When good strategy is not enough

My Diocesan bishop likes to quote ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ (Peter Drucker) and it’s a helpful thought to ponder and one that I am only just beginning to understand as I wonder how to change the culture of our churches in relation to young people and not just work on good youth work strategy.

I put lots of energy into developing and implementing a strategy for youth work in my church and I also recognised the importance of creating a culture within our youth group and indeed the church, that reflected the values that were important. Looking back now, I think my youth group had a culture of welcome, a sense of community and love for one another and a commitment to learn how to follow Jesus; they understood that their youth was a key time to grow in faith and that they had as much to give as to receive from those older than them. What  I don’t think I achieved (and failed to see) was changing the wider church culture and when there is no one to defend the strategy, culture devours.

It was a key part of the church’s mission and strategy to work with young people, the church prided itself on its work with children and families and were always supportive of youth projects and new initiatives, including giving financial support and the church was known for its work amongst young people. But somehow the culture of the church does not reflect the core value of young people in and of themselves and their inclusion in the community life in the way that I imagined it did. When  difficult decisions need to be made, culture rules that other priorities count and young people’s concerns can be missed from strategic decisions.

The reality is that in most of our churches, support for youth work means support for those who are doing it ‘over there’, praying for and encouraging the volunteers and those ‘gifted for that sort of work’, committing finances and even paid staff time. All of which are important but they may not affect the core culture of the church. Young people and youth work can be central to the vision but not central to the life of the community and its culture. So is it enough to have commitment to vision and strategy  or do we have to press for that key change in whole church culture if our work with young people is to be effective?

My strategy was to keep the youth work separate from adult congregations because I believe we need to be finding new ways of doing and being church and it was not always helpful for young people to assimilate older forms and styles of church. If they are going to renew and re-create church then they needed to learn to do it on their own without the pressure of conforming to traditional norms. There are other reasons too for working with young people separately to do with their developmental needs, time away from parents and the importance of peer groups for this age group but for me it was easier to work with young people this way rather than have them sit through services they didn’t relate to and sermons that tried to address too many age groups and with people who didn’t have much interest in them.

But I now wonder if this separation has caused the problem it sought to solve – by trying to protect young people from the culture of the church, I denied them the opportunity to change the culture of that church and prevented the church from truly owning its responsibility for its work with young people. I know I am not alone in this dilemma nor in citing the problem – we have witnessed a growth in church youth work over the last 15 years but a decline in numbers of young adults. Have we managed to change a culture for young people, but not change the church culture enough to guarantee their future participation?

However, including young people in existing church services and activities and expecting them to change the culture is also not the easy answer it may seem – how is it that when we identify a problem for young people we expect them to find the solution and be the solution? Unless we find a way to get our churches (and wider society for that matter) to see young people differently, to value them and to include them in shaping the culture around them, then we will only glimpse a partial view of the kingdom of God.

Our youth work may continue to grow as it follows good strategy but unless we see a cultural shift in our churches, we won’t make it to lunchtime.

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2 Responses to When good strategy is not enough

  1. Thank you Pete for linking to my recent blog post about church and its youth. I see you have extensive experience working with young people. I served as a youth pastor in my early years for a time, then went on to teach in the public schools. My article was precipitated by an article written by my good friend John Armstrong. Get to know him. He is a well informed Christian leader. I’m sad to see the “exodus”. It certainly causes the concerned ones to sit back and ask the uncomfortable questions. There is so much I could say but one thing stands out at the moment. Multi-generational ministry must be reassessed. With the widespread decimation of the traditional family unit, young people do not know what it is like to live in a loving culture of inter-connected family relations. It would be good to see missional strategy through the perspective of the familial lines, rather than through individuals unrelated to each other. Let’s keep this thread going friend. Blessings in your work!

  2. peteswhite says:

    Thanks – I’ve looked up John Armstrong and am aware of others saying similar things. I agree that we need to consider belonging and community more and supporting the family. However I think the jury is still out on multi-generational ministry. We worked hard on this with several age groups but didn’t work out how we could include teenagers who preferred to be with their peers. I have 2 main problems with it – first, it usually means that young people need to move and join in with existing work rather than an expectation that other generations will change to include them. The second problem is that we tend to start with worship services and try to do something that works for everyone in one place at one time and then wonder when it fails. We need to start multi-generational work in our small (home) groups and other ministries – for example our men’s ministry should include teenage boys, our mission trips and social involvement projects give opportunities to work together and forge relationships across generations in more natural ways; this may lead to mentoring partnerships and other deeper faith-forming relationships and maybe then we can call it multi-generational ministry?

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