30 years ago this week I started my first full-time post as a professional youth worker. 30 years working with young people, mainly teenagers, countless lives who have touched mine and changed me. Sometimes that has been mutual and our short encounters or longer-term relationships have changed them too. Most of the time it’s hard to measure the impact we have. Maybe it’s enough to remember the young people in the youth clubs, the young offenders, the homeless in the hostel, more youth clubs and street-based work, the pupils in the middle school and those part of church groups and camps. Many were a challenge and some, I know, were let down by my failings or inadequacies. However most of them were a joy to be with and I treasure the memories and privilege of spending time with them, of being a small (or larger) part of their lives and celebrating them as they grew into adulthood. That’s the wonder that has kept me loving what I do.
The desire for quantifiable results or ‘outcomes’ by successive governments has all but killed off youth work as we knew it. Gone are the days when it was enough to provide ‘somewhere to go, something to do, someone to talk to’ – the title of one of the first papers I produced to justify my existence whilst working in a community school context. Now I’d rather talk in terms of helping young people discover their identity, meaning and purpose – recognising the importance of spirituality, faith and belonging to that search.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of a 19 year old girl; heart-breaking and difficult to comprehend. Thankfully I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to do that for young people I’ve known. But a tragic, untimely death of a young person not yet in the prime of life causes me to pause and ask deep questions about the meaning of life and my work. It’s not that I doubt the value of what I do, just the occasional check-up won’t go amiss!
I’ve always been driven by a desire to make a difference, to make the world a better place and my heart has always been moved with compassion for young people. Being a teenager can be the most exciting time of life as we face new challenges and enjoy the freedoms of youth; but it can also be the toughest time as the physical and emotional changes triggered by puberty meet the changing expectations of a society that demands success in school, perfection in appearance and participation in a media-driven consumer culture with its own demands to ‘fit in’. It is no surprise that research constantly reminds us of the poor mental health and low levels of happiness amongst our teens (the latest out this week). It was always hard and my own teenage years were not easy but after 30 years it seems to be harder now than ever to negotiate adolescence. The universal Youth Service I started working for no longer exists, voluntary youth groups struggle to keep going and health and social services have restricted services available to young people. Instead of increasing support we have cut support for those who need it most.
I now work for the church. It is true that the church employs more paid youth workers than the government but I fear the absolute number of workers is decreasing as churches struggle to find funding. We’re also struggling to know how best to engage with young people, a boom in church-based youth work over recent years has not led to higher numbers of young adults staying in the church. Many of us are asking whether we need to rethink the whole ‘christian youth work’ model. There is no simple answer other than to recognise that young people do not see church communities as places for them to belong nor necessarily as spaces for them to encounter the Divine. Both belonging and the spiritual search are vitally important to the health and well-being of all of us and especially so for adolescents.
So my commitment to young people and youth work as a way of working with them has not changed. Young people fill me with wonder as they teach me new things and in so many ways reveal God to me. But I do keep wondering – what am I doing? As young people and culture change, I stay open to learn new things and new skills. I will keep seeking for new or not-so-new ways of being with and serving young people, for the models of church and discipleship that will enable young people to see the hope of Jesus and to know that life in all its fullness – identity, meaning and purpose – can be found in Him and the communities of people who follow His call.