Youth work is 10 years out of date!

so_retro_by_mathiole(style v substance discussion here)

Much of our youth work is consistently at least 10 years out of date. Truthfully it’s more like 20.

When we design a project, we are influenced by a whole host of things, however three specifics tend to consistently stand out:

– Our own experiences of youth work from when we were a young person
– Successful youth work books we have read
– Training events and conferences where the speakers are veteran youth workers

These are great things! Genuinely. But there are some problems from a culture point of view.

Your Own Experiences

When we use what worked in our own youth work experience, that experience is usually at least a decade out of date. This is what was cool or what was relevant when we were growing up which might be drastically different to today. No matter what I do, for instance, I cannot get my guys interested in DC Talk or the World Wide Message Tribe!

“Although the truths we know and the relationship principles of humanity remain the same, the cultural context they sit in is constantly in flux – and we tend to be left behind.”

Unfortunately too many of us use our youth work platforms to either fulfill what was missing or relive moments that impacted us from our youth work past. Some of this might be useful, you should after all go with what you know! However, it is a pretty blinkered approach to creating contextually successful youth work.

Youth Work Books

I’ve read some amazing youth work books. However the best youth work books on the market today are 10-30 years old – and are often American.

The 2014 updated ‘Youth Work Reading List’ on, for instance, doesn’t include a single piece of writing after 2003.

When reading youth work books from America, it is easy to be taken in because they are so well written and represent a ‘thriving’ youth work culture. However culture in America is very different to in the UK.

The USA is still mostly in some form of Christendom. The popular culture however, is maybe a decade ahead of us. This means there is a polarisation of culture embedded into these youth work books that addresses a social church culture 30-50 years behind and a popular culture up to 10 years ahead. This simply does not speak to our context.

“We are – right now – working with a 22nd Century people.”

Conference Speakers

Veteran youth workers that speak at conferences – specifically those that keynote – are brilliant! However they usually became veterans over the last 10, 20, or 30 years and have often ‘graduated’ to other pastoral or training ministry.

If they are still involved in youth work they often manage teams or shepherd projects from more of a distance. They might develop new ideas and new forms of youth work to engage with culture but what had worked for them personally before isn’t necessarily what’s working in their projects today.

I’m partially revising this thought because many conferences that I attended this year had the opposite problem in that many of their speakers we’re still pretty green and very specifically contextual. Not that this solves the problem!


So what?

When we consider these things, our youth work could be at least a decade out of date. It’s aimed at what was cool, what did work, and what might of been successful a while back – and perhaps not in our culture at all.

“We need to be aiming at tomorrows culture, not todays and certainly not yesterdays!”

When you add to this the dramatic pace of popular culture, the sweeping and unstoppable technology market, spreading globalisation and the unpredictable directions of generation Z – we need to be aiming not at today’s culture but tomorrow’s. We are – right now – working with a 22nd Century people.

Although the truths we know and the relationship principles of humanity remain the same, the cultural context they sit in is constantly in flux – and we tend to be left behind.

Young people aren’t necessarily uninterested in our message – in fact this generation are incredibly spiritually curious – they just don’t want to be coaxed back into yesteryear to hear it.

Even some of the most modern and flash youth ministries at large thriving churches are employing principles from a decade ago. It looks great, it’s lots of fun, but it only engages with a small sliver of humanity in the young people themselves.


10 Cultural Observations For Today

Here are some cultural observations to consider in our youth work projects:

1. They Need Us To Engage Senses Rather Than Emotion

It’s easy to make young people miserable or joyful and call them to respond from that emotion. These responses tend to last as long as the emotions themselves, thus need constant poking and more boisterous maintenance. They should be responding from senses instead; a sense of clear identity, community belonging, conviction of sin, understanding of love, awareness of presence, etc.

2. They Want A God Cares About What They Care About

This generation needs to know that God shares their love for the world, not just for themselves. God is on their team – His heart breaks for what theirs does. This is more a save the world generation than any before.

3. They Need To Participate, Not Consume

Community participation is much more important to a young person than having a great consumer experience. For instance, in my context, when we run events we put guitar chords on the screen with the songs and invite the young people to bring instruments with them.

“Do you believe in the socks and sandals, meek and mild, blond hair blue eyes Jesus – or do you believe in the dangerous, revolutionary with fire in his eyes and a dagger on his tongue?”

4. They Keep Community Secrets

Young people in this generation guard knowledge, understanding and activities almost religiously in the circles they move in. We need to treat their friendships with some sanctity.

5. Parents are less helpful

I still believe that we need parents on board however parents are just as culturally detached for the same reasons youth workers are. They however, come with all the extra emotional baggage of family too. Youth programs need to give space away from family in very real ways.

6. They can be more choosy

I spent 7 years working and living in London – whatever you did in your youth program you can guarantee six other churches did it better around the corner. We cannot compete with secular culture, nor should we. What do you offer that’s authentic rather than flashy? Some of the cheapest things look the flashiest now, but young people are learning to spot the rat and know the real thing.

7. They’re looking for authenticy

Not a ‘Christian version of…’ Or a ‘look we can do it too.’ The Smashing Pumpkins’ front-man, Billy Corgan said to Christian bands, “stop copying U2 and stop making bad music” – he’s right! Young people are looking for something real and genuine. We need to offer something real, meaningful and substantive.

8. They Need Jesus To Work In Real Life

Make it about life holistically. So many youth materials say we should worship Jesus with our whole lives – but I’ve yet to read one that expands on that other than ‘pray when you brush your teeth,’ or ‘sing Christian songs in the car.’ How does Jesus and life intrinsically work together? If Jesus doesn’t work in real life, He doesn’t work – and they know it!

“Young people aren’t uninterested in our message, they just don’t want to be coaxed back into yesteryear to hear it.”

9. They hate trolls too

They’re genuinely looking for real conversation – not sixteen reasons why science hasn’t disproved God. Sitting down and talking is better than an epic three part talk any day.

10. They hate the same Jesus you do

Do you believe in the socks and sandals, meek and mild, blond hair blue eyes Jesus – or do you believe in the dangerous, revolutionary with fire in his eyes and a dagger on his tongue? Tell them what you don’t believe about Christianity, not just what you do – This culture won’t make the distinction if you don’t.

Bottom line

There’s obviously plenty more, but this is what I came up with in bed last night and sat on the loo this morning.

Let’s make our youth ministry about our young people in their young people’s world – not – about when we were young people in yesterday’s world.

For more like this follow @timgoughyfc on twitter.

7 replies
  1. Ryan R
    Ryan R says:

    I liked this for plenty of reasons, but also because you wrote whilst sitting on the loo and finished by saying “bottom line” (Giggle).

    😀 Cheers bro!

  2. Alan Sorensen
    Alan Sorensen says:

    very interesting observations. I did find myself wondering, though, are you a veteran youth worker??? But thanks for the insights.

    • timgough
      timgough says:

      Hi. Thanks for your comment. I’m a youth worker with 10 years varied experience and a good theology degree. That wouldn’t make me a veteran, but I don’t believe I need to be for there to be truth in my observations, or for God to use them. The wonderful nature of grace! Thanks.

  3. jimrccc
    jimrccc says:

    Just been introduced to your blogs, Tim. Excellent – I salute (oops – sounds a bit American) your willingness to critically review the youth work world and to provoke some thought and, hopefully, action. Brilliant! I read this one and was about to respond but thought I better read a bit more. I’ve been on the fringes of youth work for years and would fall into the “veteran” category. Ironically, with your list of 10, I thought you were American! Anyways, I think that you’ve hit a few nails right on the head – I agree with most of what you’re saying. A couple of things I would comment on though. Generations are important – young people don’t live in a world that is exclusively young. They’ll have adults in their lives of all generations and part of the challenge is to help young people grow into maturity. Some young people may, if asked, cite a parent, grandparent, teacher, for example, as the most influential person in their lives. That leads on to families – families and parents are important! Your comment about “space away from family” gives the impression that family is negative – I’m not sure if you mean that. One challenge for youth workers is to avoid isolating their groups and seeing everything outside youth culture as negative. After all, isn’t that how some young people think and isn’t that one of the attitudes that youth workers can have a huge role in challenging?

    • timgough
      timgough says:

      Hi. Thanks for you helpful comments, and thanks for taking the time to read these thoughts and add your own wisdom. It’s very welcome! :-)

      No – I’m not American, just married to one, and I lived with a bunch for two years.

      I completely agree with your comments about generations, families, and most of all integration.

      I often lead church training days in youth work on the power of interested adults and I’ve written on the importance of families work and integration.

      I poke at parents here because we simply can’t assume they are on side de facto, and in some cases the family is a serious obstacle to the Gospel. The role of the family is challenged and deteriorating every year and this has consequences for our youth work; parents can be less helpful and it’s ok to consider youth groups as space from the family. Not the whole story, but still worth some balanced thought methinks.

      Couple of posts that could be relevant to this:

      Thanks again.



Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] posting “youth work is 10 years out of date” I’ve had several comments that effectively said the things above. I could reduce these down to […]

  2. […] America is still in some form of Christendom whereas the UK is long past it.The UK’s Church driven state is at least 50 years gone now. We are 3 generations removed from when Church attendance was a cultural expectation. This, as a basic rule of thumb, makes our youth clubs and our interaction with family units much smaller. More on this here. […]

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