Earlier this month we enjoyed a really valuable and encouraging evening at Cuthbert House with many of those involved in youth ministry – volunteers, employed and clergy – who gathered from across Durham Diocese to share stories and vision and to pray together.

Becky Sibanda, from St Giles’ Church Durham, spoke about Youth Church, operating since May on a Sunday evening, drawn mainly from a confirmation group. This incorporates many of the worship elements of traditional church but also eating together, discussions about ‘big questions’ and other topics generated by the young people themselves. It is important that they feel part of the wider church community (and so for instance want to raise money to support charitable causes) but at the same time are church in their own right. Some of the members attend Sunday morning worship and others don’t.

Lucy Mann, from St John’s Church Shildon, hosts one of the larger youth groups in the diocese, which the young people named ‘Youthy’. The time of sharing in a circle is working really well, where people discuss thoughts and feelings, plan and sometimes pray together. The young people like the casual feel to the evening, with food, and often faith-based discussions, games and craft. To help progression up to the Sunday evening group (and to meet demand from younger ages) they have just started a Junior Youthy on a Monday evening.

Revd Canon Jane Grieve arrived at Wingate and Wheatley Hill just over 2 years ago. The congregations were primarily elderly with no young people engaged in either church, so the question was how to engage with young people outside regular church?  In Wingate, after securing a team of helpers, a Church Lads & Church Girls Brigade was started in January, with the support of a local Brigade in Shotton. Brigade had existed in Wingate 50 years ago and was still in the memory of the community. They are in touch with about 15 young people; some were confirmed by Bishop Mark last year and attending The Pulse is an important link for the group. It was felt that Brigade probably wouldn’t work Wheatley Hill, partly due to higher deprivation. Working initially with James Ballantyne from Frontier Youth Trust and a team of volunteers, they stepped out in faith, opened up the church to the young people on a Tuesday afternoon after school to see who would come along. Over the summer, they took out food and games onto an open grassed area. Numbers are growing with up to a dozen coming on a Tuesday, and saying prayers and lighting candles at the end of each session.

Emma Smith from Billingham Team Parish talked about Junction Youth which she runs with other volunteers on a Wednesday evening and incorporates a younger more structured session followed by a more fluid older group. One of the things that works well with the younger ones is passing a ball round to everyone, including leaders, and everyone has to say what their ‘high’ and ‘low’ of the week has been, which has brought up a lot of deep issues in people’s lives including faith. When you are holding the ball you are in control – no-one else can speak. With the older group, it is deliberately less structured and creates space for young people to connect with each other and God in natural and creative ways, some singing or playing the piano, some painting, some playing games and some just chilling.

Susan White from St Mary and St Cuthbert’s Church in Chester-le-Street brought 2 young leaders with her, Kirstei Rae and Abbie Winter, and spoke about the importance of growing leaders from within. Kirstei and Abbie have had opportunities to lead in the Sunday evening youth group, although it is not always an easy transition with relationships with older group members. They have gained new skills, experience and confidence through being Young Leaders at the Scripture Union Scoughall Challenge in the summer and also through completing the Bishop’s Certificate in Youth Ministry. Younger members of the group were also getting the experience of reading in church and even doing the talk at a youth-led café church (mainly due to confidence in faith gained at the SU holiday).

Revd Ian Somasundram and Gavin O’Doherty from St John’s Church Hebburn also talked about the importance of growing young leaders and also the importance of the group knowing the truths of the Christian Faith. They really value gathering young people together at their church through the regular ‘Engage’ event and also coming together for The Pulse, in see other young people with faith in the region (the youth band led worship at The Pulse giving them opportunities to develop their leadership and musical skills). One of the things that is working well at the Monday night ‘Yuppets’ group is going round the circle each week and sharing their news from the week in 5 or 10 words, leading to opportunities to pray, often with the young people praying for and blessing each other with a hand on the shoulder.

Bethany McNeeley from St Mary’s Church Norton spoke about her own experience of one-to-one mentoring from growing up in the USA, and their plans to set a mentoring scheme up in Norton, although aware of the importance of getting the safeguarding elements right. A mentor would meet a young person in a public place, like a coffee shop, and have important life conversations together, including talking about faith. Something that worked really well over the summer was the Camp of Champions, where they were joined by a team of young Americans for the week, ending with a communion service on the beach and some getting baptised in the sea. Many young people’s faith and confidence grew hugely from the week, and many are now keen to take part in the Dulos young leaders training programme, that Kathryn Belmont from All Saint’s Church Preston-on-Tees helps to run.

Revd Kate Boardman from St Mark and St Cuthbert’s Church Cleadon Park talked about opening their church up to young people on Saturday evenings over the summer holidays, starting with 15 and ending up with 35, with ages ranging from 9 to 14. This was partly as a response to the Council’s request for a safe space for young people to meet. Many were keen to learn to play the piano and guitars (learning Amazing Grace!) and asked lots of questions about the church and what happens there! Even though they have no regular youth group at the church, Kate encouraged others just to open the church doors and see what happens! She said how encouraged and inspired she had been by everyone’s stories.

Judith Lees and Eileen Haswell from St Barnabas’ Church Bournmoor also said how inspired they had been by the evening, but were struggling for someone to lead their youth group since their youth worker left last October.

Matthew Brotherton came with fellow youth leader Diane Bailey from All Saints’ Church in Lobley Hill. Matthew spoke about growing up through HUNGRY, the Friday night youth group and how much he has loved being part of the group, and even though he is now at University he is now one of the youth leaders and said how amazing it was to see young people come through in their faith. One of the things that was very important to the group was the link they had to a community in Malawi and raising money to sponsor children and for medical operations, for example to enable a child to walk, and for the young people to know that they have helped to achieve that.

I spoke about the encouragement that I was taking from all the signs of life and growth across the diocese, and shared Romans 4:17, of the ‘God who brings the dead back to life, and who brings into existence what didn’t exist before.’ Even though the challenge ahead of us with young people in the diocese is huge, decline is not inevitable, because we have hope in a God who is able to create out of nothing, and to work in ways beyond what we can possibly hope or imagine. Our question is not so much ‘What would Jesus do?’ but WIJD ‘What is Jesus doing?’

We then spent time praying God’s blessing on young people in the Diocese and on those who worked alongside our young people. Bishop Mark closed with a blessing on us all.

We hope ‘Talking Youth’ will become a regular opportunity for anyone involved with youth mission and ministry to come and meet, hear, share and pray together.

Andy Harris (Lead for Youth Mission and Ministry)

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