Season 4 - Week 5
“Who sets the menu?”
The best thing about youth work is, obviously, young people. Those of us lucky enough to hang out with these legends on a regular basis will know the joy when one thing they say or do has a massive impact. Sometimes this results in a bit of fun (one legendary young person once bought someone a signed photo of themselves for a secret santa present, next year, we just had a draw to see who got a signed photo of who), other times the result is a bit more profound: the young person whose passion for refugees stirs the group to action; the weekly prayer meeting started by young people; a question posed changing the whole direction of an evening. In those moments we have choice: do we stick rigidly to our best-laid plans, or do we go with the flow, allowing young people’s voices to shape our ministries?
Read John 6:1-13
I like the idea of Jesus facing this choice. There he is, up the side of the mountain with thousands of people to feed, with his followers desperate for ideas, and the only option which presents itself is this one lad’s lunch. I mean, let’s be honest, it wasn’t the most worthwhile contribution around, no offense to the kid. But Jesus’ response, Jesus’ miracle placed this what this young people had central – he wasn’t on the periphery, he chose the menu!
What Jesus does next is an incredible model for youth ministry. He takes this young person’s contribution and multiplies it, giving it an impact beyond what this young person could do on his own. He takes their voice and amplifies it. In many contexts, we are in a much more powerful position than our young people, our job as youth workers becomes to raise their voices (often at the expense of our own) and help it create a much bigger impact than young people often believe to be possible.
If I’m honest, at my worst, allowing young people to participate in ministry is less about humility and more about tokenism. It’s less about valuing their contribution, and more about it being the done thing: the service led by young people when you’ve told them exactly what to say; the ‘what do you want to do this term’ conversation when you’ve already planned the schedule. But you don’t have to be in this game for long to realise that young people are savvy enough to see through our pretence.
you don’t have to be in this game for long to realise that young people are savvy enough to see through our pretence.
As youth workers, we need to be banging the drums for young people’s voices to be heard in Church, for them to be given the chance to meaningfully shape the family of Christ, but this will ring hollow (though I guess all drums ring hollow) if our youth ministries don’t involve meaningful participaton. This generation of young people are not passive consumers, YouTube is a two-way street; if our ministries are one-way streets where young people are expected to turn up and consume then not only is that dismissive of their valid voices and experiences, but is out of the touch with the culture they’re living in.
In one of Jesus’ most famous miracles, he partnered with a young person, allowing them to set the agenda. Jesus, the son of God, the one central to the world’s creation, was humble enough to place other people’s contributions front and centre, humble enough to know that other people had worthwhile contributions to make. When we work with young people, do we do the same? Is their participation tokenistic, or do they set the menu?
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
How are young people's contributions placed front and centre in the youth work in your context?
Next time you're with them, take some time to observe their characters, skills and passions. Imagine each one taking a lead in something they're naturally good at. What would it look like for this to be a reality?
Create space for a "two-way street" approach to your youth work.
Duncan and Laura at re:hope in Glasgow created a YouTube project which involved leaders making a video on a chosen theme and then challenging young people to create their own videos on the same theme to upload to their own channels. It gave the young people space to explore the meanings and ideas from the themes in their own way and opened up discussion amongst the group.
YouTube might not work for you but are there ways you could facilitate two-way working with your youth? What would they do if they were leading a service? Or planning a church bible study? Or...?
My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.