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Girls’ Brigade Ministries: here’s to another 125 years of mission

Girls’ Brigade is keen to work with even more churches as it celebrates a major milestone

To mark the 125th anniversary of Girls’ Brigade Ministries, Naomi Osinnowo, editorial content manager at the Evangelical Alliance, caught up with Catherine Burt, media coordinator and group leader, to talk about the the charity’s past, present and future. 

This year, Girls’ Brigade Ministries (GB) is celebrating its 125th year of mission among girls and young women. For those who aren’t familiar with GB, what is the charity’s mission?

We’re a mission network home to three key initiatives that specialise in enabling this generation of (primarily) girls and women to openly explore and engage with real life and Christian faith in a fun, informative and hopeful way. 

There are our community groups, which we’re probably best known for, that meet weekly with an estimated 10,000 children and young people and 2,000 volunteer leaders around England and Wales. Koko, which is an online space for teenage girls, packed full of films and blogs about living life to the full in a hope-filled way, is another one of our initiatives. 

There’s more. We have also founded the Esther Collective, a growing (online and face-to-face) community of women in their 18 – 30s women, who through intentional friendships, exploration and encounter, are supporting one another to develop integrity, influence and faith in their homes, everyday lives, study and workplaces. 

These initiatives enable us to advocate for, and with, girls and women worldwide, work with churches in their mission and outreach into their local communities, and equip our leaders and others to share their faith and make a difference in their communities.

What are some of the highlights that GB has had in recent years? 

Ah… there are so many: being featured on Songs of Praise; our leaders being recognised in the national media; our collaborative research project with Youth United Foundation about social integration, which was carried out by ComRes; the continued success of our events that are targeted at young women, such as the Esther Generation Weekend; advocating for girls and young women; koko winning awards for its films; international mission in locations including Zambia; and much more. The list goes on.

What touches me, though, is seeing women come to faith and observing their relationship with God deepen. It’s thrilling when they share that God has said something to them and how members of the wider GB family can support them as they continue their journey with Him. Girls’ Brigade raises hope. Hope is a very big theme for us.

Have there been any challenges?

It can be difficult staying relevant to the girls and young women. Society is moving at a terrific pace, especially with technology and how people communicate with one another, but hopefully we manage to respond in a relevant way both online and offline. 

Of course, it would be easier to be secular, specifically when it comes to funding and attracting members and volunteers. But, ultimately, we know Jesus is the reason for everything and the bedrock on which Girls’ Brigade is based, so we haven’t given in to the challenge to be less’ overtly Christian. 

How has GB evolved over the years? 

Our charity has developed in a number of different ways over the years. In terms of our local groups there have been many changes, such as what we call people. Before we used quite military sounding titles like captain and lieutenant; now we use leader, team leader and the like, which are much more friendly. Then there’s our uniform: we moved on from having hats, white gloves and blazers, which are all very formal, to polo t-shirts that are vibrant and colourful. It’s great seeing our girls wearing them en masse. 

Our local group programmes have evolved too. In, say, the last 10 years we’ve developed a suite of holistic resources that each include an element of faith. So, everyone who takes part will hear something of the gospel message. Our programmes are complemented by a range of fun activities, from games and crafts to horse riding, singing and residential events, which enable our members to have fun while they learn. 

In addition to our local groups, we have also developed specific projects and initiatives that subtly point people to the Christian faith, so we are able to reach both Christians and non-Christians. Koko, our vlog website aimed at teenage girls, is a good example. We share videos and blog posts based on Christian principles and issues teenagers are facing. Some of these are used by youth workers, schools and churches.

This feeds into my final point. We’ve had to recognise and keep up with where society is going as a whole, to ensure that all of our projects are contextually relevant and effectively support churches and the wider society. Addressing the real issues that girls and young women grapple with, such as self-esteem, drugs, sexuality, bullying, etc, in a way that’s relevant to them and their age group, while factoring in modern technology and social media, has been an increasingly important focus for us. 

Christian and non-Christian girls and young women become members of their local GB groups. How does the GB team share the gospel and ignite or nurture their faith?

Jesus is the bedrock of all we do. In view of this, you will hear the Christian message in every part of our offering that you tap into. For instance, we organise a range of activities and programmes that help our members develop faith. The events include mission trips, international conferences, camping and opportunities to live in a Christian community. 

Our local group programmes, meanwhile, are holistic, and they always include an element of faith, whether you come to a GB group for one week or for five years. It’s no secret that we’re a Christian organisation and we read and explain Bible stories and talk about the gospel. We answer questions including: what does amen mean? We speak to our members on their level so they understand. This is a key part of helping them to develop and understand their faith. 

For example, I lead a group of 11 to 18-year-olds in Portsmouth, and when I talk about faith I own it. What do I mean by that? I use language such as: I’m a Christian and I believe that… I share my journey. I don’t push the Christian message down their throats, but I do encourage them to explore and ask questions. 

Many members don’t have prior knowledge about Christianity, with some having been brought along by their friends. And for many, Sunday has become a family day’ where the children spend time with wider family members or, if they’re from separated families, their other parent. The GB session on a Monday or Wednesday, then, is church’ for many of the young people we work with, where they get to learn Christian values and morals, and they have a lot of fun while doing so. 

Why should churches get involved in Girls’ Brigade?

There are around 600 GB groups in churches in England and Wales – that’s quite something, isn’t it? We really believe in what GB can do and how it can be part of a church’s mission to connect with not only children and young people, but their families.

But we offer more than GB groups. Churches can also make use of our equipping and training sessions, koko films and blogs, or set up an Esther Collective group for 18 – 30s.

We know the needs of different communities vary, so to stay contextually relevant and sustainable, we ask: what are their needs? And what is the area like? We don’t offer a one-size-fits-all model. 

Why are ministries that are specifically targeted at girls and/​or women important?

The Victorian era, a time when women had very little educational background and didn’t have the right to vote, was the context in which what is now Girls’ Brigade was set up in. It was started in Dublin in 1893 by Margaret Lyttle. It started as a fitness club and evolved from there, with skills-based learning becoming a key part of what the group offered. And it’s continued to develop, as it meets the needs of today’s girls and women.

In the UK, there are still discrepancies between men and women and there’s still a need for a community, family even, where girls and women can develop, grow in confidence and be themselves. I joined GB when I was four; my mum thought it’d help me because I was very shy. In my first two weeks there, I sat on the sidelines and just watched the other girls. Over time I became confident as I found out who I am. Now I lead a group.

Thousands of young women and leaders have had a similar experience to mine. Rachel Gardner, president of GB England and Wales, says GB helps girls and young women to see that they’re not here to decorate the environment but to transform it. It links to our vision to see lives transformed and communities enriched. 

Why is Girls’ Brigade such an important initiative these days?

Girls’ Brigade was established in 1893 and more than 100 years on, it’s still providing a safe space, both online and offline, for girls and young women to grow in confidence, learn new skills, and try out new activities. Of equal importance, though, is the opportunity our local group members have to integrate with people from a different background, school, age group, etc. Social integration is an important aspect of what we do.

God, of course, remains at the heart of Girls’ Brigade, and by partaking in our activities, members learn more about faith and the answers to crucial questions, such as why are we here? Some churches struggle to reach the age groups we work with, such as 18 – 30s, and we’ve found that our years of experience have taught us what works. We’re keen to partner with more churches so that we can see more lives transformed and enriched. 

It was lovely to read that a group of 4 to 14 year olds in the Girls’ Brigade group at Brownley Green Baptist Church in Manchester made hearts to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the bombing in the city. In what ways does GB help girls to understand and engage with their communities? 

To mark our 125th anniversary, we launched a programme, in conjunction with HOPE Together, that challenges our members to give hope’, celebrate hope’ and build hope’. Parties and fun days were among the activities that our members organised and were involved in as part of the initiative. Many also raised funds for vulnerable people in their communities as well as other charities by, for example, organising bring and buy’ sales, collecting and handing out sleeping bags to homeless people, and giving hope in other ways. In doing so, they became aware of the challenges that people in the community face and shared the hope that we have as Christians. 

What’s your hope for the future of GB?

As mentioned earlier, we work with hundreds of churches and have recently obtained funding from a particular church denomination to extend our reach. Nonetheless, my hope is that more people will see the value of what we do and support us, as our ministry enriches the lives of girls and young women, Christians and non-Christians alike. 

It can sometimes be both frustrating and joyous for small charities. Frustrating because our resources may well be stretched and there’s so much more we can and want to do. We may think: If we had this, we could do that.” But, in these circumstances, when we haven’t got it, God uses our creativity and talents to make a way, which we delight in.

About the author

Naomi joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2018 as editorial content manager. Positions with publishers and within the marketing and communications faculty of a higher education institution, plus stints as a reporter, have enabled the media and cultural studies graduate, who has an NCTJ diploma in newspaper journalism, to hone the necessary skills and qualities to serve members well.

See more from Naomi Osinnowo

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