what was before, and to not sprint towards to unknown new, but to sit, and wait for God to reveal what is next to us?

In part 2 we’ll be exploring the opportunities liminal spaces give us in our work with young people…

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