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Youth Ministry in The United Kingdom: An Interview With A Mate (Jon Jolly) Across The Pond

I love UK culture and style.  I have a secret obsession with the BRITS, which is why I am super excited that Jon Jolly agreed to do an interview about youth ministry in the United Kingdom with me.  I have been following Jon since 2007, so I know he has some fresh thoughts about youth ministry.
Jon has been working with young people since he volunteered to help at the church kids club aged 11.  He spent many years working for a community based charity while studying for a degree in Community & Informal Education. He now heads up the youth and community work for his home church in Littlehampton, UK while writing and advising for national groups and publications.  He holds a professional JNC youth work qualification in Informal & Community Education.  Jon is married to Kirsty, they have a daughter named Hope and a second
child on the way!

Connect With Jon:
Interview With Jon Jolly
(1) What are some of the challenges youth workers are facing in the UK?
To answer that question, you need a little context! Youth Work as a profession has grown and diversified greatly in the UK. For many years the government has financially supported their own (non-faith) youth services, while charities and Christian community projects also gained funding for their work by showing they could achieve prescribed targets. Now we have hit a funding crisis, much of that youth provision has been stopped with many workers losing their jobs and young people left with no support. The big challenge is for youth services, youth workers and young people to simply survive without the structure and security that was there before.
However Christian ministry within youth work has traditionally been given little recognition despite being one of the biggest areas of work supported by thousands of churches and volunteers. It seems to carry on regardless as it is financed through the local church and is far more sustainable. So the challenge and opportunity for churches is: how can they continue to be distinctively Christ-like, yet develop key support services and opportunities for young people with nowhere else to go?

(2) How supportive are churches/organization of youth workers and youth ministries?
My personal experience has been very good. I’ve worked with some amazing churches and organisations who simply love people and want to see youth thrive. In these places (including my home church) there is an attitude that although individual activities, events, or people might not work out, it’s still worth doing it anyway!
Of course, that’s not always the case. I’ve talked with many youth ministers who feel burnt out, misunderstood, depressed and sometimes even victimised in their churches. This is not solely a UK problem, but I believe it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what youth work is and does. When youth work is seen as a babysitting service, it has already failed.

(3) What are the best ways to deal with teens who don’t care about God, church, and youth group?
Love them, love them, and love them some more. I spent 8 years working for a Christian-based community project. On my first day I was introduced to a very troublesome young person, yet it was four years later that they finally trusted me enough to tell me the terrible things they’d been through. This individual wasn’t interested in God, church or a youth group, but needed a safe and consistent presence in their life. Through the years, we’ve had many conversations and experiences of God together. As a result I’ve become passionate about serving the ‘church-grown’ young people develop their relationship with Jesus, but also to bridge the gap with the ‘community kids’ who have no connection with our faith.

(4) What are 2 clear features that separate UK and US style of youth ministry?
Our countries have a lot in common. We eat similar foods, listen to similar music, wear similar clothes. Our culture is influenced by yours and we speak a common language. But while the majority of the US still recognise church attendance as a normal practice and would quote Christian values as their own, the UK has changed. We are pretty much a Post-Christian nation now with faith seen (at least through the media) as largely irrelevant, and a very aggressive atheism trying to denounce faith as dangerous! This may seem like a bad thing, but it gives us GREAT opportunity for ministry and evangelism. While most children may have heard the name of Jesus mentioned somewhere, very few have any understanding of Him or have had an opportunity to hear the Gospel explained clearly. This is our privilege.
The second feature that is different to the US is the potential freedom we have within schools. It is still law in England that schools have a regular act of worship, which is largely problematic for non-faith teachers who will often ask local ministers to come and do “something religious.” There are thousands of youth workers who have built positive relationships with schools and who
spend their time going in and taking lessons, presenting assemblies, and doing support work – all with a clear Christian purpose. So there is some very creative work happening in schools, including large interactive prayer spaces and art installations.
(5) What advice would you give US youth workers?  What can US youth ministry learn from UK youth ministry?
My observation is that the US have the youth ministry thing sewn up pretty well. You have great conferences, resources and speakers, and I regularly read books, articles and blogs from some amazing US youth ministers. So I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice, but I would be very encouraged to start hearing more stories of churches, youth workers and young people challenging and transforming their communities. There’s a lot out there on practically supporting youth pastors, and running a ministry, even going on mission trips. But grass roots community engagement with young people seems to be an element that’s missing from the US youth ministry world right now.
Aside from correct grammar and spellings, I believe US youth ministry could learn a couple of things from the UK! Firstly is the vast creativity in engaging with young people. I am constantly amazed by workers I meet who are thinking differently about church and young people, and experimenting in different ways with amazing results. I think there is more of a freedom here to try new things, which would be great to see happen in the States.
Secondly, I believe one of the big strengths in the UK is partnerships. Our church alone regularly meets with 7 other churches, runs a community centre, and works closely with 3 local government organisations. There is amazing opportunity to be had in drawing alliances and developing relationships with other groups outside of church. This is increasingly common in the UK and we now have people approaching the church with money, asking if we could start a dance group for the community, or employ someone for pastoral care! I would encourage US youth ministers to think carefully about how they might connect with other organisations to further the work of the church and make Christ known in those places where churches aren’t normally welcome.
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Jeremy Zach easily gets dissatisfied with status quo. He reeks with passion and boredom is not in his vocabulary. He becomes wide awake when connecting with student pastors, thinking and writing about student ministry, experimenting with online technology, and working out. He is married to Mikaela and has two calico cats, Stella and Laguna. He lives in Alpharetta, Georgia and is a XP3 Orange Specialist for Orange—a division of the REthink Group. Zach holds a Communication degree from the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.