Jenni Osborn speaks with a number of youthworkers, including an accidental clip from the Church of the Latter Day Saints…

Just like that, it seems, December is upon us and with it all the Christmas planning reaches its final stages. Celebrities are turning on Christmas lights and appearing in pantomimes; Christmas street markets are popping up; carol services are being advertised; every group we belong to are holding Christmas themed events, some a simple get together in a suitably bedecked pub, others more elaborately planned involving dressing up and bringing food to the occasion. It is no different for our young people: Christmas themed mufti day, Christmas fair, carol services, discos and then there’s the stuff happening outside of school!

In every youth work and ministry project or organisation there is a particular moment which kick starts the Christmas and Advent season. When I was a church youth worker it was the planning of the Carol Service, or at least the parts that the young people were to be involved in. There was a church near us that did a travelling nativity around their local community with various members playing various roles, sometimes contemporary, other times in more traditional costumes. I used to wish we could have done something similar, but by that time I was not involved with the youth work at church.




Matt Harris, a former C of E youth minister, told me about the start to his Christmas season was putting together the rota for the “Chocolate Tombola” at the Christmas Market their church ran.

Angie Choat, who works for the Southwater Youth Project which is part church funded and part community funded, told me that their planning for the Southwater Christmas Festival always begins in the summer. Which makes sense from a planning point of view but does stretch the Christmas season out somewhat! Angie finds Christmas tricky, especially while trying to balance the church with the community elements of her role. The community leaders she works with want to go into full Christmas sparkle and jollity for the festival, which is always the final weekend of November. This feels at odds with the church calendar which can emphasise the watching and waiting of Advent at this same time.

Carol Services, Christmas feasts, or parties, or even, in one case I know of, an outdoor sports camp run in the week before Christmas, these can all shape our experiences of Christmas. It can lead to a flurry of activity, for parents, for young people and for youth ministers, and church leaders of course.

Josh Amott, a Baptist Youth Minister, told me about a couple of times he’s been involved in the Nativity as the youth minister including one particularly memorable occasion for a Christmas Eve Community Outreach Service when Josh played the angel and ended up singing a rewrite of Robbie Williams’ song Angels. He told me there is video evidence somewhere but is reluctant to let it out into the public domain!

Matt’s recollections of the contemporary carol services also include singing, either when young people have sung or rewritten lyrics for the congregation to sing. From Audrey Assad’s “Winter Snow” to rewrites of Leonard Cohen’s classic Hallelujah for the congregation to join in with, and “Another Day of Sun” from the film LaLaLand to fit the Christmas story. Many other creative ideas and performances from the young people in his church and, as Matt puts it “we just had to hold our nerve and take the risk of it being an utter car crash!”




My own memories of Christmas working with young people mainly come from my time as a local schools worker. We were invited to run a Prayer Space in a local private school a few years in a row. It was a beautiful time of year to run a prayer space because the Christmas story lends itself to this kind of activity. We were given a whole section of unused building to set up in for the first couple of years, which was amazing. The kids watched The Nativity Story film and then went on their own Wise Men journey around their school. A friend of mine had a baby in November one year and brought her to the prayer space to be baby Jesus, which proved to be such a hit that the following year we had another baby Jesus, who was my youngest! The reaction of the children and staff was breathtaking in its quiet awe of seeing a baby, it was really amazing.

Of course, not everything goes to plan, sometimes that adds to the charm and jollity, other times not so much.

Josh recalls a time when he was leading the Nativity service, which was based on the alphabet, with different people being given different letters to talk about. So, A is for Angels etc. and there would follow a few lines about each one. Josh’s section included the J, but it wasn’t until part way through his later part of the service, the short sermon, that he remembered that he’d completely forgotten to say the J is for Jesus section. Fortunately, when he asked the congregation ‘Did I completely miss the J is for Jesus earlier?’ they all saw the funny side and agreed!

Matt talks about one of his first contemporary carol services in charge when a young person had a video she wanted to show at the end of the service. Matt didn’t have time to check it and the young person assured him that it was OK. As it played out to the whole congregation it seemed like some of the theology was a little, unusual, and then as the credits came up everyone learned that it had been produced by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Lesson learned!

Christmas prayer spaces is also one of my stand-out memories of a time working with young people when despite all the careful planning, it just didn’t work how we anticipated, and the lessons we learned were difficult. There was one year when we took the same Christmas prayer space into a state school, minus the baby this time, this one was a disaster and not because of the lack of a baby. We had been asked to work with year 9s, and agreed because it was same age group we had worked with at the private school. But there we’d had a maximum of 20 kids in the whole year group, in this state school there were 120 kids in year 9. We didn’t have enough staff, we hadn’t factored in the hourly lesson changes, and while we had set up the prayer space in the drama rooms, thinking it would be there all week, we then had to move it part way through the week into a space that was even smaller. The whole thing was an awful experience and we had to make drastic changes to the plans for the week after the first hour with the kids. If you’ve ever gone into a secondary school and had class 9E with a cover teacher first thing on a Monday or last thing on a Friday, in the week running up to the end of term, you can imagine a little of what we were dealing with.




In amongst all the jollity, sparkle and excitement of anticipation at Christmas there is often, more often than perhaps we notice, an undercurrent of sadness, grief and loss. This might come from grieving for missing loved ones, or it can be due to circumstances. Our media have a lot to answer for on this, television adverts which depict tables groaning with food, big family groups around them, all lit in warm colours and with singing gloves, talking plants or vegetables. It’s all lovely, but it can all add to the pressure felt by those who cannot see where Christmas will fit into their budget. And then there’s social media where we get to watch other families doing ‘elf on a shelf’ or piling their Christmas presents high or buying new Christmas outfits, whether that’s a themed jumper, a sparkly dress or matching pyjamas for your family (I mean, seriously, when did that become a thing?!).

There are many kids for whom Christmas brings a lot of uncertainty and tension. The Shelter advert this year makes me cry as we see a girl, about 10 years old, and her Mum who are waiting for housing to become available. She overhears someone say ‘Be good and Santa will give you what you want’, and resolves to be good so that Santa will give them a more secure housing situation. We see her doing various things as a ‘good girl’ only to wake up on Christmas morning still in the same camp bed she has been sleeping on for weeks, if not longer. She is devastated when things haven’t changed despite her good behaviour. Our children and young people are bombarded with adverts for new shiny gadgets or things that ‘make great gifts’, they are encouraged to ‘be good so that Santa will bring you what you want’ when perhaps what they want is for Mum & Dad to get back together, or not to see one parent, or for a loved one who has died to be with them, or secure housing, a truly impossible wish list. But even when it’s a Playstation5, or a Shark Hair Dryer, or similarly expensive gifts, these could also be completely out of reach for many.

Angie tells me that she loathes Christmas because of how crazy the time of year gets and the dual nature of her role, for example, she gets told off for putting a Nativity in the Santa Grotto by the community leaders. But she says that it’s worth it to see young people who’ve had a bad time, getting excited about something, seeing their reactions when their eyes light up from receiving small gifts and then being able to talk about something more than just the gift giving. It’s also always good to hear from those who have grown out of the group who come back and one of them has asked Angie if she will go with them to Midnight Mass this year.

Angie told me that her struggles with Christmas have been amplified recently because of her own personal loss in the last year or so, but it has always been difficult to marry up the gaiety of a community lead Christmas Festival with the more sombre church led activities in the same period and the reality of the lives of the kids she works with in her local community. Angie has had some really meaningful conversations based on her own experiences of loss, which she knows has had a positive impact on those who need to know they are not alone in their own grieving.

In the current climate, Christmas requires us to walk a potentially tricky line between the celebration and sparkle and the important recognition that life is hard for so many, whether that’s close to home for youth ministers or further away. There are many places around the world where this Christmas is likely to be shaped by war, upheaval and sharp grief, and our young people are more and more aware of these events. Perhaps this year, the focus can be on the lack of a home for the expectant parents, the rush to get to Bethlehem and the desperate search for somewhere warm and private for Mary to give birth. The peace that would have descended in that stable or animal shelter as Mary fed her baby and Joseph watched over them in gratitude that they had both survived, despite there being no older women there to assist in the birth.

Whatever is happening in your own ministry this Christmas, or even in your own life, know that you are not alone. Whether your Christmas plans are successfully accomplished or are a sequence of disasters, you are not alone! And, however you celebrate, my hope that is that we can draw the focus away from the glitz of new stuff and impossible wishes to emphasise the gift of life itself. Pointing the way to the arrival of something truly breathtaking in the middle of the mess and uncertainty, surrounded by challenging circumstances: God himself steps in as a baby, bringing hope, light and life itself.