Community and Youth Work in Context

This essay aims to look at the key historical, social, political and economic forces that have shaped Christian youth work and the impact Albemarle had on voluntary organisations. I will then look at where the style and approach that I use to deliver the aims of the youth group I work with. I will finish by outlining our future plans for the group.

To look at where Christian youth work originated you have to go back to the Bible. Here you can see how young people were valued and very often used to do some very significant things. For example, Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a young girl when she became pregnant. Josiah became King at the age of eight.  At sixteen he was seriously worshipping God, then at twenty he became so concerned about his nations bad choices he began to remove the places where idols were worshipped. In the Great Commission Jesus commanded all his disciples to “go, then to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples” (Mt 28:19 GNB). Jesus went out of his way to meet with the undesirable characters of society. In Luke 5:27-39 he ate with Levi who was a tax collector, spoke up for the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11), touched lepers (Matthew 8:1-17) and feed 5,000 people (John 6:1-14). Jesus was concerned with everyone not just the nice people but those who were on the edges of society or very often outcast. He looked at the person holistically; he would heal the sick, feed the hungry and give guidance to those who asked or chose to listen (Centre for Youth Ministry 2002). This lead too churches and Christian people trying to make a difference in the lives of young people through a combination of practical help and spiritual development.

It was during the late 18th centaury that a number of developments took place in Christian work amongst children and young people. The Methodist Movement lead by Wesley was raising spiritual awareness. This was at the time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, the number of factories were growing as was the mining industry. Many people moving away from Agriculture and the land opting for town life instead. This lead to the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. As the Christian community grew more concerned for the poor, Robert Raikes in 1780 decided to start the first Sunday school. His aim was to provide both secular and religious education to children who were working in factories and unable to attend school. Over the next few years the number of Sunday schools grew rapidly and it was thought by 1786 250,000 children went to Sunday School. This was very significant as the church was doing something new, as well as providing for the poor children’s needs.

The French Revolution in 1789 had the mainly Protestant people of England in a panic about the possible French Catholicism invading England. This meant that as the century turned the English were the most God-fearing they had ever been.

Schooling children and young people was still playing a major role in society with two new schools being established. The British and Foreign School Society set up in 1807 by the non-conformists and the National School Society in 1811 set up by the Church of England.

The 7th Earl of Shaftesbury laws put through Parliament that changed the working practices for women and children in the coal mines and factories. He also championed the construction of model schools which were called ragged schools, for poor children.

The Young Men’s Christian Association better known as the YMCA was formed in 1844. This group started out with some friends in the Drapery Trade in London meeting together to pray and study the Bible. This came out of their concern for the spiritual welfare of others in the Drapery Trade as well as other Trades around. This was new a development and it saw men from different denominations working together for the first time.

1867 saw Dr Barnado open his First Children’s home. A new act of Parliament allowed the Anglican church hold special service aimed at specific group like children and young people.

When the government passed the National Education Act in 1870, a school system was put into place throughout the whole country. While this was a step forward, people still had to pay to go to school until 1880 when free education became compulsory for those under twelve.

At the end of the 19th Century church was the centre piece of many people’s lives. There were many people attending church on a Sunday as well as some midweek meeting. Sunday schools were still very popular and continued to work with those from poor backgrounds. An organisation known as Scripture Union stared working the middle-upper class young people who were being left out. William Smith founded the Boys Brigade in 1883 to deal with the increasing behaviour problems he encountered in a Sunday school class. The Boys Brigade focused on Bible teaching and discipline. Christian Endeavour was setup to meet the needs of those who had outgrown Sunday school and those who had been challenged by the mission work lead by people like D.L.Moody. This was at a time when there were growing numbers of young people involved in the Church. Which resulted in many different denominations starting their own youth work projects.

1902 saw the next Education Act establishing Local Education Authorities and Secondary Education. At the end of the First World War the Fisher Education Act went through parliament and introduced compulsory schooling for all aged 5-15.

Pathfinders, a group for Young people, was set up by the Anglican Church in 1935. In 1939 World War Two broke out. In the United States of America a new type of evangelism was starting to take off through what was called the “rally”. Youth for Christ officially began in 1944 and had Billy Graham as there first secretary. Whilst this was happening in America, R A Butler piloting an Act that would introduce Religious Education to the secondary school curriculum for those aged 11-15 years. It was about this time that companies started to see young people as a new target market as many young people had some disposable income and did not have any major financial responsibilities. The term “teenager” came to be buzz word. There was an improvement in education and health for all of society.

The 1960’s society re-examined its values.  This lead to many opting out of church. Sunday schools and Christian youth work went into decline. On the flip side there was an increase in the number of organisations been set up alongside churches which did see growth. Frontier Youth Trust started with the aim to reach youth people on the margins of society. To tackle the lack of young people going to church, Youth for Christ began to work in schools in the 1970’s. They would take part in formal lessons and assemblies giving young people the chance to learn about faith again (Centre for Youth Ministry 2002).

From the above you can see that the there was a lot happening in youth work amongst Christian Organisations, churches and individuals. This meant that Christian Organisations had a lot of credibility. Fourteen of the largest Voluntary organisations, which included a number of Faith Groups were asked by official to provide representatives to help with the development of youth work provision in their local areas (Davis 1999).

When the Albemarle Report was presented in 1960 the government were expecting the report to recommend the “winding down” (Davis 1999: ) of the youth service as it was. But instead they got a series of recommendations to turn the youth service around and see it grow. The report had a number of things to say about how voluntary groups were to be involved in these changes. These included

The proposed close working relationship between the youth service and voluntary sector would not be straight forward. There was a growing concern that the voluntary sector was out dated and the moral values they held so strongly were pushing young people away. There were questions asked about the set up of many and whether it would be wise for them to just wind up and start afresh. With this in mind a number of voluntary organisations began to review their work with young people. There were some groups who felt this criticism was unjustified and argued that they were still the ones developing new practices. 1961 saw the Church of England Youth Council publish a policy statement. Some Christian groups who were not prepared to dilute their core values and were quite open about this. There was still a feeling that young people needed to belong to a religious group. Despite all the changes that were taking place in the years after Albemarle the voluntary sector held out through the storm and in some cases used these changes to their advantage. The most significant change that occurred from Albemarle was that the statutory sector would now lead the way in youth work instead of the voluntary sector.

Kerry Young describes relationships as central to youth work. These relationships give young people the opportunity in a safe in environment to challenge and be challenged in a safe environment, thus enabling them to discover more about themselves and their community. It is therefore vital for youth worker to have the skills to build relationships, as this will lead to trust and respect which in turn will help the young person to explore their own values. Relationships are complex and take time to build which is why a long term commitment to young people is required. Neal Terry in The Art of Youth Work by K Young says “in the Christian context, the whole idea of an incarnate God is a central theme which speaks of ‘being with’ and ‘sharing with’ as a means by which people test the accuracy of their values”. This is the model of youth work we use in the group I work with. Our aim is to ‘build community and share the message of the Bible with young people and their families on their terms through example, debate, discussion, pastoral care and fun’. The Incarnational Approach as discussed by Pete Ward in his book Youthwork and the Mission of God, breaks in down into five stages; contact work, extended contact, proclamation, nurture and church. Contact work describes the initial contact made with young people. This contact can occur in a variety of ways, either by the youth worker choosing to go out on to the young peoples turf and make contact with them there; or by the young people choosing to come to an activity we have up and running for them to engage with. With either of these initial contact situations there are things that need to be considered. I am going to focus on the young people who attend our Pathfinder group. The young people who come to us usually hear about us from a friend and then come along with that friend to our session.  In addition to this we invite those who attend the children’s work when they reach the age of 10.   Typically our first contact with them is either by phone call to invite or home visit. The purpose of the home visit is to introduce ourselves and give the young person and their parents the chance to ask any questions. It also gives us a chance to explain what the group is about and fill in the necessary paper work etc.   Before any meeting meeting we will post a newsletter explaining what is happening during the next week or so. Good and on going communication is important. When there arrive at the group we will go and introduce ourselves and introduce them to other members of the group. During their first evening we will make a point to initiate a conversation with them to find out a bit more about them and their interests. It is important that we listen to the young person and they are accepted no matter what they believe or their opinion about God is. We are very clear about the purpose of the group as we do not want people to think we are trying indoctrinate them into the Christian faith, we are aiming to give them the chance to explore the big questions in life and see how the Christian faith might fit into it. This first stage requires us to be available and ready to talk when they are, greet them when they arrive and say goodbye when they leave and encourage them in the activity taking place. Our session always include a short discussion on topical issues and what the Bible has to say about it. It is important that everyone feels able to express their opinion and not feel judged or wrong for doing so. This requires us as youth leader to be non judgemental and objective. While the young people know that we are Christians and that our faith comes with certain values, we would never put a young person down for what they believe. We may however challenge where this opinion comes from and encourage them to think about why they believe what they do.

Extended contact requires us to look beyond and see how the relationship can be deepened. We know from our own friendships that this happens when we spend time with people. So for us to develop this on a regular meeting night can be quite difficult as we are often busy getting the activity going and supervising it, making sure everyone is ok and knows what is going on. This is why we will often try to take the young people out bowling, swimming and on night walks or residential's so we are able to get way from all the activity organising and are able to just spend time talking and having fun with them. We have found that these activities giving opportunities to talk in smaller groups and find out how they are doing and what they are concerned with or thinking about. We have found that these shared experience lead to more conversation as they we come back and say do you remember when we did x. These shared experiences build up the relationship as you remember funny things that happened and times enjoyed together. It is during these times that the young people enquire about our home lives, our values and interests. I have found young people asking me also sorts of questions ranging from my sex life to why I believe in God and other questions like why do I go to church, isn’t it boring? These activities have required us to enforce more strict rules because of the responsibility we have for they safety. This takes the contact to the next stage because the young people to choose to take on some of our rules and values to take part in the activity.

The third step is proclamation. As we have got to know the young people better and they have got to know us, we learn more about them and they discover more about us and what we believe. By this stage they might recognise some of Gods nature in us. Each year we give the young people the chance to go away on a weekend call Fort Rocky lead by Youth for Christ. The aim of the weekend is to challenge them both physically and spiritually through activities such as climbing, zip wires and high rope course as well as presenting the gospel message to them. We have found these weekends a turning point for many young people as the shared experience of conquering a fear or encouraging each other to complete a difficult task goes a long way in relationship and trust building. We have more time on our hands to sit and talk with them over meals and whilst waiting for sessions to start. The programme also has time set aside for us to get our group together and find out what they are making of the weekend and provides an opportunity for them to ask any questions they might have. The Youth for Christ team lead road shows throughout the weekend that get the young people thinking about the gospel and what that might mean to them. The young people are given a chance to stay back at the end of the road show to discuss how this relates to them. Proclamation of the gospel needs to be handled sensitively and with enough detail for the young people to understand what the basis meaning is.

The next stage, nurture, gives the young person the chance to explore the Bible and what the Christian faith is for themselves. This will typically require some group work to enable the young people to explore the meaning and help it make sense to them. This exploration is often difficult for the young people as the Bible is difficult to read and they don’t know where they should start. Nurturing gives the chance to talk about how to read the Bible what is prayer about why should they bother with church. All of this is about helping the young person explore the Christian faith for themselves. It gives the young person the chance to explain how they see the Bible and give us insight as to how this plays out for them in their everyday lives. For the young person to have their own real faith it can not be spoon feed from the youth leader. We can however, present some arguments, theological views, and give techniques and explanations but ultimately they need to draw their own conclusions. We are able to offer them a safe environment in which they can do this without feeling under pressure or embarrassed.

The final part of the equation is church. For many young people church will conjure up images of pews, boring hymns, vicar talking for ages and old people. So engaging young people in church can be difficult. It may be the case that we need to look outside of our local area to what is happen in the next town to find an expression of church that suits the young people we work with. In some cases this may mean settling up their own church community linked to the parent church and along with support from some of the church members. We do not have any young people at this stage, but as a church community we are currently thinking about the direction of the church and how we make church assessable to all. This is difficult as one model does not suit everyone (Ward 1997).

Jeffs and Smith talk about the importance of the relationship with young people in The Art of Youth Work. They talk about “accepting and valuing young people, honesty, trust, respect and reciprocity” (Jeff and Smith cited in Young 1999: 65-66). All of these principles are found in the Incarnational model of Christian youth work.

So how do the current developments in the youth service affect the youth work I do? Transforming youth work talks about the involvement Voluntary and community groups should have with the decision making and evaluating process within their local authority area. I am aware that my colleague has attended some of these meetings for voluntary groups in the area, but did not feel that he was involved in needs assessment, decision making or evaluating of services. It would be good for us to find out more of what is being planned and to see if there is any consultation going in our area. I feel that now I have a better understanding of the current government papers that I would understand what is going on and would be able to contribute to this process. The paper refers to the fact we should be promoting “social, moral, cultural, emotional, and physical development of young people” (Transforming Youth Work). I did notice that the spiritual development of young people is not mentioned. We are always looking for new ways to tackle these subjects with young people. To do this we attend conferences, training days and read books to keep up with new developments. This helps us with our continuing professional development which is also mention in this paper. To help our youth work forward and for my own personal development I have chosen to do the Diploma in Community and Youth Work. This is enabling me look more broadly at youth work and feedback to my colleague what things are happening, policies and practices we need to think about.

This has caused us to undertake research our current bulling and behaviour policies.

It would be very easy for us to sit back and say none of the past or the future developments matter to our youth work. After all, we are a small group in an isolated village with a captive audience. That would be very na´ve and short sighted of us. Christian youth work has an exciting past full of pioneering people who went out of their way to make a difference to those around them. For some time it was only Christians who were delivering youth work and that helped get a ‘service of youth’ up and going. Albemarle did make waves for Christian groups by the power from voluntary groups to local government. This did not deter Christian groups.  Instead it gave them chance to reinvent themselves and look a new future directions. In many ways this is what is happening now. For Christians to be effective in delivering youth work we need to be aware of what is going on the youth service, looking at how these developments fit in the aims of our groups. I do not believe that we should be compromising our values and what we believe, but we do need to be looking forward to how we can beat meet the needs of the young people in our community. .


Centre for Youth Ministry., 2002. Engage: The National Certificate in Christian Youth work. Gateway, Centre for Youth Ministry.

Davis, B., 1999. From voluntarism to welfare state. A History of the Youth Service in England. Volume 1 1939-1979, National Youth Agency.

Department of education and skills., [no date], Transforming Youth Work Resourcing Excellent Youth Service, 12th December 2005, Department of education and skills, Extracted from NYA website,

Bible Society., 1986. Good News Bible, Collins

Ward, P., 1997. Youthwork and the Mission of God, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Young, K., 1999. The Art of Youth Work, Dorset: Russell House Publishing.

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Copyright 2007 Hiede Coates

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