Youth Ministry is Listening

If ‘the first duty of love is to listen’ (Paul Tillich) and love is the defining virtue of our faith, then we need to recognise that listening is not only at the heart of good youth ministry but also its lifeblood.

I recently attended the Youth Work Summit event in London . The theme was Dreams and Visions and speaker after speaker addressed themselves to this topic yet what I heard more often was the word ‘listen’. We were encouraged to listen to young people, to their culture and seek to understand it whether this be in the films they watch, their views of sexuality, or the state of their mental health. We were encouraged to work with young people rather than just for them or doing stuff to them. We were exhorted to listen to God, to use prayer beads as a help to this and to find space to be still and let go. We were reminded that hope calls into question the present reality and the visions and dreams spring from waiting and longing -in  other words a process of watching and listening.

None of this seems particularly new nor is it hard to grasp – yes we all know this, this is basic stuff! But why then was it such a recurrent theme at this conference of diverse speakers all speaking on different topics and from very different standpoints. Was it just me that needed to hear this or do we all forget to listen, really listen in our work with young people?

Mark Yaconnelli talks of youth ministry as presence in Contemplative Youth Ministry ( and Andrew Root explores the idea of place-sharing in Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry ( Both are about being fully present to young people, being intentional about listening to and understanding young people and, for Root, going beyond that to a deeper level of sharing. I can’t add to their wisdom but think they both are tapping into something profound and important and we need to hear it again (and again) until we listen and really hear!

I was at another event prior to the summit and in the prayer room, a simple prayer activity invited me to consider the space in between people; I was not sure I understood this at the time but on reflection it seems a powerful idea. The space includes the physical distance in between us but also more metaphorically the social, emotional and spiritual space that separates two people. Sometimes this feels like a chasm with people we do not ‘connect with’ and with others we feel an affinity that forms a close bond. It is of course possible that we can get too close physically and we talk of  invading our personal space but also we talk of relationships that suffocate us or overpower us. A right space between us is healthy and – this is the key – it can become the space that God inhabits. 

If this is true, then being ‘fully present’ to one another and to the young people we work with, means that we do not seek to fill that space with our words and ideas but allow their thoughts to permeate the space, to give them room to express themselves and even to be silent without being embarrassed. Maybe it is when we do this that we too can hear God.

John Wesley spoke of ‘prevenient grace’ – the idea that God is already at work in people’s lives and our world, we just need to discern his presence and work and get involved with what he is doing. It’s the ‘just discern’ that is not so easy especially when we’re so busy planning our curriculum and programmes to keep young people occupied. What would happen if we stopped all this and made listening the core activity and skill of youth ministry?

I often get asked how to start doing youth work and those involved normally have some idea of what youth work looks like. It’s either the open youth club requiring lots of people and resources or else its an older version of ‘Sunday School’ requiring lots of expertise to engage teenagers and a good curriculum to teach. My response is often to suggest that the starting point is to listen – to spend time hearing from the young people about their lives and their world, as we do this we can sometimes recognise the work of God and in turn we can help young people to see where God is at work and to hear the voice of God for themselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The person who can no longer listen to others will soon be no longer listening to God either.” It seems to me that the converse is also true, that the person who listens to others, will soon find themselves listening to God as well.

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2 Responses to Youth Ministry is Listening

  1. Lemon Grenades says:

    It took me many years to realise an uncomfortable truth, I am not a good listener. Part of the problem we face is that most of us believe that because we hear people’s words more often than not we must be ‘good listeners’; but this is simply not true. I had the privilege of a youth leader who really listened, who heard the meanings behind the words, and had the wisdom to know when to shut up and when to ask a very gentle question.

    I am struck by the fact that when Moses approached the burning bush God told him to take off his shoes as he was on Holy Ground. When we enter a space where another begins to open up to us, whether that person be a child, a teenager or an adult, we enter Holy Ground, and we should take off our metaphorical shoes and tread lightly on the ground; and we do that best by listening.

    So thank you for posting this. I believe it was G K Chesterton who said ‘I only need to be taught once but I have to be reminded often’ and I think you have reminded us of something deeply important, there is no such thing as ‘just listening’ because true listening is the most important part of love.

  2. Pingback: Building relationships with the younger generation « Talk to the Youth

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