Nick’s 150 words bring us back to the street

I think you are both right and both miss the point!

I agree that when we reduce ‘relational youth work’ to the status of technique we do an injustice to both the philosophical and theological basis of ministry that seeks to occupy this space. The reliance on technique in youth work and ministry is concerning – you name some specific examples. It is concerning because as Taff suggests it implies that we approach ministry with a set of goals that we wish to achieve – and for which we have a series of techniques. In doing this we run the risk of leaving God out of the picture or bless what we want.

As such, relying on philosophy Taff to counter this isn’t enough, nor is it enough to locate our rationale for practice in a set of principles behind an approach to working with young people – however noble.

What we are talking about is a call to engage in what you Richard P once called ‘street theology’. Where is God with, coming to, and taking the young people we connect with. This requires practical wisdom and skill. Theology is an art! I’d like you to tell us what wisdom and skills you think are required…

Nick shepherd Is chief exec of CYM follow him on twitter @theonogrpaher

6 thoughts on “Nick’s 150 words bring us back to the street

  1. Nick, I agree with much of what you write here. I’m really enjoying this flow of dialogue not least because it has caused me some reflection. Some of which set out here:

    Firstly, it is very interesting that the language of Christian youth work discourse south of the border is clearly well developed. It is distinct from in Scotland. Where, at least in thoughtful practice, Christian youth work would use terms akin to those of Community Education and where youth ministry (as the title for an endeavour) is almost non-existent.

    Secondly, I’ve added my thought regarding the term ‘relational youth work’ to a blog post below. As all work with young people is relational it is hardly surprising that ‘relational youth work’ is a term easily misappropriated. Personally, I believe, a term which carries little meaning and even less theoretical underpinning. If we are setting our practice against more programme based models we need to do so in more clearly articulated educational terms; Informal Education and Experiential Learning. These can be more clearly bounded by what they are, and what they are not.

    Thirdly, the use of the word ‘technique’ is, to my mind, misleading as again all youth work is embedded in technique. Even detached work adopts techniques to ensure positive on-going engagement. Here I think the term programme is a more helpful term in defining some forms of practice. In terms of this discussion the distinction lies in ensuring that ‘relational youth work’ is understood to be a process which contrasts with programme based models. Even that holds some difficulty as there need to be discussion about who constructs a programme and for what purpose.

    Fourthly, if we are to successfully create a method of youth work which ministers in the arena which young people inhabit we must begin to explore deeper philosophical / theological question. For example; what makes a person a human agent? how is the self constructed? how does change occur in the person? How does a person take ownership of their beliefs? How does ‘street theology’ relate to orthodoxy? What is a Christian, who decides? Until we can answer these questions discussion around Christian youth work will be stuck in the real od discussion between models of practice.

    Finally as someone from a different country I’m aware I’m sticking my nose in to other people’s business 😉

  2. Those are the questions Allan. I think it is where Richard P and I will most likely disagree – the issue of ‘normative’ understanding of what it means to be Christian and what language we should be using.

    The term relational youth work was never offered as a definitional account of a form of practice – at best it was short hand for an approach in a context where practice was often more formal – honk Sunday school and uniformed organsistions. It was never that relationships didn’t feature in those environments, but that the focus of the activity was structured around other focal points – programme as you identify.

    Pete Ward’s early typology for the practice was Christian Relational Care – what we haven’t done well enough since then though is develop a language and theoretical space for establishing what this practice looks like and how it can be explained. Though RP is doing a good job of this with Steetspace.

    This is a crucial task because I think (as I was critical of Taff for) merely appropriating the language of philosophy of eductainal practice is not good enough. Yes on the one hand they have better formal definitions, but they are at the very best ‘epistemological positions’ on how knowledge is ‘best’ constructed. They do not enter the territory of knowledge of what (or who) and knowledge for what. These are often held uncritically in youth work – though the honest Marxist youth workers at least own this! The object of knowing then Self, God and place in the world is where we need to be engaging in complex theological, philosophical and sociological work.

    This is where the problem of technique comes to the fore for me. The tool becomes the goal. Of course youth work theory is laden with discussion on the purpose to the practice – I am particularly keen on Kerry Young’s positions – yet as a Christian Youth worker I have a distinctly different view of the world.

    Street theology is where we seek to find a language to describe that world in ways that are orthodox but do not require young people to adopt a whole set of assumptions and language that is in essence simply historically fixed appraches to knowing the reality of God. This is where I see real resonance with the task of practical theology. As David Tracy places the sub-discipline practical theology is always seeking that contemporary grasping at understanding and living faith – where as systematics and doctrine are the historical formulations of what is already known.

    Your questions – what is being Christian, who decides etc are the classic questions of practical theology. That is why I patio namely believe in housing youth work in this disciplinary frame. Street theology is doing theology with young people – at an implicit level and also inviting the, to participate in the construction of knew ways of knowing both through how historical (or an other persons) appreciation of God, self and world can be insightsful to their understanding and scion in their context or how their meaning making can itself be a contribution to this task. Who judges – well who judges if someone is being discriminatory or if someone is being empowered!

    Perhaps I should re read this before posting – it may not make sense and I need a second cup of coffee!

  3. You are right Nick when you suggest that youth work is often uncritical in the way that it adopts theory. However I do think that theory does stand up against scrutiny and has an underpinning which is committed however it is defined to the ideal of human flourishing.

    I’m particularly interested in your idea that because you have a different work view to Kerry Young and for this reason it requires a different narrative. The case I would be making is that this is either necessary or productive. Creating a distinct narrative for Christian youth work has, whether we are conscious of it or not implications for our ecclesiology and our relationship with society.

    Christian Youth work when it creates its own language cannot avoid becoming insular and inward looking. It defines itself by what it is not. I cannot see how it can avoid adopting an Anabaptist perspective in its relationship with society. Further it creates a situation where it struggles to dialog with other youth work.

    In my mind, and it is why I am committed to Christian youth work maintaining its Community Learning and Development (CLD) definitions Christian youth work has a spiritual responsibility to dialog with society, the state and fellow professionals. The reason that this is important is that along its primary emphasis on creating a culture where young people can flourish it has a prophetic responsibility to hold the state to account when it introduced policy and practices which inhibit this. This I think is only possible when practice is imbedded in a common language of mutual understanding.

    Christian youth work has a responsibility to be missional to society, the state, our ‘secular’ peers. To do so it must first learn to operate in a language which is understood by all. For me, Christian youth work finds a comfortable home in the wider ‘secular’ definitions where youth work is understood to be, to quote Young, ‘an exercise in moral philosophy’ (2010:93), where ‘it is the nature of youth work to engage with young people in the process of moral philosophising through which they make sense of themselves and their lives’ (2006:57). Or Sercombe’s vision of youth work where ‘[i]t is absolutely legitimate for a young person’s spiritual life to be one of the questions we pursue in the youth work encounter’ (2010a:33), and where youth work which ‘create[s] possibilities of transformation’ (2010b:82) where ‘young people… grow up good’(2010a:23).

    And here I sound as if I contradicting myself, a commonality of practice clearly articulated in the language of the liberal democracy does not assume a unity of discourse. What it does enable is recognition that the horizon of what youth work considers the ‘goods’ will be shared by many. It will also create a visible fracture. Where things on that horizon are seen by all to be unique to Christian youth work, It is within the area of this fracture that missional dialog can then be built.

    To return to the idea of ‘street theology’ embedding our practice in recognisable and accepted educational youth work terms enables us to do ‘street theology’ with the state and our peers. We can call them to account on their definition of human flourishing, their overlooking of spirituality, their secular, and consumerist agenda. The challenge is one of enabling our Christian discourse to be heard and treated with validity in the plurality of discourses which have come together to construct our present understanding of society.

    Apologies, as this isn’t as well constructed as I’d like it to be. It a journey of thought for myself (hope the cut and paste bit isn’t too ovious!)

    Sercombe, H. 2010a. Youth Work Ethics, London, SAGE Publications.
    Sercombe, H. 2010b. Youth Workers as Professionals: Managing Dual Relationships and Maintaining Boundaries. In: Banks, S. (ed.) Ethical Issues in Youth Work. 2 ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
    Young, K. 2006. The Art of Youth Work, Lyme Regis, Russell House Publishing.
    Young, K. 2010. Youth Workers as Moral Philosophers:Developing Right Thinking and Mindfulness. In: Banks, S. (ed.) Ethical Issues in Youth Work. 2 ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

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