Youth Work and the Question of Virtue

I have been thinking a lot about the MP’s expenses controversy that has been in the press for the last couple of weeks. In most cases, rather than apologise, MP’s have tried to justify what they have done by saying that they did not break any rules and everything they claimed for was acceptable.

They are right in the fact that the current law allowed them to claim on these items but I think it highlights a key point in youth work. Christian youth workers tend too much to teach young people what you should and shouldn’t do as a Christian. All we do is end up with a list of rules. What does that actually teach?

What is really needed is the re-introduction of ‘virtue’. Rather than a set of rules we should be helping young people grow in virtue and allowing them to make the decisions rather than us tell them what they should do.
Law doesn’t work.

Through the narrative of the Old Testament we learn that although the Jews were given a law to guide them in their lives, it didn’t work (Dimont M, 2004:164). They kept messing up. In Isaiah’s first prophecy, the Jews are told that God does not want their sacrifices and their festivals (1:13).  What is the point of following every letter of the Law if you are doing out of routine rather than love.

“A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly” (Romans 2:28). Paul spoke of the fact that obeying the law was not enough. What was on the inside was more important.

Yes the MP’s (in most cases) were following the procedures to the letter but their hearts were corrupt. Legally they did what was right. But morally? Ethically?

I listened to a lecture NT Wright gave recently to a seminary in America. What the world needed, he said was the re-introduction of ‘virtue’. Aristotle, expanding on the work of Plato declared that human good is the “activity of soul exhibiting excellence (virtue)” (Grenz S, 1997:71). I agree with Wright that we seem to have lost the pursuit for virtue. It is no longer a trait that is encouraged. We have replaced it with a moral code, a list of do’s and don’ts, which works to an extent, but it does not achieve the change of heart that is needed for society to truly work morally. That is when people no longer just do the minimum for each other. Again I return to the issues of the MP’s. There was no virtue in their decisions. If there had been then they would realise that buying a moat with taxpayers’ money really isn’t very ethical.

So what does this all have to do with youth work?

We are after all interested in the character of young people. We want to help them build the capacity to make ethical decisions in their life. The point then is not to give them a list of rules from the Bible and tell them that they can’t do these things because God says so. Rather they should be asking the clichéd question, ‘what would Jesus do?’ That in itself is easier said than done and many cases we have no idea what Jesus would have done. But the point is still there.  It’s not about teaching them right’s and wrongs but developing in them the quest for virtue. To have ‘good’ character. To make ‘good’ choices. Even when those choices are personal and no one may ever know about them. After all isn’t that what “making disciples” is all about? Creating in them a lifestyle.

The only problem with that is that it’s not the easy option. How do you nurture virtue and character in people? What this approach asks for is a new way of understanding and applying the Bible. From experience I know this will frighten and challenge people. Terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘heretical’ may be thrown about. But the goal is still the same. Each day to become more Christ-like in the decisions we make.

As a side not, that is how I think we, as youth workers, can measure success. Yes it can be good for our young people to grow in their knowledge of the Bible but, in my limited understanding, I don’t think being able to quote verses is the whole point. Are our young people learning to make ‘right’ choices? Informed choices?

For me, all this means an intentional shift away from programme based youth work. Even as I write that I know people in the church that would be weary of this. Because that’s all they have known. “How else do you do youth work?” That is one challenge. The other is how exactly do you work with young people to create and nurture their character without falling back on the old ways?

That is something for another time.


One response

  1. Frigging great, good, yes!

    I agree, through observing how youth work is ‘done’ over this way is that many people expect folk working with young people to make the young people nice, as in following the rules nice, follow the ten commandments, follow the the church expectation and in many cases this is accepted by those youthworking folk?!

    But where, as you say is the virtue, the ‘good’ness is not talked about, encouraged or discussed. Being a follower of God is not about following laws, but about living- being as much like Christ as we can and that is a journey and a struggle and you are so right, not something that can be taught in a programme.

    For further readings sake, have you read ‘Getting fired for the Glory of God’ the collection of Mike Yacs Youth Worker Journal columns and MarkO’s ‘Youth Ministry 3.0’ are well worth a look – their own reaction is that discipleship as a programme is doing more to harm young people and the church.

    I appreciate your insight good sir, and wish you a good day as ever!


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