It was great to be part of the first National Youth Ministry Weekend in Birmingham this weekend. I came away in equal parts encouraged and challenged. Here are three reasons for each.

I am encouraged:

  • By the sheer quality and commitment of the people involved in youth ministry in the UK and beyond. The speaking team for the weekend was excellent – highlights included the penetrating analysis of Kenda Creasy Dean from Princeton and the slam-poet style delivery of Miriam Swaffield from Fusion – but it wasn’t just the big hitters who scored. The overall level of engagement and exchange was deep and reflective, driven by a very real willingness to acknowledge the challenges facing young people and at the same time by a faith that believes them surmountable.
  • By the gender balance, both of the speaking team and of the participants. Youth ministry has always been a step ahead of the wider church on this, but this seemed a particularly positive aspect of this weekend. Not only because there were women on the platform, but because they were so good, and brought such authority to the event. And not only because we talked as much about girls as guys, but because we did so with real sensitivity to the issues involved.
  • By a very deep sense of God’s reckless love informing both the worship and the content of the weekend. Love for us, as leaders in ministry, and love for those we seek to lead. There was a notable and welcome emphasis on the mental health needs of young people and of those who work with them, and an encouraging level of honesty. Beneath this, though, there was a heartfelt confidence in the goodness of God, and an underlying belief that the foundation of all ministry to young people is the fact that their maker loves them with an irrepressible, irrational passion.

I am challenged:

  • Because I am not convinced that these values are reflected to the same degree in the leadership structures of many of the churches that employ these same youth ministry leaders. I could be wrong here, and I will be the first to rejoice if proven so, but I have a hunch that the willingness of these (mostly) young leaders to be led by love and to follow the Holy Spirit into the new shapes he has for our churches may ultimately clash with the job descriptions they have been given, too many of which involve recruiting young people into structure that most of us strongly suspect are failing.
  • Because I fear, as a result of this, that some of the dreams and visions released on a weekend such as this are going to be smothered at birth – and the leaders who carry them are going to face disappointment. A clear challenge was issued over the weekend to release the new generations as architects of the new structures God is bringing to birth. Will that challenge be heard beyond the conference halls of this and similar events? Will it reach the ecclesial corridors of power? We can but hope.
  • Because I want to see more of this. More conversations about the future of our churches. More opportunities to equip and release those who in turn will equip and release others. More moments of complete surrender where we are fully aware of the pain and sweat that surrender will bring us. My greatest concern is that in the face of the immense and accelerated social changes rocking our world, we are not doing enough and we are not doing it fast enough. Despite several painful decades of being aware of the trouble we’re in, we persist in maintaining structures and ideas that simply won’t carry into our future. Our attitude to social change is very similar to our response to climate change: we say it matters but we live as if it doesn’t.

My response to this odd cocktail of encouragement and challenge is to redouble my engagement with reformation and renewal, working hand in hand with all those committed to the same journey. Playtime’s over, folks… time to get real.