So many Christian youth initiatives have started in the same way. Anyone who’s ever been on the end of a pitch for funds will be familiar with the terminology: “God has given me this amazing idea.”
I don’t want to downplay the possibility of the Creator of the Universe handing out templates for the next great youth resource in the middle of the night; I’m sure he can and does. But for most of us, the ideas we develop for programmes and projects usually have a more earthly genesis; a moment of inspiration while we’re in the shower or out walking the dog. What we can then tend to do is retro-fit the element of divine intervention. It reminds me of a story Matt Redman once told about a young man who played him a song, which he liked. The young songwriter was delighted and told Redman that "God gave it to me”, to which he apocryphally replied: “it’s not that good.”
In the majority of cases, we’ve just had a great idea. And it probably is great. But that doesn’t mean we should just go ahead and develop it. What I’ve learned from looking at some of the most innovative companies and organisations in the world over the past few years is that they don’t develop ideas in this slightly random, scattergun way. They don’t walk into funding pitches claiming that the ghost of Steve Jobs has just visited them with a great idea; in fact they don’t start with the idea at all.
Good innovators start before the idea.
If we really want to develop new models, programmes and projects that meet the needs of today’s young people, then we need to start with those needs. At Youthscape, we call it the “opportunities” phase of development; the practice of listening intently to the culture and context that young people find themselves in, and the issues, needs and problems they’re dealing with. More positively, we also look to see the ways in which culture is creating new avenues for communication and change among young people.
Practically speaking, looking for opportunities means keeping your ear to the ground that you’re seeking to serve. Talking to teachers is one way to do this (and one that we’ve found particularly helpful), as is meeting with parents, and having formal and informal discussions with young people about their lives – even to the extent of focus groups. Keeping up-to-date with developments in youth culture as reported by the media is also crucially important, and of course, listening to and reading the latest relevant research is vital. By keeping all of these lines of communication open, you will naturally build up a picture of the opportunities and needs in your community – which are different and distinct in every location.
Once you understand the opportunities, your ideas will suddenly be a lot more relevant. In our experience, it means that the resources and programmes we’re developing don’t just fit with our imagined or gathered perception of what young people need, but with the reality of life in 2017. It’s not rocket science, but does mean a change of method for all of us.
And to end where we began, part of your opportunity-listening should involve asking God for wisdom and discernment. What is he already doing in your community? What might he be calling you to? If we commit ourselves to listening both to our communities and our God, then maybe he might just decide to wake us in the night with that amazing idea…
Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Deputy CEO.