Youth Ministry and Liminal Spaces

by Mike Rutt March 11, 2022 A

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?

But why is it important to sit and wait in the liminal space..?


Because it is in that space we have the opportunity to be provided for, an opportunity for for presence –  to encounter God, and an opportunity for imagination and creativity.


An Opportunity to be Provided For


In the previous article we’ve already touched upon the Israelites grumbling in the desert about the lack of food (or the better food they had in Egypt), in Exodus 16.


The story continues with an example of provision from God in the liminal space.


9 Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.’” 10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud. 11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’” 13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer[a] for each person you have in your tent.’” 17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.


We’ve said already that the liminal space is a hard space to be in – the in between space between the end of the old and the start of the new. It’s no wonder then that the Israelites were prone to a spot of grumbling. (How many of us have been guilty of grumbling throughout the pandemic!?)


But God hears the Israelites grumbling and God provides for them what they need.


Living and waiting in the liminal space is an opportunity for us whinge and to moan to God. To lament what was before and what has been lost. And to allow God to provide for us what we need.


An Opportunity to Encounter


As we’ve already said, but I think it’s worth reinforcing, liminal spaces are confusing and disorientating. They can be marked with frustration, disappointment, and grief. What was before had come to an end – we might be disappointed or sad that it has, and it is frustrating that we can’t rush into the next thing and that we have to wait.


But, we must remember and hold onto the reality that the liminal space is God’s waiting room. It is here we patiently wait to encounter the Divine.


It’s here we must return to Moses and the Israelites wandering in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt. They were expecting a quick transition into the next, into the Promised Land, but they were stuck in their liminal space, (im)patiently waiting to encounter God, waiting for the divine to speak…


…and speak God did!


We read about the encounter beginning in Exodus 19.


3 Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”


God speaks to Moses at Mount Sinai. God asks the Israelites to imagine a bigger and better future, one where the Israelites are a holy nation, God’s treasured possession, a confirming of the convent God made with Abraham.


And in this liminal space Moses (and the Israelites) continue to encounter God. God continues to speak and creates a new covenant with the Israelites passing the 10 Commandments (and many other rules) to them, setting out how the Israelites are to live as the holy nation and to be in relationship with their Creator.


This is just one of many examples of God speaking in the liminal space in the Bible…


Abraham and Sarah leave their homeland.

Jacob has to run away from home.

Joseph is thrown into a pit before heading to Egypt.

God speaks to the prophets whilst the Israelites are in exile (a great example of a liminal space!) and asks them to imagine a bigger and better future, a return to Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah.

Paul’s liminal moment is the blindness he experiences on the road to Damascus.

And Jesus begins his ministry by entering the desert for 40 days and nights after his baptism.


Each liminal experience and encounter with the Divine paves the way for a deeper relationship with God, a wider understanding of who God is, and a space where a new, bigger reality can be revealed.


As Christians who work with young people are we prepared to wait in the liminal space we have found ourselves in and wait for an encounter with God?


What practices can you engage in that will enable you to create the time and space you need to hear from God?


(CONCRETE are hosting a day retreat in June – you might want to sign up and use the space as an opportunity to hear from God)


A Creative Opportunity


Finally, liminal spaces are a creative opportunity.


Rev. Susan Beaumont puts it like this.


Liminal seasons are also exciting and innovative. The promise of a new beginning unleashing creative energy, potential and passion. All truly great innovations are incubated in liminality. God’s greatest work occurs in liminal space. (How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. Susan Beaumont. p.2).


We’ve all had pretty good practice at being creative and innovative during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we tried to continue to engage young people we’ve had to be agile and reactive as we’ve responded to restrictions and regulations as they’ve chopped and changed, at what times felt like, week by week.


Whilst important throughout the pandemic, this agility and reactiveness isn’t sustainable – nor is it an effective way of being, and continuing to be, creative. It’s energy sapping and frustrating – both for us and the young people we work with.


Just as we need to not look at the past though the lens of rose tinted specs, we need to be honest about the reality of the present. We need to remember that lots of the things we tried and tested in the liminal space need to be left in the liminal space. As look to the future of our work with young people we need to remember that,  just as we need to not rush back to just doing what we were doing before the pandemic, we need to not just think all the answers lie in what we’ve been doing in the last 24 months.


But as we emerge from the pandemic we need to be asking ourselves, our teams, and the young people we work with what the future of work with young people looks like moving forward. We need to imagine a bigger and better future for both the work and the young people we work with in the context we find ourselves in. (The CONCRETE Academy Fellowship is offering 2 year space in which you can ask these questions and do this work). 


And we need to trust that God will speak.