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Disappointment and despair: the 'why' of youth ministry

Dr Phoebe Hill

03 Dec, 2018


Disappointment and despair can be prevalent in youth ministry; when struggles come, why carry on? Phoebe Hill explores the value of a theological approach to youth work.


A few years ago, I had reached the end of my tether with my youth group. Nothing seemed to be ‘working’ with the young people who were attending, and worse still they seemed to resent being there, having been made to attend by their parents. We were a humble group of just six young people with two struggling volunteer leaders, and I started to wonder if we were doing any good at all.

Feeling like a failure

I became overwhelmed by this idea that the youth group was not ‘working’. I felt like I was responsible, and that it was up to me to fix it, but I had no answers. I felt like I was failing the young people in my church, and every week was a painful reminder of this fact. I started to resent going to youth group because I felt bad and I felt responsible. I kept thinking to myself: ‘For goodness sake, I have a professional youth work role as my day job and I can’t even run a youth group successfully!’ My prayer times became strategy meetings with God where I would plead for a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of my group. I began to run the youth group from this place of anxiety and desperation and resentment.

Mark Yaconelli sums up this feeling brilliantly in a description of his own anxious approach to his ministry in the early years, and the desperate efforts and overtime he was putting in to no avail. He writes: ‘Looking back, it’s easy to see that this whirlwind of effort wasn’t really about the Christian life. Although I believed I was trying to help young people discover Jesus’ way of love, in reality I was more worried about meeting expectations. Thus the focus of my ministry wasn’t God’s love, but rather the anxiety and expectations of myself and the other adults in the church. Sadly this kind of anxiety is a common motivator within western Christianity, often masking itself as spiritual passion. It is a driven-ness to perform, an obsession with results, a concentration on goals and outcomes that discounts the ordinary graces and small cries for mercy inhabiting our daily lives. Our anxiety-filled ministries expose an unspoken belief that God is utterly untrustworthy, that God’s impotence has forced us to take responsibility for the souls of young people ourselves’.[1]


Chasing 'success'

Somewhere along the road my ministry had shifted from being about helping young people to discover Jesus’ way of love, to the need to be a successful youth group that was ‘working’ (whatever that means!). When there are so many pressures on our time already, the last thing we might think of doing in these moments - particularly as a volunteer like me - is to spend time thinking theologically about our ministries. And yet this may well be exactly what is needed to reorient ourselves to how God sees them, and to remember that he is actively involved in them.

The story above is a microcosm of the anxiety and desperation we might feel on a national level when we think about young people and the Church in the UK. Reports on church attendance (including our own research, Losing Heart) confirm the low numbers of young people in churches up and down the country. Fewer and fewer attendees at youth ministry training colleges suggest declining numbers of those going into church-based youth ministry in the first place. These pressures can make us fearful. We can start to operate our ministries from a ‘deficit’ mindset, of plugging a gap, of channelling resources to where they are most needed. We begin operating out of fear, not out of faith; out of lack, not out of love. We fall into the trap of ‘economising’ or ‘technologising’ in youth ministry, focusing only on what ‘works’, on the most impactful or effective way of working, and on numbers over individual people. Out of desperation, we start looking anywhere, everywhere, for the answers, clinging on to the latest ‘silver bullet’ which might just provide the solution. We can even end up removing God from the picture entirely.


A new perspective

Root and Dean identify a ‘rhetoric of despair’ and an absence of theological thinking in youth ministry. They argue that youth ministry must be rescued from ‘decades of foster care in the social sciences in order to return it to its theological home’.[2] Root and Dean explain that, ‘We must begin to see ourselves not primarily as youth ministry directors but as theologians who do constructive theology in the context of ministry with the adolescent population’. Thinking theologically about our youth ministry helps us to orient ourselves to God’s perspective. Thinking theologically about our youth ministry helps us to operate and evaluate our ministries through a theological lens, focusing on how God sees them and what his priorities are, and ultimately remembering that he is actively involved in them.

Thankfully, my youth group turned a corner. After months of feeling like we were getting nowhere, young people began to encounter God for themselves, and everything changed. Things started to click into place. Young people seemed to want to be there. Hey, I even wanted to be there again! By God’s grace, he hadn’t removed himself from the picture, even if I had. As we look to the future of our own ministries, and think about what it is that we want to achieve, our hopes and dreams for the young people present and our vision for the group, how can we think theologically about our ministries, and remember God’s active presence in them?

1. Yaconelli, M., Contemplative youth ministry : practising the presence of Jesus with young people. 2006, London: London : SPCK.

2. Root, A. and K.C. Dean, The theological turn in youth ministry. 2011, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

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