One of the key principles of youthwork that I love is that of empowerment. This is often best illustrated by thinking about space (as in somewhere to be, not the solar system!). In most contexts young people occupy space which they neither control or have ownership of, be it school, home or social spaces.

Excellent youthwork empowers young people to take ownership and control of a space (normally a youth centre, but any space will do – cafe, church hall, etc.) Its why “youth zones” or equivalent are so important in churches, providing a space young people can call their own. The purest form of this is out and about on detached work (and one of the reasons I love detached work so much).

Young people occupying a neutral space such as a park or street seem to naturally “own” that space – they can be quite intimidating to any adults around because of this. As a youthworker being invited to join that space is a mark of being accepted and welcomed by them. But also, in that space the youthworker holds no authority or control. The young people can say or do what they want – they might choose not to swear, smoke or whatever out of respect for the youthworker, but that is their choice. They can disengage and move on whenever they want. If something happens which the youthworker doesn’t like or is uncomfortable with then their only course of action is to leave the situation.

A couple of years ago I instigated a few conversations with leaders of Christian Youth Organisations around the country about “Youthwork in the 21st Century.” One of the questions I was interested in pursuing was regarding virtual youthwork. This had been prompted by a conversation I’d had with a group of lads in my church youth group who regularly played FIFA together. I recognised that they had created a space where they were in control and authority, and I was fascinated by the idea of a “virtual” space. When one of them asked me if I wanted to “join their team” it was a massive privilege. Sadly, the policies in place in my church at the time prohibited me from taking up their offer. [EDIT – since I first published this, its been quite rightly pointed out to me by the leaders of that church that I had written those policies. I apologise that this statement can be construed as me pointing some blame at that church – I was trying to highlight how policy and process (no matter how well written) can restrict the way we work because youth culture shifts and changes so quickly.]

I wanted to talk to others in youth ministry and youthwork about this. How do we change the way we work and are managed so that we can “join in” with young people in virtual spaces? At the time there was little on this subject being talked about. Alastair Jones and Andy Robertson had written a Grove Booklet on Gaming which was a good start but things hadn’t moved on. Many of us came to the conclusion that the question was too complex and we’d need a paradigm shift to move us forward.

Then along came COVID-19.

Over the past 3 months we have had to engage with young people online. When all this started (remember that far back) I had a few conversations with youth ministers around the Diocese – quite a few of them were feeling restricted. The social media and safeguarding policies in their churches seem to restrict or prohibit them (like I had felt mine had in my old church). I have been disappointed (but not surprised) that many youth ministers have been furloughed through lockdown – perhaps because churches have decided that if the youth group isn’t meeting in the church hall / crypt / youthzone / whatever then there is nothing the youth minister can offer.

For the rest of us, we have spent 3 months trying to navigate what youth ministry online looks like. I’d suggest that this has generally fallen into two different categories:

  1. ZOOM Groups (other platforms are available) – we’ve covered this in other posts, but in essence this has meant recreating our youth groups with us all staring at our screen and trying to ignore the pile of clothes in the corner or the half eaten sandwich.
  2. Creating “Content” – for those of us a bit more savvy, this has meant imagining ourselves as the latest YouTuber or influencer. We’ve learnt how to film and edit, filled our Insta feeds and YouTube Channel with funny, moving, reflective and thought provoking stuff.

I’ve fallen into both these camps. I am that youth minister, I have the tripod and everything.

But I’m not sure whether either of these can be described as Innovative Youthwork? Can they? In fact, the first one isn’t at all innovative, and I’m not sure the second one is youthwork at all!

I don’t have the answers, but I think we might be ready for the question again now.

What does youthwork look like in a society where young people are just as likely to occupy virtual spaces and they are physical spaces?

How do we empower them to own those spaces, and journey with them as they navigate them socially and spiritually?

If and when we answer that, we’ll start to understand what the future of youthwork and youth ministry might be like.


Join the discussion – email hello@illuminatestroud.org.uk with your thoughts, ideas and reflections or comment below.

Categories: Blog