failure is always an option

On Wednesday I led a session for a group of ministers from the United Reformed Church in Scotland.  We were exploring what the church could learn from younger people and from youth work methods.

Young people fail.  A lot.  It’s part of learning.

They try something, get it wrong, then learn from that and try again.

Can you imagine a toddler giving up on walking because it fell over a couple of times?  No, of course not.  Failing isn’t always a bad thing.  And failure is almost always relative.

Failure is a judgement made according to the parameters that have been set.  But how realistic are those parameters?

No-one gets up and walks first time.  Well except that guy that came through the roof, but you know what I mean.  It takes practice.  Not doing it perfectly first time wouldn’t be failure.  Repetition is important in learning.

If I had a pound for every time I’d heard a young person say that…

‘I’m bored’ doesn’t really mean that.  I think it means that ‘I’ve finished what I was doing and now I can’t think what to do next.  Can you help me to decide please?’

Part of the ‘boredom’ comes from a limited range of options.

Most of us don’t have any experience of a range of churches.  Most people have been in their church for a long time.  Their experience of variety is when a new minister comes, or someone publishes a new hymnbook.

Our ‘box’ or ‘jar’ is just as real as the fleas’.  It’s hard to think outside that box when you have only ever been in it.

One of the great things about our work with children is that it encourages creativity and imagination and exploration.  Loads of churches do holiday clubs where for a whole week kids come for a morning or afternoon and explore a topic through games, songs, art, crafts, drama and story.

Can you imagine doing that with the grown ups?

If you can’t, why not?  Don’t adults like those things?

When we are babies we need a lot of looking after.  The whole household is focused on the needs of one little person.  As we grow we become more independent, more self sufficient.  And that is as it should be.

But we all have needs.  And our needs are not all the same.

Youth work is, at it’s best, needs led.  It considers the social, emotional, spiritual and physical needs of each young person and tries to address those needs through activities and opportunities which will enable that young person to develop to their full potential.

We do that by offering choice.  There are many ways to explore a topic.  Just think about that holiday club… all those ways to learn about one topic.

When was the last time you were offered a choice in worship on a Sunday morning?

I believe that churches have become self-selecting communities and that self-selection has nothing to do with faith.  It has everything to do with style.

Style is about how something appears.  It’s about content and format and who is involved and who is not and how it smells and feels and tastes and sounds and looks like.

It is also about seeing yourself in that place.  Someone mentioned that a new minister had come to a church they were working with.  The minister is a mother with two small children.  All of a sudden there are 20 young families coming to church who didn’t come before.  Why?  Because they can see themselves in that church.

We can’t all go and hire a minister like that but how we portray ourselves is important.  It’s a huge part of how young people (and adults) identify with each other.  Clothes and music define us much more than we might imagine.  Many of us cling to the music that we liked when we were teenagers.  Don’t believe me?  Check your itunes…

If I like electronica or metal or house or classical music would I see myself in your church?  If I’m a skater or a goth or a 40 year old geek or a mum or a student would I see myself in your church?

I do.  I really do.  We have watched our children drift away from church and we have done nothing but wring our hands.  And I’m talking about myself too.

I don’t think we need to change Sunday morning worship.  It works for that self-selecting group that come.  Why should we take that away from them?

What we do need to do is to give people permission to get on with doing other things at other times.  Our job as ministers is not to provide everything.  Youth work is all about enabling.  Sometimes the best way to do that is the easiest.  Just say ‘yes’.

Variety is good.  It’s healthy.  At home our extended family rarely all sit in one room.  When we do it usually ends in disaster.  Why?  Because we all have different needs, likes and tolerances.

What are the values of your church community?

Youth work in Scotland has a statement of values.  They are:

It’s a broad value base.  But is there any reason it shouldn’t be your church communities value base too?

Shouldn’t we respect each other?  Value equality?  Engage in learning through our whole lives?  Respect others who are different from us?  Isn’t that what loving your neighbour is?  And why do we feel the need to tell people what they should think or what the answer is?  Don’t we trust God to work in some one’s life?

Shouldn’t we be working together to build the kingdom of God?  Doesn’t that mean that everyone should have a say?  That everyone should play a part?

I like this phrase.

I’m going to use it often.

I think this is what the church, particularly the United Reformed Church, needs to be.

We don’t need (or want) to be mega-churches.  We don’t need (or want) to be parish churches.

We do need (and want) to be small, passionate communities.

Young people form small passionate communities all the time.  They often form around issues and then disappear with the problem.  They are often about getting something done, solving a problem, making a point or raising an issue.

These small passionate communities aren’t static.  They change and grow.  They involve different groups, make partnerships and co-operatives.  They are active not passive.

Remember that small passionate communities change the world.

We have a story.  That story is one of small passionate communities and their journey with God.

Children love stories.  Young people love stories, even if they pretend they have grown out of all that.  Adults love stories.

How will we tell our story?  And can we please stop explaining what it means to people?  Do you explain a bedtime story to your kids?  Of course not.  But they will want to hear that same story over and over and over again.


So they can see themselves in it.  So they can imagine what it feels like and smells like and tastes like and sounds like and looks like.

If we don’t tell our story how can people imagine themselves into it?

So, what am I trying to say?

Good question.  And one that I’m not going to answer.  Because you can work it out for yourself.  You can imagine yourself in this story or take it and imagine it in your place.

If you do, please share your story.  Tell it often.  You can start in the comments section if you want, but tell it somewhere…