A brief reminder – Youth Ministry and Everyday Life, IASYM Biennial European Conference 2016, Amsterdam #IASYM2016

This is a review of a recent academic conference I attended for researchers in Youth Ministry, (In general Youth Ministry means the way the church works with young people). It is a long read at 2500 words.

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Recently, I attended the Biennial European Conference of the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry (also known as IASYM) in Amsterdam. (Yes, I did buy Tulips for my wife!)

I wanted to get down on paper some stuff from the event for future reference so this is it. apologies to anyone who’s paper or thought I miss represent. My fault for not understanding properly!

Day one
We started in a protestant church on one of Amsterdam’s many canals. It was a magnificent building and location to start from.

We started with a liturgical moment. I am constantly interested by the ecumenical nature of these gatherings. With, Reformed and Catholic and sometimes Eastern branches of Christianity represented in one moment these are always interesting, causing questions of what is normal, acceptable and of worthy. (So far all good). One of my favourite parts was when a friend from the Presbyterian Church of Ireland leaned over and asked “Is this song in Latin?”

Professor Marcel Barnard of the Protestant Theological University, Amsterdam, delivered the first keynote of the conference Youth ministry in Everyday Life. I loved his turn of phrase where he described youth ministry when leaving behind ecclesiastical basis would find itself “nestled in the fault of everyday life.” And he diagnosed the reformed tradition as “noise rather than distinction”. Slightly harsh point, but beautifully made. His main metaphor based around the Netherlands constant fight against being flooded. That means the land needed both protection (in the form of dykes) and also to use the power of the water. A system of simultaneously both resisting and utilising the threat. For Barnard the key point was how do we achieve this balance point, going too far one way or the other cannot adequately deal with the issue, which Barnard tied into youth ministries response to the secularisation of society.

We had two further sessions on the evening of day 1. Tim Leeson had a session on Theological Explorations Around Identity, as Shaped by Popular Culture. In this session Lesson considered society using the mimetic theory of Rene Girard, the concept of the collapse of structure and the overwhelming tyranny of choice leaving us with a society that renders young people into the space of Tillich’s nonbeing. The paper suggested that Popular culture is the new structure, giving a sense of community. For Leeson this analysis led to a radical suggestion that the aim of the youth minister/worker was about personal faith, as they develop their own personal faith they step forward in peace (which is that faith.) This sidesteps youth ministry as a ministry to others as much as it is a ministry to the self. This view has a number of questions attached to it. Not least what does this mean in an era of accountability and measuring outcomes, as youth work (and youth ministry) seeks to professionalise. While it seems strange to deal with the internal private faith of the worker rather than the defensive, public, “its all about the kids.” I like the honesty of this move, I think it can be liberational in terms of refocusing what we do as youth ministry outwit previous touchstones of Christian Education or evangelism. Youth Ministry becomes about living out life in a Godly way and in the way providing more significant care for the young people based on this internal change.

This session was back to back with a session by Dickson Ogidi Lived religion in Christian Youth Ministry: A pragmatic African reflection. Ogidi presented some of his research into youth ministry in Nigeria. The presentation wrestled with a basic disconnect between the identity of person X – who on Sunday is the church going religious leader, involved in teaching the young people at church, and on Monday is a business man whose faith doesn’t impact their life. Ogidi picks up the idea of christian caregiving as a key aspect of lived religion, if this lived caregiving expression is absent from christian youth ministry then the youth ministry is irrelevant to the lives of the young people. (Caregiving is defined as actions which engage with a pragmatic, social meeting of needs of the young person). This picked up on Lesson’s thoughts about the role of the personal faith development of the youth minister. For Ogidi the answer lies in the youth minister making use of reflective practice methods.

These sessions made me think about move to professionalism that Professional Youth Work has made. Both the sessions questioned how youth ministry affects the lives of the youth minister, and suggest that the space for improvement and response is within a coherent professional response to the “ministry” they practice, perhaps this is an echoing of that professionalism move?
While I like the professionalism move, I see danger inherent to this professionalism of youth ministry. One of the key aspects of christian youth ministry is its reliance and strength in volunteerism. Volunteerism does not automatically preclude being professional. Just as being professionalism does not automatically act as an introduction to the cult of the expert, and by default, a learned helplessness of others. I think this stuff is dangerous ground that needs a lot of carful and deliberate actions, but the flip side is that these risks can bring us to a space of an engaged and switched on volunteer base. (I agree with Andrew Root that one of the failures of the reformation was in its lack of ability to bring about its promise of the priesthood of all believers into reality. Instead we got another class of priests.)

Day Two
Started with a form of worship led by one of the students at PthU. It was mostly sung with calls and responses, I really liked that, it was very good.

The morning continued with two sessions, first Anita Cloete spoke about Films as a site of meaning making: A Practical Theological reflection. I found this session hard to engage with. I blame jetlag.

Then onto Mark Montgomery’s session Youth Ministry and the everyday life of church. His session was based on an autobiographic theological reflection and some initial research. Mark questioned if youth ministry is a pillar of the church rather than pioneer of the church? This struck me as important as many early voices in youth work/ youth ministry are now either involved in denominational churches as minister or priest, and/or emerging church as church planters/missional people. Montgomery gave the opinion that Youth Ministry is now the most powerful structure of the church. It is a bold claim, and I am not sure how much I agree with that, but the evidence within the CofE seems persuasive. The session did make me question the role of youth ministry as an ordained ministry within the church. What would an ordained youth ministry look like for the church. Would the church hierarchy accept youth ministry ordination as defensive move to buy a few more years of the existing church power structure (arguably what the Church of Scotland’s Youth Assembly has done for the CofS head office) and if youth ministry ordination was used this way, could it herald a different way of being church? (a move that arguably the Church of Scotland’s Youth Assembly has not achieved, yet.)

Our second Keynote of the conference came from Sarah Dunlop Paradigms for mission: London Youth Ministers, reporting on an AHRC funded research into some London megachurches and social engagement. Interesting study, using missional paradigms to provide analysis of the churches and their way of working. For me the key question was why these massive churches with thousands of members seemed to have such a tough time getting alongside the young people of the local estates, while attracting hundreds of students from around the greater London area to come to their services. This division seemed to be present in all the case studies Dunlop reported on. A lack of young people living geographically close to the church location, and plethora of students and young adults coming in from miles away to church. This session led me to reflect on my experience working in a small church in the west end of Glasgow. Every year various students would come to our church to try it out, they would try the other churches until they found a home in one of the churches utilising a form or worship similar to the case study churches. These churches were deliberately opened geographically very close to the church I worked at, but had a large gathered student congregation based mostly on contemporary worship music.

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In the afternoon we visited 2 churches. One was a church ran by the Sant’Egidio movement in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. Sant’Egidio is a Roman Catholic Public Lay Association which sprung up from a group of young people after Vatican 2 in the late 1960’s. It reminded me a lot of the Salvation Army only with less uniform and much more ornate church furniture. http://www.santegidio.org/ The movement is based on prayer, a welcome for the poor and working for peace.
The second church was a Presbyterian church with possibly the largest glass bowl font thing in the world. It was very big and beautiful, and led to lots of speculation as to how to fill it with water, and how to empty it! We then had a wonder around east Amsterdam, before heading back for our final session for the day.

Stephie the-Mertens presented on The (Theological) Language of Young People and Organizers in New Ecclesial Movements. The presentation looked at how the Franciscans had carefully considered and challenged their own use of theological language within their work with young people. The response to this consideration was carefully and deliberately making small changes which would allow all young people to participate and engage fully with what was going on. Empowering the attending young people to be welcome and invited within the theological language and actions of the weekend. I loved the simplicity of this approach and how it worked. Very simple yet very effective.

A brief child friendly europop interlude.

Day 3
Started with worship which was based on Songs from the Wild Goose Resource Group which was a nice thing, and the use of a singing bowl.

Andrew Root opened the mornings sessions with the third conference keynote, Faith-Formation in a Secular Age. Root took Charles Taylors Secular Age analysis, to question if current youth ministry faith formation programmes, (such as sticky faith and others), are philosophically dealing with the right problem. For Root keeping young people in the church is not the real problem, the real problem is around the plausibility of belief in the first place. This change of problem allows for different questions, and different ways to support faith. This really pivoted some of the themes of the conference. In particular the anxiety of church being a main motivator of Youth Ministry, of Youth Ministry being a supportive block to the power of the church as it exists rather than youth ministry being how the church engages where the everyday lives of young people are, and seeking to join God in the work the Trinity is doing to change things in that space. The value of Christianity is in the rejection of the commodification of young people within the church.

I then went to hear Mark Scanlon speak about Ambiguous Ecclesiology: Exploring the church in conversation with youth leaders, young people and the youth groups they form together. On the way there I passed the venue for Jouko Porkka‘s session Religious Orientation and Prejudice: Does Believing in Christ Enhance Tolerance or Racism? As Mark’s room filled up and people were struggling for seats, I sat there I thought “you know I should go hear Joukka’s paper, he had a small but interesting group of academics in his session”. So I gave my seat to someone else and went to Porkka’s session. The paper provided a glimpse into the confirmation programme of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. This programme takes in 85% of 15 year olds in Finland, and in part this formed some of the results of the larger research study by the International Network for Research and Development of Confirmation and Christian Youth Work. It was a fascinating session and posed the questions for me around the way the Church of Scotland practices baptism and further the way the church engages with confirmation for Scottish young people. In light of the morning session it was also interesting seeing how confirmation was then followed by a huge drop off of involvement of church life for the confirmation group. Perhaps this is something around a feeling of “now I have faith, I will go live it out.”

František Štěch presented Nova et Vetera! Who are “Youth” in Youth Ministry? Štěch’s paper is a move to work out what “youth” is and place that understanding of youth within a systematic theology framework for research. In practice separating youth from a conception of a time period, bringing youth into a theological workspace where youth is not left behind when you become older, it is still a part of the human being. The question I wanted to ask was if we experience life in this state of being, not becoming, how does this then apply to faith? Should faith be a process of being, rather than becoming in faith? The outworking of the answers to this may change the perceptions that effect the way the church, both in forms of youth workers and hierarchy, deals with young people.

The final session I went to on day three was David Bailey Living amongst the fragments of a coherent theology. Youth ministry, worship and everyday life. Bailey presented some analysis of Christian worship songs based on trying to read the meaning behind the songs. For Bailey there is a disconnect between the songs and ordinary life. More than this, there is a disconnect between the songs theological shorthand and the knowledge of the young people who are singing the songs. In this understanding, the songs act as icons. The young person may not be able to open up whats behind the icon. To solve this Bailey suggests that the role of the youth worker is as storytellers of the story behind the songs. I liked the icon idea as religious icons are also full of fragments of theology should you know where to look. (Although it should be noted Bailey used icon in the smart phone sense rather than the classical religious icon sense.) All through this session I asked myself if this fragmentation is a bad thing? How many people actually practically live with fragments of theology as our everyday understanding of God, and is a coherent systematic theology something to be aimed for? For the young person dealing with all this, I guess it is an issue if the role of youth workers as dialogue partner, (Oi, Youth worker, what’s all this nonsense about?), maybe missing as the worker presumes knowledge from the young person and therefore does not engage deliberately with this task.

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day four. (yup the last day)
Worship on day 4 was the liturgical moment I didn’t get, but that’s ok.

Reggie Nel gave us the final keynote Everyday life, everyday connections? Theological reflections on a qualitative comparative research project on marginalised youth in South Africa and specific Nordic countries. Nel’s paper challenged youth ministry research to position itself within the stream of youth studies research, developing cross discipline links. For Nel this was already being done by young people, and the research he reported on. The two thoughts which occurred to me during this session were 1 does the church, and by extension youth ministry want to formally contribute to the secularising project which is youth work? (and would youth work represented in youth studies actually allow us too contribute?) 2 Do the churches have the right people in post to represent views at policy level?

The final session of the conference was by Margunn Serigstad Dahle presenting on Worldview Formation and the Disney Universe: A Case Study on Media Engagement in Youth Ministry.
Dahles’ paper outlined the media effects on society and young people, media is dominant and speaks values to young people, and Disney is the prime example of this. The response Dahle favours to this issue is the development of a skill of double listening to these values. Being able to build up the espoused values when they align with the Christian values of the worker and to challenge content when the expoused values challenges the workers’ values. I enjoyed this session Dahle was an excellent presenter. I did feel like Dahle had missed a step and a valuable dialogue partner for the worker and the young person that is provided in the resource of the disney fan community.

It convicted me that I hadn’t tried to convert my master project into an article or two yet. Also I did worry that as we sat a chatted in the discussion afterwards I was coming across as a “know it all” as I answered all the questions of my conversation shoulder buddies, I need to improve at that.

Anyway a good conference which was filled with questions and good sessions.