I recently spent my holiday in Vienna and Cornwall and found my inspiration for my next two posts. I would like to start with my time in Cornwall and look at the idea of revolution.
CORNWALL’S DESIRE FOR INDEPENDENCE
My holiday in Cornwall was about as traditionally British as you could get. We stayed with some friends in a cottage in the quaint fishing village of Polperro. It was an all-around relaxing experience except for driving down several two-lane roads that were smaller than my car. Amidst the rainy days and walks along the seaside, in between the fish & chip shops and delicious seafood dinners, and in conversation with almost every Cornish person I met there was the overwhelming sense that I was not in England anymore.
Cornwall has for a long time sought recognition as a distinct nation from England. They have a rich Celtic cultural history, a distinct language and even their own flag. If you ever make it to Cornwall you will very much get the impression that you have left England and traveled to somewhere else. Yet despite all this, they remain a county and not a country.
This got me thinking about how we manage revolution. Minus a few minor clashes with the military and a good deal of smuggling (As the Polperro Museum of Fishing and Smuggling taught me). The Cornish people have not really fought for their independence violently. England, for the most part, has also let them maintain their own unique identity. In a lot of ways, I found Cornwall to be a lot like my time in Ireland. Part of the UK but not English. The fact is that England will not let Cornwall break away and be its own country mostly for economic reasons. They don’t believe that Cornwall could financially support itself. So instead they let the non-violent flag waving, Cornish speaking revolution carry on.
MINI REVOLUTIONS IN YOUTH MINISTRY
I think about the mini revolutions I have faced over my years in youth ministry and I wonder if this is not the best strategy. From protested lights out times at camps, to dress codes on mission trips and bigger issues like when the youth want to completely change the way the program looks, we are constantly on the cusp of revolution.
The biggest concern I have is that if these revolutions succeed it could lead to a change that negatively impacts the ministry (or the amount of sleep the adults get on retreats). If I completely crush these rebellions however I run the risk of being too rigid and losing kids.
AN IDEA OF HOW TO RESPOND
I remember a situation I was in about 5 years back when a few students came to me and wanted to change the way our primary youth night looked. They went so far as to get a petition signed by over half the youth group saying they wanted to do the youth program differently. I knew that if I handled this situation poorly the effects would ripple through the youth program for years to come.
I decided to ask questions. The first question was a pretty straightforward one. I asked this group of mini mutineers what they wanted. As we talked they proceeded to tell me they wanted the program to be like it was about 6 years before I had arrived at the church. What I found curious about this statement was that at that time they would have all been too young to have been a part of that program. When I asked them to tell me specifically what that program looked like they couldn’t provide any working details.
The truth is they wanted an idea that they had in their heads of what the youth program used to be. They had grown up the younger siblings of a lot of the previous youth group and when they heard all the stories of the old youth program told by their siblings with a heavy dose of nostalgia they decided that is what they wanted as well.
The only problem is that we can never recreate the past like it was. Too much has changed and in truth, the past wasn’t all that great to begin with. I knew the previous youth worker at my church and many of my adult volunteers had served in that time as well. I had heard about all the great things that had happened but I was also aware of a lot of major issues that existed and things that just simply wouldn’t have worked anymore.
It was now that I thought about the Israelites in the wilderness. The multiple times they rebelled and the multiple times they wanted to just go back to Egypt. The truth is slavery doesn’t seem that bad when you are wandering the desert.
As I talked with this group more, I realized what they really wanted was a sense of belonging and community. That is what their older siblings had and that is what was at the heart of all the stories they had been told growing up and looking forward to joining the youth program. I shared with them that we couldn’t go back to the way things were and try to live up to some ideal they had of youth programs past. Instead, I invited these students to help me think, plan, and dream about what the youth program could look like going forward. We started to place a strong emphasis on building community and looked at what it meant for our older youth to leave a lasting impression on the younger ones. We talked about mentorship and being a role model. We had a lot of meetings, ate a lot of pizza and I had a lot of extra work on my hands. In the end, though, we had something revolutionary, at least revolutionary for us.
Out of those first talks, we developed a student leadership team, a reformatted midweek program that was more inclusive and even changed the way we did our retreats and lock ins. As we worked together some ideas got scrapped and others got created. In the end, we ended up with a youth program that appealed to a lot more kids than it had previously. My mutineers were suddenly my leaders and I went from Darth Vader to Han Solo (Or at least Chewie).
We are constantly challenged in ministry by the people we lead. You can choose to see this as an attack on you and the work you are doing, or as an invitation to work with your group to build something better, together.
England is a better place because of Cornwall. Your youth ministry can be a better place with some revolutionaries in it.
Denny Burda is the Senior Youth Minister at St. Paul’s Howell Hill in the United Kingdom. After over a decade in youth ministry in the States, Denny, his wife Merina and their cat Elliott followed God on their big adventure of a new life in a new culture.