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Reaching our unreachable inner-city teenagers

How can we share Jesus with our hard-to-reach young people? asks Christian youth worker Tim Gough

I remember a young lad who used to terrorise our youth café. He would steal things, start fights, and throw eggs through the open door. There was one night, however, when an older woman in my team stood with him in the doorway. After talking for a while, his swagger died, his shoulders dropped, and he looked into her eyes for a moment before saying, “I’m just really tired.”

It was like, just for a split second, he was allowing us to see through the cracks of his wall, into the lonely and frightened person he really was. It was the first piece of humanity we had ever witnessed from him, and it was heart-breaking. There are some young people that are so far removed from our church experiences that working with them is like engaging an alien culture. Yet mission, at its very heart, is going out from what we know and into where there is need. 

Understanding the challenges of today’s inner-city teen

More than half of young people today report problems with mental health, one in four receive help for depression, and between 2013 and 2016, teenage suicides in London increased by 107 per cent. Alongside this, £39 million has been cut from youth council services since 2011, which has resulted in the closure of 81 youth projects in the capital. These closures have left an enormous vacuum which is quickly filling up with poverty and adolescent crime.

Just one week before I started my first youth work job in London, the school around the corner had lost a pupil to a stabbing. Not long afterwards, another young boy lost his life by choking on his own vomit after a night’s partying. People of all ages suffer. Youth work isn’t all nerf wars, pies-to-the-face, and kids getting saved’. We’re called as missionaries to leave our places of security and go into cultures of obscurity. We’re asked by our Lord Jesus to take the gospel into every needy and desperate part of humanity. We’re told to minister to the broken, bind up the hurting, and stand with the rejected – just as Jesus did for us.

How can we engage with the disengaged?

Going out is easily understandable to a congregation when it’s an Ethiopian nomadic tribe – no one is expecting them to show up on our pews. It may be less graspable, however, when it’s the stereotypically delinquent culture of inner-city teens next door. It is in this vein that I gently offer these simple suggestions for starting to work with these broken, disengaged young people. This isn’t a complete strategy (it can’t be!), but I think it might give us some ground to build upon. Unsurprisingly, they all start with giving:

1. Give them a community to belong to

Youth groups and churches should passionately seek to propagate a judgement-free, easy, safe, and compassion-driven place in which to belong.

2. Give them something to fight for

Many of these young people are fiercely protective of their family and personal values. Create projects that serve causes rather than just provide entertainment and get them leading the charge against injustice and poverty in their area. 

3. Give them some skills and structure

A friend has just launched a project where she teaches young people to cook. Another gives car-maintenance lessons in his garage, and yet another helps to write CVs. Look for ways you can add value, serve real needs, and build skills in them that they can use.

4. Give them all the grace you can muster

We cannot expect a common ground of social behaviours or priorities, so we need to propagate patience and cultivate forgiveness.

When there are no answers

When I was sixteen, I went on an inner-city mission trip. On the final evening, we were in a park talking with two local estate lads after a game of football. At about midnight, we sat down under the goalposts to tell them why we believe in God. Soon one of the two boys became eerily silent; he just stopped talking and looked down into his hands. He pulled out a flip knife and started to play with it. (We were, I think, suitably freaked out.) Suddenly, he looked up and broke in, asking aggressively, Then why did God take my mum?”

What would you have said? What would you have done? I can’t quite recall what answers we tried to give him. Plenty of youth ministry involves giving answers to young people. There are times, however, when right answers’ aren’t enough. Sometimes simply standing with young people in their confusion and pain allows room for the Holy Spirit to speak. Let’s start there.

Tim Gough is the author of Rebooted: Reclaiming youth ministry for the long haul – a biblical framework, editor of the multi-award winning blog, Youth Work Hacks, and director of Llandudno Youth for Christ. 

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