Whisper it quietly, but face-to-face youth work is back. After more than a year of disruption, constant change and the ground repeatedly falling from under out feet, we youth leaders now have real reason to believe that the return to the in-person work will now be a swift and permanent one. We've learned lessons, we're carrying some scars, and oh, how we've missed the opportunity to gather young people in a physical place, and help them find some hope, purpose and belonging in a world that can be short on all three.
There are and have been plenty of opportunities to discuss all of the above (may we strongly recommend checking out the wealth of video content recorded at Youthscape's recent Renew Normal event?) – but right now it's time to get practical. Suddenly, the joy we feel at the prospect of a face-to-face return is balanced with a creeping sense of bewilderment. We're not simply going 'back to normal'; we now have to navigate some choppy new waters of socially distanced, not-quite-normal youth work. So, here's five things to think about as you plan your return; hopefully a helpful list of things to prioritise as you dust off those tuck boxes and thank the Lord for the insanely unhealthy preservatives that have kept those jelly snakes in perfect condition.
1. Know the rules, and plan accordingly
You may be ahead on this one, but even so if we've learned anything over the last year, it's that nothing is permanent. So, make sure that you've double-checked the latest rules and applied them to your context. The National Youth Agency have been doing a fantastic job of constantly updating their guidance – find the latest version here. You can also find the Government's own roadmap for the months ahead here. Remember though, these guidelines and their interpretations do tend to change and fluctuate. If you're working in a context which affords you access to an advisor – for example some Anglican dioceses, then make sure you factor in their advice too.
2. Check on your team
We've all coped in different ways, and to different degrees, with the pandemic. The reality of this may not always be visible on the surface – some of us have actually become quite practiced in projecting that "everything is fine." So before you simply call your volunteer team back together, and expect them to be able to give their all to the cause once again, make sure you take time to really see whether they're able to help you right now. Ask difficult questions – like, "how are you, really?" and "do you have the capacity for this right now?" The answers may not be the most convenient, but you might safeguard someone's sanity and long-term effectiveness by asking. Also – take time to pray with and for your team!
3. Take the spiritual pulse of your group
This one is really for a Christian discipleship context. Once you're able to meet with your young people, see if you can have an honest conversation with them as early as possible about what Christian faith has looked like for them over the last year. Unless they've found this a time of deep spiritual enrichment (and they'll be in minority if so) they'll be anticipating and dreading this question – but ask it anyway. You need to have a realistic picture of where the teenagers in your care find themselves in their faith journeys.
"You might feel insecure about masked, or socially distanced meetings, and sense the need to fill every second of your time together with a carefully-thought-through activity. In reality, young people just need a chance to come home…someone to listen to them."
I know that for some young people, the pandemic period has enabled them to place faith entirely on hold for the past year-and-a-bit; instead of grieving that, let's help them to be honest about it, and then move forward. There is no point contributing to a shared act of self-deceit that we've all been praying and reading our Bibles in the secret places of lockdown, if that hasn't been happening. And if your group (or part of it) has found that they've grown closer to God in this time, celebrate the fact!
4. Plot where your young people are (including the ones you’ve lost contact with)
If you open the doors of your youth venue on the first night back, and see every single member of your early-2020 youth cohort return, then you will be in a very select group. Youthscape's as-yet-unpublished research on the subject suggests that most of us can expect to see at least a 30% drop in numbers, and that may well be exaggerated in the early weeks as some young people feel reticent to return to groups outside of school. This is unfortunately a reality, however painful it might feel. It's really important however that we don't simply write off those who haven't come back. Bearing in mind Jesus' famous parable of the lost sheep, we must remember to go after the ones that have wandered off.
How do we do this practically? One way is by actually writing down the names of all of the young people that are known to us, and trying to plot where they are in relation to your group (you'll find a diagrammatic resource to help you to do this in our recent Renew Normal resource). It's important not only to track those who are absent, but also to try to sense the levels of commitment, happiness and belonging among those who do attend. Don't assume that because a young person has come back to your group, they still feel inclined to stick around.
5. Create space to talk – and listen!
Some young people will need an opportunity to talk about and process what is literally the trauma of the last year. Others will require less of this from you, and may be getting that support from other sources. Either way, don't pack your programme in the early weeks. You might feel insecure about masked, or socially distanced meetings, and sense the need to fill every second of your time together with a carefully-thought-through activity. In reality, young people just need a chance to come home. You may also feel like you have lots of advice to dispense, but try to resist the temptation. All many young people will need at the moment is someone to listen to them.
There will obviously be many other things to consider as we return to face-to-face youth work. But it seems to me that the most important things to prioritise all involve creating a safe space for young people to come back to. Safe in terms of the practical requirements of course, but also in the sense that they are once again known, listened to and loved. Everything else will follow, if we start by gently and prayerfully re-cultivating places of genuine community and care.