But I learnt Classical Spanish …

As the sun has risen over the Devonshire cost, all is as it should be in the Faulty Towers establishment; Basil has missed an alarm call, Sybil has been waiting for a picture to be put up for over a week and Manuel is up to his normal antics of getting things wrong. This morning there is too much butter on the breakfast trays which are being taken up to the guests in their rooms. As per usual Basil rushes to the Spaniard in order to set him straight. They then enter a dialogue that covers topics such as counting in Spanish and donkeys! When questioned on his ability to communicate with the new waiter Basil comments “I learnt classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he seems to have picked up”.

This is the scene that set the tone for the two hit series of Faulty Towers which took the nation by storm and is still considered to be a classic Based on the very defined culture of the British Riviera in the ‘70’s it had two very definite characters in the lead roles. Manuel, however, is the anomaly in all of this. He is the foreigner. He is the one who doesn’t fit. The one who is out of his depth, in a world he cannot comprehend. It is the juxtaposition between these two cultures that provides its own thread of comedy running throughout the series.

It is a similar clash of titanic cultures that Graham Cray refers to in his Grove book on Youth Congregations and the Emerging Church (Cambridge: Grove, 2002, p.4) when he says:

~q‘Youth ministry is understood to be incarnation. It involves entering the young people’s world(s) in order to plant the gospel and the church there. It does not necessarily intend to bring people back into a church culture which is alien to them if that culture is dying. That is to say it is not a “bridge” strategy but a genuine commitment to new forms of church for a new cultural era’.q~

Happily Christian youthwork has taken a step away from being a new method of getting ‘bums on seats’ in traditional churches and chapels towards an incarnational ministry that is focussed on the young people themselves, rather than an agenda set by someone else who effectively speaks a different language to the young people in question. There cannot be a correlation between an aging (and some would say dying) inherited church from a previous paradigm and the outreach done into the postmodern culture of ‘Generation Y’ where people like Margaret Thatcher are only known because they can be found in a history book. It just won’t work.

The first and most fundamental principle in any form of communication is that both the communicator and the receptor are speaking the same language in the same culture. That is how we are communicating right now - I have written, and you are reading. It is simple, and it works! If either element of language or culture were to change then this wouldn’t be a viable method of communication and something new would need to be sought. This is exactly the same with young people. They aren’t a different breed, and they won’t bite(!), but they do speak their own language and have their own value system and worldview (aka culture).

It is the barriers that come in the way of this communication process that shape the relevant skills we need to use in youthwork. Some of these skills are practical, others are habits and only one or two of them relate to actually speaking to young people. We have to understand that communication is not just what comes out of our mouths, but is reflected in the whole person. This includes our attitudes, our dress sense, body language, the time and place of conversations and meetings, etc. and only after this does the diction we use come into question.

Barriers to communicationL~

The idea of identifying the barriers we have with our young people is simple – if we can identify what is in the way then we can get rid of as much of it as we possibly can before we even meet the young person / young people.

Physical Barriers

Some of the easiest barriers to identify and change are the physical ones. This includes things such as the place you meet, what you’re wearing, any distractions in the locality, etc. Some of these barriers can be used to our advantage. For example, a lot of the work I do brings me into contact with people in a school settings, where there is a certain decorum that needs to be maintained by me as the visitor, by school as the provider and by the pupils who are there to work. In this case the place I meet the young people is set and if I turn up in a shirt and tie I give off a unified impression, with the school and the surroundings ,that work needs to be done. I therefore gain respect.

The flipside of this could be if I turned up to youth group in my shirt and tie straight from school and all the young people were ‘kicking back’ in their jeans and ‘trackies’. Straight away I am inconsistent to the situation and I am just making life harder for myself. Dressing appropriately can make communication in certain settings so much easier.

Cultural Barriers

In contrast to the physical barriers, these are the barriers you can probably do the least about. These include things such as age, ethnic origin and background and your personal experience. None of these will disable the youthwork you do, but they may take a bit more time and effort to overcome. In the increasing more diverse, multilingual and multicultural world we live in, these barriers, though still significant, are reducing in importance and consequence.

Mental & Behavioural Barriers

I’ve linked mental and behavioural barriers together as there is much overlap in these two subject areas. They may include differences in thinking, behavioural needs, agitation, external influences, etc. Some of which may be linked to other barriers mentioned above, but some of which can be dealt with separately. As an example I had a team from Cliff College working with me recently. Part of what they were doing included opening a ‘youth drop-in’ on the council estates in Sheffield where I work. This wasn’t the setting to enter deep discussions with anyone , and certainly not to dive into personal issues with a young person with all their mates around us whilst standing at the pool table. This would have lead to huge embarrassment and peer pressure on both the young person in question, and the leader who had taken up the conversation. This was, on the other hand, exactly the place to tell all the young people collectively that we as a team were there and available for them to approach us with anything they liked.

Topic Specific Barriers

Sadly one of the characteristics that is lacking in the culture young people live in is the celebration of difference. If you don’t have the same opinions, support the same football or rugby teams, have the same dress sense or like the same music, then you’re weird and fun will be found in your oddities. Engaging with youth work there are some things you can take an interest in for the sake of finding conversation with young people – I find myself keeping up-to-date with Big Brother for this exact reason. On the other hand there may be things that you just can’t see the point in, but the young people around you adore it. Mine, for example, is hip hop(?!) – I just don’t get it!

When it comes to barriers that are more topic specific, it’s worthwhile remembering that God made you, and them, just the way you are. There is a huge element of youthwork that is just about being yourself with the young people, sharing in life just as they do. For this reason it doesn’t hurt me to watch a few episodes of Big Brother each week, but likewise I don’t have to change who I am to engage with something new. There is a line that needs to be drawn here and I’d put it at the point where you stop being yourself in order to impress someone else.

Skills to overcome barriersL~

Awareness

Many of these barriers can be dealt with by thinking ahead and an awareness of what may be around a meeting point at a particular time and place. There’s nothing wrong with an unseen element of control in many situations if it will aid the relationship(s) being built.

Being Spiritually Ready

Doug Fields in his book Purpose Driven Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998) starts with a whole chapter on the ‘Spiritually Healthy Leader’. Very often I don’t like these summaries of “do this and you’ll have a perfect ministry” but saying that, Fields does cover some core spiritual themes of humility and submission to God in ministry as well as addressing the necessity for priorities and focus in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Preparation

By this I’m not referring to the need to have every youth session and conversation planned down to the finest detail. Rather, how are you as a person prepared for that encounter? How are you feeling? What sort of day have you had? Do you need to lay something down that may get in the way of your youth work? What are you wearing? A friend of mine who is a Methodist Minister over in Durban, South Africa once said to me, “You cannot make people ask questions about faith or religion, but you can try your hardest to be available to them when they do!”.

Preparing is imperative to building good and real relationships with young people. You may have no idea what sort of home or family situation each particular young person has come from – they may not even want to tell you – but in a world where the home and the environment around it are often a fragile places, you as a youth worker could be one of the few constant, reliable people in the life of some young people. Are you ready to be that person?

Creativity

Young people vote with their feet. If they don’t like something then they won’t come back. It’s that simple, so you need to keep them on their toes.

Like adults, young people often have to be told the same thing a number of times before the full impact of what you’re saying really hits home. Repetition and entertainment very seldom go hand in hand so you need to be creative in the way you do things. If you can just alter one or two bits every now and then it keeps people engaged. If you run a weekly group, for example, you could try altering the layout of the room every now and then; or if there’s structure to your evening shuffle the order of things about a bit. Simple changes can be more effective than those that turn the group upside-down so that you have to start all over again.

Empowerment and Equipment

This is easy. Ask yourself the question: “If I were the young person, what would I get out of this?”. If we’re not giving anything of use to the young people we work with, why are we wasting our time and theirs?!

Young people today live in a very consumer driven pick’n’mix society where you can have a bit of this and a bit of that. It’s no coincidence that the gospel message doesn’t fit into that box very well – we can’t just pick the bits of the message of Christ we like and ignore the rest. What we can do, though, is show how the gospel fits into all the things they do engage with as a kind of umbrella above all that is on offer.

Young people always connect with things better if they can have an active ownership of whatever it may be. What is there that could be given over to some of the young people you work with to enable them to make it their own? Roll this out into a wider church context – what part of ministry could the young people lead? Could they preach or pray for people? Could they minister over a congregation? Could they lead worship? In empowering and equipping people then you see the potential in them for God to do mighty things.

Relationships, relationships, relationships…L~

Ultimately relationships take time and hard work. Everything we do for and with young people has to be for the betterment of these relationships, this means spending time with young people in their world and context. Finding a common interest or activity is often a good way to spend time together in an environment that is natural and where you as the leader are a participant like everyone else. Relationships are precious and need to be protected at all costs. It doesn’t matter if they get things wrong – we all make mistakes. If the fundamental base on which a young person can grow and be nurtured is right, then the relationship is going to work.

‘It’s sometimes better to lose the battle and win the war’. This is the attitude we need to undertake when we are talking to young people, once a relationship has been established. If we can be the constant element in the life of a young person, Christ in their situation, then that is all the communication we need. Potential, love and grace will all stem from such a relational connection. It may take time, it may be a long road, but it will be worth it in the end!

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