Punched in the Face with Happiness

Bring back Borstal?

Seriously? Surely no one in their right mind would want to bring back that discredited regime that was brutal, oppressive and even abusive before it was finally shut down. I have to admit my prejudice may be over-informed by the film ‘Scum’ that traumatised me in my teenage years but even so, you can’t be serious?

Yet there it was; an ITV programme detailing an experiment of going back to theborstall original idea for Borstal in the 1930’s – (complete with period clothing!). It seems the original idea wasn’t so bad after all and it’s later manifestations were a far cry from what was intended. I even found myself thinking – this could work! What was happening to me?  I’ve always had serious questions about the value and purpose of prison and custodial sentencing for young people, based not just on theory but from working with young offenders and visiting young people in Young Offender Institutions. And now I’m thinking, there may be some merit in this approach!

So what has changed my view? Largely the observations of Professor David Wilson, criminologist and previous Prison Governor who masterminded the experiment for TV but also watching the impact of the regime on the young men involved and hearing their stories. It seemed to me that much of what was said described principles of best practice for any work with young people, be it youth work, social work or similar profession. Somehow we seem to lose sight of this in our everyday work with young people who commit criminal offences and think different rules apply.

First the key component was the relationship of the staff and the young men. This was clearly a relationship based on authority with a clear hierarchy but nevertheless the staff aimed to get to know the young men and treated them with respect. There was consistency in the staff who were there and a concern to work with them. As David Wilson commented,

‘the system had no merit without the staff; it was firmly believed that it was the men who would change the hearts and minds of the lads.’

One young man was overwhelmed by the concern showed by staff who went the extra mile to help him and described it as ‘like being punched in the face with happiness’

Secondly, the Borstal engaged with the local community. The young men were involved in community work that brought them into contact with local people. This was not just isolated community service but presented opportunities for conversations with, for example, elderly people in a home. This chance to listen to and learn from grandparent figures was probably lacking in many of the lives of these young men and the older folk were not too scared to ask direct questions of these young men. Wilson observed how prison walls not only keep people in but also shut the community out and they end up thinking that they are all monsters. Most of them however are not, just ‘some young men needing a chance’.

Thirdly there was education and preparation for future employment. All the young men were sent out to work – again outside the Borstal – engaging with local workers and learning practical skills and the soft skills needed for working with others. During the last week, the young men were prepared for interviews, and then met with potential employers for work once they left the programme. These were employers who were used to working with young people with a difficult past and all the young men were offered jobs, much to the surprise of some who had never been able to find employment before. This is in stark contrast to the lack of preparation and concern for prisoners on their release in the current system. I heard the other day of a young man who turned up at our local food bank having just been released from prison – he had no home to go to, no job, no money and no food. Is it any wonder these people end up back in the institutions that they know will provide for them?

Fourth, there was a pervading sense of hope; a sense that change was possible for these young men often in spite of their own view of themselves. The challenge to confront themselves and to take responsibility for their present and past was often difficult but it opened up the possibility of a new future and a fresh start.  One young man mused that he could not imagine how any one might see him as a ‘good guy’ given his past behaviour and stated he ‘was terrified of going back to the person I was’. His personal lack of hope contrasted with the optimism of the staff who saw great potential in this young man.

It is too early to say whether the programme worked for these young men but the signs were good. In the 1930’s, of those who went through Borstal, 70% never re-offended; significantly this is almost exactly the opposite to the rate of re-offending that prison produces today. Wilson acknowledges it is cheaper and easier to lock people in cells than it is to engage them in meaningful work and challenge but it is only so for the short-term. Prison does not work in bringing about the deeper change in character and lifestyle that is needed and this programme suggested that alternative ways could work.

Do I want to bring back Borstal?  No, I’m still not convinced it will work but what we do need are programmes that challenge and support young people to take responsibility; schemes that integrate them in their local community and provide them with employment and purpose. That’s a role for us and our communities and maybe if we could do that then we wouldn’t need borstals or any other institution for the majority of young offenders.

See also blog by Professor Wilson:


Posted in Youth Justice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lost Christmas, Lost Church?

Have you ever wondered why we do all those carol services at Christmas? Why do clergy and others run themselves ragged in the weeks and days before Christmas Day putting on services for all those different people? And who are ‘those people’, who are we aiming them at?

It’s a well known fact that more people attend church at Christmas than any other time of the year and so you’d think the carol service will be aimed at those people, those who aren’t normally there and who the church wants to make most welcome at this important time of year. BUT (there’s always a but…) the church is also full of those who faithfully attend church regularly throughout the year, even if ‘regularly’ no longer means once a week. So who’s it for and does it matter?

This Christmas, I went to two carol services at different churches, one was more traditional whilst the other was a strange mix of old and new. I left the second one wondering who it was aimed at.  It was a strange mix of traditional carols, some choral singing of less well-known songs, some modern worship songs known to the regular congregation, readings from the Bible and a talk from the vicar. It was advertised as a Carol Service yet we sang only one carol in the first half an hour. If I was a visitor I think I’d be wondering what I’d come to. I’m not suggesting that every carol service should be a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols; we need to bring things up to date and be prepared to innovate, but maybe we need to call it something else or at least be clear who we are doing it for and not try to do too much in one service.

Alan Billings in ‘Lost Church’ argues that there are a large number of the populace who see themselves as belonging to the Church of England and who are the ones who turn up at occasional festivals such as Christmas. Linda Woodhead’s research suggests something similar in noting the increasing numbers of people who only come to church at those times. The question for Billings is whether we will recognise that this group already ‘belong’ and whether we will make them feel welcome or not.

He questions the conclusions of Grace Davie who proposed that more people believed without belonging – i.e. they have some form of faith but choose not to attend a church in order to exercise it.  Instead he suggests that more people see themselves as belonging to the Church of England than we give credit for – these people see the church in a positive light and will attend at certain times of the year or for significant events or know it is there in times of crisis. It is an interesting hypothesis that seeks to recognise the parish system is still working; people see their local church as just that – ‘our church’ and the vicar as ‘our vicar’.   They may have some faith or it may be incoherent, they do not attend church regularly but they may see themselves as Christians and try to live a moral life. The church we have lost is one that caters for and understands the needs of this group.

According to Billings, we have instead focussed our energies either on believing – ensuring we sign up to a prescribed set of beliefs or on attending – supporting the faithful group who come to church regularly. This means we miss out on the third group who ‘belong’ and Billings argues they are the majority of our population. Whilst I want to take issue with some of his argument and conclusions, at the same time he makes a good point and it came into focus for me at those carol services.

For me, Christmas services have always been special and the atmosphere of the candle-light, the familiarity of the carols and the power of the nativity stories combine with memories of Christmas past and somehow draw me into the mystery of God made flesh in the Christ-child. I missed that this year. When we make the service all about believing or focus on making it more contemporary, we may fail to make welcome those very people who come because they want to remember the meaning and power of Christmas.

If we lose them at Christmas, we may have lost church as well.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

17 years old but they’re still children

It’s unusual for me to be suggesting that young people should be treated like children. My youth work practice is normally built around advocating for and giving greater responsibility to young people, on enabling participation in decision-making and empowering young people to take control of their lives.

BUT now I’m celebrating the fact that young people aged 17 will be treated as children – at least by the police. This week a small amendment was made to a larger Criminal Justice Bill in parliament that meant no longer will 17 year olds be held overnight in police cells (but transferred to Local Authority accommodation) and it follows previous changes ensuring the right to an appropriate adult and for a parent/carer to be notified.

For any of us who have visited or been in a (strangely named) police ‘custody suite’ will recognise this is not a good place for children and whilst most other laws fail to recognise the rights of young people under 18 it was an anomaly to treat them differently at a time when they are most vulnerable. Sadly the concession was won at the cost of 3 young people aged 17 who died in the last 3 years either in custody or as a direct result of being held in police cells.

England and Wales has the highest rate of child imprisonment in Western Europe and the lowest age of criminal responsibility. At 10 years old, a child can be arrested and labelled a criminal for the rest of his/her life – 3 children aged 10-11 are arrested every day; They’re still at primary school so surely no doubt that they are still children. The vast majority of young people in the criminal justice system are not the thugs or ‘feral’ out of control young people as the tabloid press would like us to believe; many suffer multiple disadvantage, are neglected or abused, have mental health difficulties or additional educational needs – often having been excluded from school.


My work with ‘juvenile offenders’ in the past and with other young people who would be deemed to be ‘at risk’ of offending proved to me that these statements are not academic but rooted in real life stories of young people struggling to grow up in difficult circumstances. Occasionally I would meet a young person for whom crime had become an entrenched pattern of behaviour but most of the time these young people needed support and diversionary activities. The last thing they needed was to be locked up. Re-offending rates for those coming out of prison remains high (over 70%) and so it’s purpose can be justified only in terms of punishment and protection for the public for the time they are away. It does not address the underlying causes nor reduce long-term offending behaviour.

In the early 90’s the project I worked with offered pre-court diversion, reparation and community-based resolutions that meant offenders had to face the consequences of their behaviour and seek to repair the damage done to relationships and communities. It was an approach that was proven to work with 90% of young people. Yet, it was a programme that was cut in favour of more punitive approaches and because the actions of the 10% created more headlines.

It’s time we stopped demonising young people and time we started seeing them all as children, even when they get things wrong,  including the 17 year olds.


*statistics quoted are from the Howard League – http://www.howardleague.org/

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Zorbing Church

Do you ever ask yourself, ‘What’s this church thing all about?’

After a weekend with little sleep and constant activity I’m exhausted but exhilarated, recovering but rejoicing and while some muscles ache, I’m energised to keep going.

Many of you will understand fully that question when I explain that I’ve just spent the weekend with a great group of young people from one of our churches in the diocese. I was privileged to be asked to speak to them to encourage them in their faith but I also got to join in lots of fun activities – most of which involved getting wet – from an early morning swim in the lake, to rafting, canoeing, rowing and finally late-night ‘water-zorbing’. But what’s it got to do with church or more importantly how does this help young people understand what church is all about?

Most of those activities required us to work together  and it was good to see young people encouraging and helping one another or learning to paddle a raft or canoe in unison so they could move in a straight line. Water-zorbing, however is something else – a very individual pursuit. It involves being sealed in an IMAG0250air- and water-tight plastic ball and then rolling around on a pool of water, trying to stand upright and take some control of where and how you move. Lots of fun, but it’s virtually impossible!

I wonder how often church is more like zorbing (without the fun!) when it could be like paddling a canoe.

Our learning theme for the weekend was ‘taking ownership’ – owning our faith, our community/church and our purpose in life. We were really exploring what it means to belong – to Christ, to one another and the kingdom of God and the responsibilities that go with it.

At the heart of human need is the need to belong, to be connected, to be loved, to be part of a group of people who know us and accept us for who we are, it gives meaning and purpose to our lives and it’s absence is loneliness and suffering.

Church is community (by definition) and yet sadly we often miss this or even ignore it. We buy into an individualistic culture of teaching about a ‘personal’ faith and relationship with Jesus that we lose sight of belonging and relationship. Instead John tells us that the two go together, ‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.’ ( 1 John 4:16)

I believe that if we prioritise belonging in our work with young people then the rest will follow; if we create communities where young people are welcomed, accepted and loved unconditionally, where they experience the grace of God as they travel through adolescence, then they will stay with us until they start to understand what they believe and take ownership of a life of faith for themselves.

Sadly too many young people live life as if they were zorbing – in their own bubble, desperately trying to reach others and connect; our youth groups and churches can offer a different kind of life, closer to paddling together in a canoe, where we have to pull together to keep traveling in the same direction.

So who’s coming to canoeing church?



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t make them a cause, Give them a cause…

So said Joshua Jost at yesterday’s Youth Work Summit and it seemed to crystalise my thinking after a day and a half of seminars and presentations. The summit works on the TED talks format and features many speakers given 10 minutes to share new ideas or thinking on topics relevant to youth ministry linked by the broad theme of ‘Open Up’. However apart from that they are unrelated and cover a diverse array of subjects.

However there was another connecting strand that seemed to weave its way through the day for me that was probably not intentional but was significant for me. That thread is difficult to define in one word but was around the idea of social action, entrepreneurship and  re-imagining church. It was important because it offered some answers for me to questions that I brought with me from the previous day and earlier musings.

The previous day, I’d attended the’Intensive’ an inspiring and challenging day with Kenda Creasy Dean, author of ‘Almost Christian’ (and other books that have shaped my ministry with young people!). The day explored issues around reaching the generation of teens and young adults missing from our churches and turning their backs on Christianity. I left with a better understanding and ideas of what we might do in order to ‘practice resurrection’ and promote the ‘upside-down hermeneutic of the gospel’.

But I was still grappling with the questions, what is the gospel for this generation? and how do we ‘do church’ with them?

And I had to acknowledge the resonance in my own soul, my own recognition that the ‘gospel’ as we define it doesn’t always work for me. It was oddly reassuring to recognise that ‘the gospel of happiness’ is not true, that the gospel young people are rejecting is a self-centered one that sees God as either therapist or cosmic butler and is not the God of Jesus. Instead it is ok to be broken, to suffer, to be depressed and still to know God. As I struggle with my own failings I too frequently add in guilt for not being the whole, complete person living the full life that I should, and of course, this just makes things worse!

So what if we stopped focusing on these things, expecting church to be a ‘happiness laboratory’, full of cleaned-up, completely well, fully-functioning Christians and instead we joined together to become a movement of ordinary people, following Jesus together to see the world transformed into a better place? What if we recognise that our call is not to self-fulfillment but to fill the earth with the glory of God?

Along that journey we may well discover the in-breaking of God, bringing healing and wholeness as we see His kingdom come but it won’t be our main focus or the destination. We may well see heaven coming to earth as we serve together and we will inspire one another to greater things.

So the one idea that linked all this up? Giving them a cause. There was a constant refrain of examples of young people working to change the world, sometimes in virtual games, but also in real life; sadly too frequently the church was nowhere to be seen, but often with groups like Christian Aid or the Hope Mission academies or in the powerful stories of young people holding true to their identity in a culture and church that often rejected them.

So instead of seeing young people as a project, a (lost) cause to rescue or the answer to the problems of the church, we need to invite them to join us or better still, let them invite us, to help in changing the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Everything Changed…

There was a violent earthquake for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it’

So Matthew begins his account of the resurrection of Jesus. In the same way that earthquakes change the world so the resurrection of Jesus changed everything! It changed the lives of those there at the time and, as the impact reverberated, others were changed, history was changed and it continues to change our lives and our world.

Everything changed for the women who were on the way to the tomb when the earthquake happened

Everything changed for the soldiers  who were so afraid they fainted but unexpectedly it is the women who were able to speak to the angel and receive the message

Everything changed when the women left the tomb, as they meet the risen Christ

Everything changed when they fall at his feet and worship him as they recognise that this man they had known for several years is no mere man but is indeed God

Everything changed for the disciples as they receive the message from the women – no more will women be seen as second class, inferior citizens, Jesus appeared to them and trusted them to pass on the message

Everything changed for the disciples as the despair and mourning of Friday becomes the hope and joy of Sunday

Everything changed as the disciples become apostles – sent out to tell others, to preach and teach, to heal the sick and set free the prisoners and proclaim the kingdom of God

Everything changed as the early Christians met persecution, suffered and even died because of their faith in the resurrected Christ.

Everything changed as the risen Christ announces the defeat of evil

Everything changed as the old covenant is replaced by the new covenant, sealed with the blood of Christ

Everything changed as the Passover takes on new meaning, and now we celebrate Holy Communion

Everything changed as the place where God dwells shifts from the Temple to the body of Christ

Everything changed as the centre of worship is not in outward acts but in a change of heart

Everything changed as Jesus’ new world order is finally here, a world without injustice, poverty, oppression, war; where his people will know and live for his kingdom and seek to see his will done on earth as it is in heaven.

Everything changed!


everything still changes

Everything changes when we choose to hear the voices that tell us nothing has changed and nothing can change

Everything changes when we believe God is here and heaven is all around us and we can live in his abundance of life now

Everything changes when we recognise that we will grieve and mourn, we will know sadness but not as those without hope, for Jesus has defeated the power of death

Everything changes when we refuse to accept the status quo and instead pray and work for peace and justice

Everything changes when we seek first to live in the kingdom of God, living our lives knowing that God is in control

Everything changes when we know that we have been reconciled to God through Christ, knowing his righteousness, peace and joy.

The great HOPE of Easter, is that everything has changed and will change one day, when all things will be made new, we will be resurrected and we will live with Him in a new earth restored and redeemed.

May we know that everything changed, may we know that everything can change and may we live in the hope that everything will change

Christ has died,

Christ is risen,

Christ will come again


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Youth Work – for now or forever?

I was taken a bit by surprise recently when a younger colleague asked me if  I had intended to make youth work a long term career when I first started out it. I had to stop  and think ( it was a long time  ago after all). The point was in the context of a discussion about how many church-based youth  workers do not stay around for long and move on to other things. The suggestion was that young youth workers do not expect to be doing youth work for long, it is a short term project. I was obviously something of an anomaly to him and his youth worker peers but I wasn’t when I started, I well remember many youth work colleagues who were much older than I am now who were ‘career youth workers’.

I found myself wondering why this has changed.

Maybe it’s part of a changing perspective on work characteristic of Gen Y, no longer do people generally expect to stay in the same job for life but expect to have several jobs.

Maybe it’s to do with burnout – youth ministry is often high energy, activity-based and perhaps it appears to be unsustainable for the long-term?

Maybe it’s to do with the notion that youth work and ministry should always be done by young adults who  are ‘in touch’ with the latest cultural trends and so there comes a point when you’re too old (I lost count many years ago of how many times people ask whether I’m getting too old for this!)

Maybe it’s to do with the perception in the church (at least the Anglican church) that youth ministry is a preparation and training ground for being a vicar, once you’re old enough (more mature?) to work with the older folks!

Maybe the sight of councils cutting youth services and other resources for young people suggests there’s no future for youth work and the hope that churches might step in and commit to youth work and ministry also seems to be dwindling as youth workers seem to be first to go when finances are tight.

Maybe it’s all or even none of the above and I’m  missing something important (suggestions welcome) but I suspect all are true in part and the sad thing is that each is based on a false belief or myth.

First, we’re talking here about vocation and calling not just a job for a few years. If our culture is telling young adults that this is reality then surely we should be challenging that view and helping young people to discern and recognise what God is calling them to do, for now and the longer term. This doesn’t mean that it won’t change of course but helping young people to discover life’s purpose and their specific part in God’s plans for the world is an important task.

Then we can easily discount the myth that there’s only one way to do youth work and that involves racing around muddy football pitches or jumping off abseil towers. We need workers who can apply a range of methods and models of work, who can train others and delegate, who can build teams and lead by example but also those who can listen to and understand young people.

But of course we all know youth workers have to be young! NO, that’s a myth too. In fact I believe more than ever that young people need and deserve the wisdom, maturity and understanding that comes with age. Young adults make great youth workers but so do older people; we can each bring something unique to the work and we do our young people a disservice by not sharing the benefit of life experience. Furthermore we are at risk of putting too much pressure on our youth workers when we expect them to handle the difficult and complex issues facing our teenagers now.

Then there’s the big one – youth ministry as the training ground, the place to try out your ideas, to prove yourself and practice before you can be trusted to lead the whole church. It’s being the junior doctor before you qualify to take on responsibility or specialise in a particular area.

Connected with this is the emphasis on ordained ministry in certain denominations. The only way for youth workers to progress in salary or in formal recognition of their value in the church is to become an ordained minister. Sadly this usually means letting go of their youth work expertise and specialism and becoming a general practitioner. As the demographic of the church dictates the work, so their ministry becomes focused on older members. I’ve no doubt that the wider church benefits greatly and I hope that they never lose a sense of the priority of youth work but I’m not so sure that this ever compensates for the loss to youth ministry.

It’s a well attested fact that youth ministry and youth ministers are the innovators of the church, that it is here that new life is birthed and what happened in youth ministry yesterday is happening in the wider church today and tomorrow. At the same time young people are under more pressure than ever, facing more challenges than ever and finding it harder than ever to be disciples of Jesus in  their culture. They need, no, deserve specialists and experienced professionals who can respond well to their needs and facilitate a positive interaction with the rest of the church, developing new forms of ministry that will grow the kingdom of God and secure the future of the church.

This is why it is a tragedy that youth work is not growing as it should – with posts under threat and youth ministry being low on the list of priorities.  Without long term investment, how will we benefit from the wisdom of experience and how will youth ministry ‘come of age’ – it’s not just the young people who lose out by workers not staying but also the profession as a whole –  we need those who understand, who can reflect and bring insight to help us grow new models, build on the past and avoid constantly reinventing or merely repeating past mistakes.

So was it my intention to stay in youth work for the long-term? Yes it was, this was and is my calling; I was open to a change of vocation (and have considered other paths) but that call has never left me. I know that’s not true for others but I believe we need to do more to recognise youth ministry as a life-long calling, to make it possible to develop and grow in the role and  to  acknowledge the importance of youth ministers and youth ministry within the body of Christ.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment