A few weeks ago I attended the 4th Youthwork Summit, this year in West Bromich. If you’ve never heard of the youthwork summit click here for more info.
This is the 3rd Summit I’ve been to and my expectations were high, not least because we travelled to Scotland on Friday night to drop our son off before heading down to Birmingham and then had to leave the event early on the Saturday to return to Scotland to pick up said son. The two previous Summits I attended were both engaging and dymanic and on both occasions I came away with a head full of thoughts and ideas.
I say all of this because I want to make it clear how much baggage I brought to the event. We had sacrificed a lot of time and mileage to attend. And I guess its a way of me explaining why I found this years one a little, well…underwhelming.
It’s taken me a few weeks of thinking and talking to work out exactly why I left the event rather disappointed and I want to share that with you now. I’ll outline what I liked and didn’t like about each of the sessions and then give a brief summary at the end. These are just my own opinions and as I’ve made clear above, they are subjective. There are many factors that contribute to how someone evaluates an event and the fact that we travelled so far to get there does play a part in that.
What was clear from the start was that Martin Saunders, Matt Summerfield and Chris Curtis (the organisers) wanted more of a flow to the event talks and they achieved this. In previous years the talks have felt more disjointed but this year each talk was connected to the one before. For me, by doing this it meant that many of the talks seemed to repeat themselves. What I loved about the Summit in Manchester was that you didn’t know what would be said from each talk to the next. It was a wild flurry of ideas. It hurt my brain but I loved it. I didn’t feel that this year.
Highlights in the first session “He is Greater” were ‘apologetic for the apathetic’ by Ruth McGarahan and ‘Disrupting Chaos’ by Dr Kate Middleton. Both of these talks had something important to say and they were both full of information and practical advice. Ruth explained how important it is that our youth work seeks to unlock the head issues to that people can open their hearts and to keep asking questions as they make people think, get rid of assumptions, expose faulty logic, expose motivesand show we care. She left us with the a challenge from 1 Peter 3:5: Does the kind of life we are living provoke people to ask questions? “The gospel should be simple enough for a child to understand but deep enough for scholar to spend their life discussing”.
Dr Middeton shared how as teenagers are literally learning who they are through their teenage years, they can appear to be completely different people from one day to the next. She also made us aware that young people struggle to think about the consequences to their actions and so there is a need to communicate with teenagers in a very different way.
Both of the speakers used their ten minutes to communicate a number of ideas and it didn’t feel repetitive. I also thoroughly enjoyed ‘Slam Theology’ by Conrad Gempf and Harry Baker as it was something fresh and unique in an event which became increasingly stale as it went on. A mash up of theology and poetry that was challenging and inspiring.
It seemed odd to me to get the futurist Dr Patrick Dixon to talk about ‘future proofing your youth work‘ instead of actually talking about future technology and what we should be aware of (although his powerpoint was very good), ‘Let Muslims change you’ by Tim Fawssett was good but nothing I haven’t heard before and ‘Broken Sex’ by Beth Stout felt a bit like a re-run of Ruth Cordon’s talk from last year.
The talk I was most looking forward to in session 1, Dr Maureen Funkle talking about why ‘Harry Potter is Evil’, turned out to be a joke talk and I was quite angry about that. The last two Summits had talks that I strongly disagreed with and they provoked me to think. What concerned me this year was that I didn’t disagree with what anyone said. The voices were all from the same ‘pot’ and there was nothing particularly controversial from either side of the theological or cultural spectrum.
Session 2 “You will do greater things” started brilliantly with more ‘slam theology’ and was the most consistent in terms of its quality of talks. Dave Sharples heartfelt speech about ‘meet the parents’ brought a lump to my throat and Oliver Wests talk about ‘how the other half learn’ was interesting but was frustratingly short and I don’t think he really had the time to communicate what he needed to. It was also ironic that his talk was on visual thinkers and the video didn’t work.
Camila Batmanghelidjh talked about ‘hope in the inner city’ and the power that love has on the brain. It felt like she waffled a little but her talk was inspiring and gave practical evidence to the power of good that the concept of God can have on the brain. “The greatest gift you can show a person is your ability to love” Amen. ‘Growing up Poor’ by Lille Jenkins took a little while to get going but the lunch charity is an incredible project.
Sadly the session ended on a whimper with ‘your youth group can raise Lazarus’ by Lydia Corbett. I believe miracles can happen and that we should expect them and clearly God is doing some incredible things through her youth work but I found her talk to be a little naive as it didn’t address the issue of what happens when a miracle doesn’t happen? What happens when someone’s gran gets healed but then someone else’s gran doesn’t? We need to manage expectations and help our young people grapple with these issues but I felt Lydia’s talk was too simplistic.
The next session was titled “the takeover” and consisted of young people leading, speaking and singing. I’m not going to evaluate this session as I don’t think that’s right but what I will say is that the presenter of this session, who I think was 24 so not technically a young person, came from, what I title as, the patronising youth work factory.Now that probably seems rather judgemental and I’ll take that because it is. One of my ‘buttons’, the things that really anger me is when it appears that youth workers are talking down to young people. Now this youth worker probably wasn’t doing that but it definitely appeared that way to me.
“He must become greater” was the final session I was able to attend (I’ll watch the videos I missed online once they’re up) and again the talks were pretty inconsistent.
Jill Garrett’s talk on “Followship” really puzzled me. It was billed as a talk about being a good follower but it seemed to me that it was really a talk about what a good leader should be like and how a leader should manager their ‘followers’ so it was really a talk on leadership. Again maybe it’s just me.
I’d pretty much heard the talk ‘Faith in Crisis’ by Gavin and Anne Calver before but it was still engaging. Less could be said, and will be, about ‘Dealing with your dark side’ by Rachael Costa. I found the talk lifeless and, at times, bordering on parody. She didn’t really appear to know what she was talking about and just kept talking until the time was up. As founder of Think Twice I believe rachael has some important things to say but none of them were said in this talk.
‘Prayer without ceasing’ by Celia Apeagyei-Collins wins the award for most awkward moment at the Summit when she asked people to pray for Satan to come. It was a lively and passionate talk but I left without any real practical application.
Unfortunately we left during Danny Curtin’s talk on ‘it’s not your ministry anyway’ as our little girl was fed up so I’ll review that when I see the videos later.
Reading back over this post, I do appear to be incredibly negative about the summit this year. I still think it’s a great event but the format may becoming a little stale. Or it may be that the ideas around the talks have become a little stale. The concept comes from TED talks where people are given ten minutes to give the talk of their lives. Out of the 14 talks I heard, I’d only consider three of them to meet that standard. There seemed to be a lot of filler which is odd when people only get ten minutes.
The organisers wanted more theology in the event and that was partly successful but the problem was that the theology that was spoken about was very shallow. There wasn’t much depth to the talks or to the ideas being presented. Much of what was said seemed almost superficial.
The best talk at the event that had a good depth of theology wasn’t even in the main session. Conrad Gempf talking about his new book about Paul, during one of the afternoon breaks was engaging and challenging and highlighted what was missing from the main sessions.
Also, I felt there wasn’t much engagement with culture. Film, music, drama, art, design, sport. Young people are immersed in this culture and no one really talked much about it.
Again, these are just the thoughts of one person and there is no doubt that I’ll attend the next event (especially since it’s half an hour from my house) but I want more than I got this year. I want to grapple more. I want to disagree more. I want to hear from the best that youth work has to offer.
Were you at youthwork summit this year? I’d love to hear your thoughts.