Three years ago Jenni Osborn was writing a book about youth work in the covid era and beyond. Dave and MINE Youth were featured in that. This summer, she caught up with Dave in his last week with MINE Youth.

Dave calls himself an accidental youth worker, having begun with summer mission trips in Hartlepool and Grimsby and then a gap year in Durham. In 2014 he married Jen and they moved to Byker, an inner city district in Newcastle, made famous in the UK by the teen drama Byker Grove.

Byker has around 12,000 residents, around 78% of whom rent the home they live in. Byker has a much lower percentage of home owners than the national average or the average for Newcastle. Levels of unemployment were higher for the 2021 census but remember that this was taken during the Covid pandemic and so the figures do not necessarily reflect normal levels of employment, either at a local or national level. The census figures, taken from the website, do show an area which is economically deprived. But as ever, they don’t tell the whole story; through Dave and Jen I have learned that the people of Byker are warm, friendly, welcoming and that they will be missed as the family move to a new area.

Dave’s desire is to live right in the heart of the community he serves. To connect with those who ‘big church’ often cannot connect with, to live a Jesus centred life and offer those around him the kind of love and care that Jesus would have done. Not in order to ‘win people’, or convert the masses, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s great when young people and/or their family members do realise how much they are loved by Jesus, and fantastic if they express the desire to follow Jesus. But it has to be accessible to them, in a way that a lot of church activity might not be; it has to be authentic, not prescribed or manufactured.

The last event Dave and his wife Jen have taken part in really demonstrated the seemingly random way that they have been working, it’s chaotic but there’s a strength to it that isn’t often seen.

If we had been there, we would have seen a handful of adults and another handful of 11 + year olds in official t-shirts, serving their local community with drinks, food and generally making them welcome. We would also have seen many of these kids making friends with police horses which were there. We might have marvelled at the idea of getting young people so involved, and we might have expressed delight at seeing so many of all ages come to the Fun Day. What we would not have been able to see are all the links and connections which made the day, this is often the case in ministry of any kind, how often do we pay attention to those details?

Let’s go back a little while. Post Covid lockdowns, Dave and the MINE team decided to run an unusual group for them: an invite only group. This was a response to the restrictions which were still in place at the time, in order to try and manage group size and the characteristics of the group. One of the kids, who we’ll call Adam, wanted to invite his mate from across the road, we’ll call him Adz. Adz had not previously been to any of the groups, or drop ins or anything. He came from a family who was unknown to the MINE team. As restrictions started to disappear, this group grew in number and this lad Adz started to invite other family members along, siblings, cousins, the lot. One of his cousins was a girl who we’ll call Anna, who was too young for the group, but desperate to attend. So, the week after her birthday, she rocked up with her form all signed and joined in straight away.

Now, going back another eight years, there had been a lad who got involved in a small group that Dave and Jen had run from their home. We’ll call him Winn. Anyone who has been in youth ministry for any length of time knows a ‘Winn’: when he was there, the group was in chaos. Despite Dave and Jen’s best efforts there was very little open discussion to be had those weeks. He was the bane of every leader from the church’s life. Eventually, after not engaging with anything constructive, Winn had decided to go on a training course with the Fire Service locally. He didn’t really turn up to the group much after that, and a sigh of relief was heard. Dave tried to keep up with news about him but it wasn’t good, with crime and police being mentioned, and then all went quiet.

Back to 2022 and it became clear that Adz’s wider family included many older kids who had been known to MINE previously, including Winn.


Dave Johnson_MINE_v3

Christmas 2022, Anna was part of the group who went ice skating. She asked if her uncle could come along with her, which was agreed. On the day, they turned up together, Anna and her Uncle Winn. Dave could only look on in amazement that Winn, who as a teenage lad had been the most disruptive, chaotic and seemingly uncaring young person, not only lavished Anna with attention and care, but also made sure that everyone else on that trip had a good time as well.

At the Fun Day which was Dave’s last event with MINE, at the beginning of September, not only was Adz there, but also so many members of his wider family who have been involved in some way or other. Including Anna, her little sister and Uncle Winn. Anna and her sister in particular befriended Dave and Jen’s youngest child, just a toddler herself. Adz threw himself into a hosting role, making sure everyone had food and drink, and Winn was also warm, friendly and engaging throughout the event.

There was another lad there who had only started coming along to the MINE summer programme, he had heard about it through Adz’s sister’s best friend’s brother, which only goes to show how far these connections reach in a local community like Byker. This lad, who we’ll call Pete, began the summer by joining the group digging a hole in a stranger’s back garden and ended it not only helping out at the Fun Day but staying way past the point most others had gone home to make sure every single last piece of equipment used was put away.

No boundaries

For me, the thing that stands out from Dave and his approach to life and ministry is that there is no separation; boundaries, yes but many of the lines often drawn in youth ministry are blurred. I like this because life is messy, and we humans like to try and put things into boxes, even faith. Much of what I hear in Christian circles draws an unconscious (and sometimes a conscious) line around those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. We place a lot of emphasis on whether a person is converted, or ‘given their life to Jesus’, a phrase which raises a lot of negative emotion for me. We tend to think about our involvement in community groups that are not run by the church or Christians as opportunities to ‘reach’ people and this really brings my hackles up. Join a running club, by all means. But let’s do it for the joy of joining with others to do something that is good for us, to find those who also enjoy doing the thing. Not with the agenda of making friends so we can convert them.

No ’projects’

The same goes for youth ministry. Young people can smell this kind of bait and switch from a mile away and they will treat it accordingly. We need to be present in the lives of young people because young people are incredible, they are curious, knowledgeable, interested, engaging, funny, and they have as much to offer us as we do them. If not more! Not because they are a project to work on. The central point has to be the relationships that can be built, and the connections with other human beings to be made.

How does our theology fit with this? Can we justify our ministry if our goal is not conversion or attendance on a Sunday? These are big questions, worth asking whilst understanding that we may never get to a definitive answer. Again, we like to put things into boxes, to be able to give pithy explanations, to be able to describe success in short terms like numbers of young people attending our groups. These questions do not have neat, succinct answers because life is messy, even Jesus’ life was messy. He constantly taught people who did not seem to understand, he treated those whose lives had been traumatic with tender care and few expectations. He demonstrated love in action but didn’t always get much in return.


There could be a temptation to think that young people are not really impacted by what’s happening around them. That they don’t necessarily understand the complexities of adult life, but that’s just rubbish. Young people are dealing with so many of the same big issues that adults are: grief, identity, low self-esteem, progressive illness, disability, unstable housing and other consequences of the Austerity/Brexit/Covid political agendas. And we know that adults who have years of life experience, and a fully developed prefrontal cortex will struggle with these sorts of situations, how much more will young people, who tend to often have no say or power to act differently than how the grown-ups around them are? They have much more visceral reactions to life circumstances. To dismiss this is to miss out on the privilege of mourning with those who mourn and rejoicing with those who rejoice.

What do we say to the young man who is losing his sight as part of a degenerative disease? Or someone who has had to have limbs amputated due to illness? How do we practice the all important tenets of faith which call us to love each other, to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly? Jesus never encourages us to live a life dictated by boxes or rules, in fact he broke many rules during his ministry. It is our own human natures that prefer to create rules to live, even in church. But faith is much more about the mystery, the fogginess, and the unknown than it is about certainty and rules.

What Dave and Jen have been cultivating is youth ministry right in the heart of the messy, blurry edges of life on an estate in Newcastle. It is the opposite of what many youth groups in churches look like, albeit with some familiar aspects.

I’m drawn back to Winn and how his short term story looks like failure. I knew a boy like Winn once, whose story did in fact end in addiction and early death. And as I’m writing I’m remembering another lad whose story is similar to Winn’s, but whose adult life is much more stable and full of hope. Maybe you’ve been recalling others from your own experiences in youth ministry. But this Winn, his longer term story is such a positive one it gives us hope as I’m sure it has done to him and the rest of his very broad family. These are the stories we live for, not because they fit into a neat box of success but because we are witness to something very precious: life, in all its messy glory.

If you have a story to tell about your own youth ministry, I’d love to hear it. I’m a collector of these, the more messy and real the better! You can get in touch via the magazine, or my website.