For the times, they really are a-Changin

Hugh Morrison


Thinking about

Youth Ministry in the 1990s


Once Upon a Time in the West

On a March afternoon in 1955, a young disaffected Auckland man walked into a Queen Street milkbar and fatally shot his ex-girlfriend. Four months later a similar, unconnected incident occurred further up Queen Street.

Only a year before the New Zealand public had been shocked and outraged by equally disturbing events and trends: the Parker-Hulme affair, a 'morals' scandal involving young people in the Hutt Valley, growing concern over youth-oriented movies, music and magazines emanating from America, and a Special Committee on Teenage Delinquency commissioned by the National Government.1 Up and down the country people were struggling to come to terms with such phrases as 'bodgie' and 'widgie', a new style of music called Rock 'n' Roll and screen anti-heroes like James Dean.

Against a backdrop of urbanisation, rising birth rates and economic growth, the 'teenager' was moving out into the spotlight. Like it or not, a definable youth sub-culture was fast becoming a reality.

Onto this stage, during the 1950s, stepped a fledgling Christian youth ministry called Youth For Christ. As a ministry it was not alone, but it was different. It was American in origin, innovative in style and willing to take risks. In a specific sense, it matched the changes occuring amongst young people in general. It also marked the beginning of a struggle - a struggle to present the claims of Jesus Christ to a changing generation of young people.

Forty years down track, the struggle continues. The pace of social change has not slowed, and youth culture has become a multi-faceted animal. Beliefs and religion-wise, children and young people have moved further and further from church and Christianity. Census figures reveal that, between 1956 and 1991, the percentage of the 5-19 age group stating 'No Religion' rose from 0.39% to 25.14%.2

In other ways too, New Zealand's adolescent population is changing. Whilst shrinking as a percentage of total population, it is increasingly fragmented with respect to family status, race, ethnicity and material expressions of what it means for young people to be 'young'.

Against this kaleidoscope of change, however, much of youth ministry is still monochromatic with respect to strategy and practice. Its roots still lie in a model developed in the 1950s and '60s. It has not properly come to terms with the changes of the 1990s.

This is the provocative argument made by Mark Senter in an important book: The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry.3 Whilst written for the American youth ministry scene, it is also relevant to our own rapidly changing context. At least three questions are raised by Senter's book: what has been happening within youth ministry?, what changes are occuring/likely to occur? and what are the implications of these for us?

Cyclical Trends in Youth Ministry

Senter has produced a book (based on his PhD thesis) which is a useful mixture of history, sociology and reflection on ministry philosophy and practice. At heart his argument is this: beginning in the 1820s, American youth ministry has moved through three, roughly fifty year, cycles (the historical details of which he outlines in some depth4). The third, characterised by Youth For Christ, is coming to an end. We are on the verge of a new cycle or revolution.

At this point some may argue: "Fine, this is America. But what is the relevance for us?" There now seems to be enough historical evidence to argue that New Zealand's culture and Christianity have been influenced by America throughout the 20th century. Furthermore, components of two (if not all three) of these cycles can be found in our own history. Perhaps we are looking at something that is more than simply 'just American'.

The greater value of Senter's book for us is his analysis of the nature of these cycles. What happens over the lifetime of a ministry approach, and why does it seem to come to an end? At the expense of simplification, the following diagram summarises Senter's argument.

Someone has summarised this process more pithily as: first, a man (or woman), then a movement and finally a monument. Senter sees evidence of this process in each of the major children's/youth work movements dominating America's history.

In analysing the most recent cycle, Senter sounds two warning bells. Professionalisation and the emergence of the 'professional youth worker' are contributing to its demise. The value of voluntary and lay leadership is being lost. Further, if youth ministry continues to apply a uniform strategy then the writing is on the wall. The emerging face of youth culture is too diverse and too elusive for one easy solution.

So now you sit back with that cynical Kiwi glint in your eye and ask of him, "so what will this next cycle look like, then?"

First, says Senter, existing youth ministries are doing a lot of tinkering with existing strategies and structures, but the next cycle won't necessarily be born out of these groups. Second, we need to look for the convergence between growing social unrest, the multiplication of grassroots youth ministries and the emergence of an acknowledged new leader (whether that be an individual or a group). Third, we need to acknowledge that we are in an age of renewed spiritual hunger. Fourth, he suggests the following as some of the next cycle's main characteristics.

1. Emergence of non-Caucasian leadership

2. International in character (not just Western/European)

3. An urban focus

4. Group based evangelism (compared with mass or one-to-one)

5. Prayer and worship as key and integral components

6. Women in key roles

7. Lay leadership

8. Resistance from existing church structures

9. Parachurch style ministries

10. Professional youth workers being redefined as 'servants of lay volunteers'.

Reflecting on our own context, some of these are occurring already. What further points should be added?

So What and Does It Matter, Anyway?

Does all this sound just a shade too deterministic? Does it not smell suspiciously of that familiar American tendency to analyse, define, tie down and control what is often grey and not so easily controllable? And where is the Spirit of God in all of this?

Without a doubt Senter's book is a by-product of American evangelical culture, but he has a real concern to understand what God might be saying through sociological trends, and to discern the way ahead - all for the sake of a terrifyingly large chunk of our population which lacks any real spiritual, ethical and moral framework. If such cycles are a recurring fact, then what do we need to be doing as a response, for the sake of our young people?

1. The Importance of Perspective

I was recently part of a gathering of Scripture Union workers in Melbourne, who took the time to sit back and apply this model to ministry amongst Australian teenagers. It was both an exciting and sobering exercise. Particular patterns became apparent as the whiteboard filled with dates, names, places and strategies tried. Ultimately it helped us to move forward in our planning, praying and thinking. This exercise suggested that there is some transferrence of Senter's argument, across national and cultural boundaries.

Youth workers are busy, pragmatic people who don't easily sit down to gain perspective on their work. But we need to. Missions historian Eric Sharpe laments the Christian community's inability to consider its historical roots.6 Can we redress this balance? Past, present and future are linked components. We sever them at our peril. The fast changing nature of our society demands that we make time to gain perspective.

Youth for Christ (NZ) is one national youth organisation amongst many that sees the importance of this. There is evidence that some denominational youth movements are doing the same. Senter's model encourages local and national groups to ask hard questions of themselves.

Maybe it is time for someone to research and write a history of Christian youth work in Aotearoa New Zealand. We are a small enough nation (and church) for this to be done in such a way as to help a wide range of groups understand the past, and move forward again.

2. The Need for Indigenous Research on Youth Culture and Spirituality

The weakness of Senter's work, for us, is that it is American in focus and concern. Its strength is that it is based on a firm understanding of American society and youth culture.

In New Zealand we lack that. If we are to gain perspective, we need research and writing that is indigenous in character. My bookshelf has a number of books about young people that are British and Australian. The only New Zealand publication of recent worth is the Ministry of Youth Affairs 15 to 25: A Youth Profile. It is valuable on many fronts, but there is nothing with reference to young people, religion and spirituality.7

It is time for someone to edit a collection of helpful writings, to help us understand youth culture and spirituality in our own context. The material exists, but I suspect it is in the heads of those who are the key practitioners.

3. The Need for Effective Self-Evaluation

If Senter's concept of cycles has relevance for us, then a number of us are possibly in the declining phase of the most recent cycle. If so, then we are in danger of majoring on being tradition-oriented and on justifying our continued existence for its own sake.8 Our resulting attempts at self-evaluation can sometimes be less than honest.

Senter argues that the cycle can be broken out of if we ask the right evaluative questions.9 Rather than asking "What are we doing?" we need to ask "What should we be doing?"

The first question leads to statistics, which can paint a nice enough picture. The second question leads to the fundamental reasons for who we are and why we do what we do. The first places an importance on surface impressions. The second emphasises the importance of deeper fundamental changes in attitude and orientation.

If, for example, Inter School Christian Fellowship runs camps for young people, what proportion of those young people are experiencing (over time) a deep conversion that will change both their direction and priorities? What impact will that have on how they relate at home, school and work; how they will begin to relate to our materialistic culture; how they will treat their environment; and so on?

Asking the right questions of ourselves might be the hardest, most painful thing we do. It may also be God's way for us to move forward again.

4. The Importance of Equipping Volunteers

The advertising columns of various journals and denominational magazines are full of 'situations vacant' for youth workers. The need in all communities is obvious. But is the solution simply to appoint and turn to the 'professional youth worker'? Senter states quite categorically, at this point, that:

"the youth ministries which will have the greatest impact in the coming revolution will be those which successfully recruit and equip lay people . . . where the youth minister begins to see him/herself as the servant of the lay volunteers . . . .The new breed of youth workers will be trainers, coaches, disciplers and equippers of adults with gifts to work with youth"10 (Emphasis mine).

In a period of financial constraints, this is a key way forward for all of us. But more fundamentally, it is the method that Jesus modelled in the Gospels. In New Zealand, some do it better than others. Specifically: how is the time of your youth worker(s) spent? (In running the show themselves, or in training others?) How ready are you to work, at the local level, across the various church boundaries? Is it time for geographical groupings of churches to employ key personnel to train others? Is your idea of a youth-worker a 'lone ranger-cum-super hero' or a team leader and facilitator? Keep questioning and thinking.

5. Strategies, Not One Strategy

This point has already been made. We only need to observe the various dress codes, hair styles and music preferences to realise the range of group allegiances amongst young people. Thus, while there are some things common to youth ministries, there are many ways in which they need to be packaged.

Because of this, Y-One is no longer one blanket strategy but has been split into a number of teams with different target audiences. ISCF camps no longer just go bush or mountain-ward. They are at the beach, catering for musos, in the city and on mountain bikes. (Scripture Union in Switzerland has even experimented with camps solely for skateboarders.)

All this illustrates Senter's point that youth ministry is constantly in need of entrepreneurial visionaries. In our organisational structures, with time-honoured traditions, such people need space. If not, we will lose them or disillusion them. That takes sensitivity from those of us with greyer hair.

It also means that we need to be more aware of entrepreneurial types, who may begin a work amongst specific groups of young people which is unconventional and beyond our boundaries or comfort zones. They too, need our support, prayer and understanding.

An article in Challenge Weekly, in 1994,11 illustrates this point. It referred to a journalist, who became concerned for a specific group of young people grafitti-bombing along Melbourne's suburban rail lines.11 In true cross-cultural missionary style he adopted their clothing, speech and lifestyle. He spent a lot of time gaining their trust, and raised the suspicions of those in authority. Six years downtrack he has rapport and understanding, counsels, leads an alternative worship time for them and is formally linked with the Melbourne City Mission.

It is precisely this grassroots type of ministry, argues Senter, that may mark the way forward. But will those of us in older, more 'respectable' outfits have the flexibility to recognise and embrace such new directions?

Back to the Future

She was still young, but somewhat old for her years. She was a loner in a community that was on the fringe of social acceptance. If she looked in the mirror, she saw nothing much of value.

Relationships? She'd been through so many that she should know how to work them. She didn't. Religion? She had an awareness of some sort of spiritual reality. But it wouldn't have lined up with your or my collar-and-tie definitions. No, she seemed well beyond the reaches of most youth ministries.

Lucky for her that there was a particular youth worker prepared to cross the tracks, and spend time with her. Someone who was prepared to be vulnerable and to listen. Someone not too concerned with reputation or social mores. Someone who stopped long enough to discern her heart-cry for relationship and fulfilment. Someone who put people before programmes, preconceived aims and techniques. Someone who finally touched base with her whole community, because time was first spent with this young woman.

Such was the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42). Such is the need amongst young people in Aotearoa New Zealand. Mark Senter's book, whilst American in context and concern, is a useful catalyst to help us consider our calling here. In an age which exalts a cult of 'materialistic success', and where programmes and statistics are often the boundary markers of successful ministry, we are called back to have a passion for people.

At the bottom line, we need to be committed to a ministry that is relational.12 Youth ministry needs to point young people to a restored relationship with God, each other and their wider world. Whatever forms it takes, it must be a ministry of hope.



1 R. Yska, All Shook Up: The Flash Bodgie and The Rise of the New Zealand Teenager in the Fifties, (Penguin, 1993), pp 153-188

2 New Zealand Census, "Statistics on Religion", 1956-1991

3 M. Senter, The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry (Victor Books, 1992)

4 Senter, pp 83-152

5 Senter, pp 35-82

6 E. Sharpe, "Editorial", South Pacific Journal of Mission Studies, (July, 1994), 1-2

7 This is simply a reflection of the Ministry's concern with particular areas of policy development. But it is symptomatic of a deeper neglect of this aspect of understanding modern adolescents. A useful model of how this might be tackled, is the British publication Reaching and Keeping Teenagers (1993). The Christian Research Association and MARC were commissioned to do this study by a grouping of Christian youth organisations.

8 Senter, pp 69, 205

9 Senter, p 27

10 Senter, pp 181, 185

11 "God Speaks Thru Ulturnativart", Challenge Weekly, (June 8, 1994) pp 7, 10

12 Pete Ward , the Archbishop of Canterbury's Advisor for Youth Ministry in the UK, has done much to alert us to the priority of relationally based youth work. See especially Youth Culture and the Gospel 1992, Worship and Youth Culture, 1993 both by P Ward, published by Marshall Pickering; P Ward et al, Youth Work and How To Do It, 1994 and P Ward (ed) Relational Youth Work, 1995, both published by Lynx.

Hugh Morrison is Scripture Union's co-ordinator for Inter School Christian Fellowship and an avid Tintin fan. He and his wife Anne have been teachers and worked with both ISCF and Youth For Christ in Taranaki. After three years at the Bible College of New Zealand they now live in Wellington.


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