It may have been predictable to some that I would become a church youth worker. My church recruited its first qualified youth worker as I turned eleven years of age. His name was Gareth Dickinson and he brought passion and vision to an already good youth ministry. Working with his team and the wider church family, he built a broad foundation for the work to grow and make a lasting impact on many people’s lives, including my own.

As he walked me down the aisle at my wedding eleven years later, I was just three weeks into my own youth-work degree and full of passion to serve young people. During my career, I worked in three very different youth-work roles in three areas of the UK. Now, after taking a career break to raise two children and relocating to the other side of the world, I find myself re-entering the working world in a healthcare setting and reflecting on how being a church youth worker has shaped who I am. Here are my thoughts, and the thoughts of eleven of my network – all former church youth workers – who have gone on to do a variety of other jobs. In these two articles you will find insights from a counsellor, missionaries, a construction manager, church leaders, academics and a life coach. 

Joel Ward: I’m a Baptist minister at Bentley Baptist Church in Doncaster, a husband and father to four kids with 20 years’ experience in youth ministry.

Andy Campbell: I am a life coach, trainer in first aid for mental health, school governor and an advisor for a local Youth for Christ branch.

Simon Hall: I used to be a youth worker, teach other youth workers and write for this very magazine. I’m a Baptist minister and practical theology PhD candidate.

Robin Smith: I am the Director of Academic Studies at the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission (CYM).

Pete Davies: I started as a volunteer in youth ministry, then went to theological college and spent eleven years on staff with my wife as youth and children’s work coordinators in a largish church. Since then I have worked in a warehouse, in elderly care in the NHS and now I’m in construction.

Pete Telfer: I work for Reign Ministries as the degree campus leader.

Steve Fearns: I am a counsellor to adults, specialising in addiction.

John Hawksworth: I have worked as a church-based youth worker, in various roles in Youth for Christ and currently work in the local ministries team supporting our centres across Britain. I also lecture at Cliff College and am involved with Spring Harvest as a youth programme team leader.

Dan Waspe: Together with my wife and four children (one of whom we’re currently long-term fostering), I have been living in South Africa working with African leaders and local communities where the most vulnerable children live.

Alice Nunn: I’m married and have three children. I trained on the Oasis youth work and ministry course before working in different areas of the UK, in different contexts. Now we are officers in the Salvation Army leading the work in Jersey. 

Nem Palmer: I grew up in south-west Wales and trained as a youth worker in London. I then spent eight years working as a youth worker both in church and for the local council youth service. For the last seven years I’ve been living and working in Italy with the mission organisation, Operation Mobilisation.

I asked my contributors these four questions:

  1. Tell me a story from your time as a youth worker that has shaped the way you approach your role now.
  2. From the position you are now in, what one piece of advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
  3. If you had your time as a youth worker again, is there anything you would do in a radically different way? For instance, in terms of how you did evangelism, pastoral care or the way you used the Bible?
  4. What do you still love about youth work?

Often people begin as church youth workers as young adults and those years are inevitably formative. Youth ministry amplifies this process as we reflect more on our own behaviour, thought life, spiritual development and character due to the brilliant and confronting reality that is fundamental to leading and supporting teenagers. All the answers to my four questions echoed with a resounding cry to thoroughly consider who we are. In the busy life of a church youth worker this can appear selfish, unnecessary or even a poor use of time, but hear these experienced voices saying: “No, this is really important.” This is the focus of my first article. My second article goes on to talk about how we do youth work and ministry, and I hope you are inspired, as I am, by the words of these former church youth workers.

Being a church youth worker is great but not easy, as Alice Nunn writes: “I finished my youth-work degree and got my first proper youth work job with Oasis. My mate and I moved into the community in north London. It was exciting and overwhelming and an absolute honour to serve there. When we first started, I will always remember having the mickey taken out of me for my posh accent. I was totally out of my depth, I had never spent much time in London, let alone lived there. The words of a mentor came to me so strongly: “Be yourself!” I will always remember there were those youth workers that were bang on trend with the young people they worked with...and I definitely was not.

“I was placed with young people who came from a completely different culture to myself. I had so much to learn but that was OK, in fact that was one of the best things about my time there. The joy of getting to know people from different cultures, backgrounds and faiths was such a privilege. I could not pretend to be like them – I just had to be OK with being me. They would see straight through me if I was trying to be anything else. I also learned the importance of listening – to put aside any preconceived ideas and really listen. Spending time with the people in this community has shaped my perspectives ever since. Being authentic and available to God means he will use you and equip you in ways that you can never imagine.”

Several others echoed this thought about God working through our strengths and despite our weaknesses, and growing confident in the person he has made us to be. Andy Campbell writes: “I realised from quite early on as a church youth worker that my focus should be on helping the young people I worked with and for develop reflective skills and capacity. I was not there to make them more like me, but to become more like God intended them to be. An example of this is working with a teenage girl who felt a degree of internal and external pressure to enter church leadership (her dad was a pastor). I recognised that, if I was to help her think things through properly, I needed to help her find the headspace to honestly think it through and what both her head and heart were telling her.”

Our reconciliation to ourselves and our own history is directly linked to our capability to support young people in pursuing their own reconciliation. When we make time for our own development, we pursue excellent youth work done in partnership with God. And he will speak to us through this work as well.

Joel Ward echoes this: “There was a kind of awkward guy in youth who had really low self-esteem and rarely spoke. However, we saw a lot of compassion from him for people who were upset or who were new. He would overcome his challenges to help others. During one conversation, he shared that he’d been worshipping on his own at home and I felt like I should ask him to lead in youth ministry. He reluctantly agreed. In all honesty, his first few months were pretty bad – he was not a natural musician! But when he did lead, the worship response from youth was incredible and the Holy Spirit moved in powerful ways. In time, his musical competence came to match his spiritual character, but I learned a lot from him about God’s preference for a good heart over skilful hands.”

We know God works through imperfect, human organisations, including his Church, and as we work with him we do not work in isolation. The mixed dynamic of families, churches, denominations and traditions can be complex to work within. Sometimes it’s painful, as Simon Hall writes: “We did a school mission and about 20 new young people came to our evening service the following Sunday evening. I had agreed with my boss, the minister, that we would make the service creative and ‘youth-friendly’, but my boss suggested that we start the service with a traditional hymn so that the more traditional members of the church would be content. By the end of that hymn, all but one of the new young people had left the building, never to return. I’ve been trying to make church ‘home’ ever since.”

Steve Chalke once talked about how our Christology should guide our missiology, and our missiology should guide our ecclesiology. Whatever context we are in, what we believe about who God is fundamentally guides us as missionaries to young people. It is countercultural and in opposition to human nature, but thankfully God is willing and able to work with us as human beings, our church families and communities.

Dan Waspe writes: “As a youth worker in the UK, I spent a considerable amount of time working within local government. Even when working in the church, I would often have groups of young people who took following Jesus really seriously, and others who had zero interest in God but came for the fun and free breakfast on a Sunday. I often felt like the parents of the churched young people just wanted me to keep their children away from the opposite sex and to get good grades at school…and not to smoke! It felt tough balancing this with allowing others to explore life issues with honesty and openness. I learned and am still learning the value of facilitating, leading and being part of small groups where people’s backgrounds, culture and beliefs are diverse. I became very intentional about trying to talk about following Jesus in a way that didn’t use words that you needed an upbringing in church to understand. I also made it my mission to talk about real issues and not just allow people to give answers that they thought were the right thing to say. This is a skill I continue to try and develop in my roles here in Africa.”
Reflective practice helps us learn and grow through all the different contexts in which we work and this continual revolution in ourselves is an embodiment and example to the young people and communities we serve. Our character, humility and willingness to do this work is used by God to build his kingdom and do his will in the world. Do not underestimate what God is doing and will do through you and your daily work investing in young people’s lives. But at the same time, listen to Robin Smith’s words:

“We started running peer-led youth groups following a youth leaders’ seminar at Soul Survivor on mentoring – it changed everything for me. I had seen myself as the ‘do everything’ youth leader – up-front entertainer, wise Bible college-trained teacher and discipler etc. The shift to youth-led groups came with investing in a small number of older teens who then designed a group for them and their friends. The group grew in size, and many more of those young leaders are still in church or ministry. This is why I love training students now, you teach the few who reach the many.”

This same shift occurred in my church youth group and between Bible studies, foot painting and praying with each other, my heart for youth work started to grow. How did you begin work in youth ministry? Wherever you are at with church youth work, God is for you and has something to say. For some it may be an affirmation of your position at this time. For others it might be time to consider life after youth work. One thing we know is that God is good and wise and we can trust him with our lives.

Read more in part 2 here

CLAIRE FARLEY has worked with young people at risk of exclusion from school, young carers and young people with additional learning needs, all from a variety of backgrounds in the UK. She now lives in Perth, Western Australia.