Learning through Life

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Hampshire, United Kingdom
I love how our day-to-day life can teach us lessons to help us understand our past, challenge our today, and inspire our future. We can learn through experiences, situations, conversations, songs, books, nature ... the list is endless! Live with eyes ready to see, ears ready to hear and a heart ready to be touched.

Incarnational Youth Work

Incarnational Youth Ministry - just a buzzword?

Twenty years of youth ministry and what is the single most important thing I have learnt?

Young people are more important than programmes!

Is that it?  Twenty years experience for that?  Even the greenest of youth workers know that!  
Yes, and my response as a new youth worker would have been the same.  Of course the young people are more important than the programmes.  Duh!! 
This sounds blatantly obvious, but in reality I know how easily programmes can work their way up the priority list, especially when a large number of young people are involved.  I have been there.  Ashamedly,  at times I have focused on creating cool looking programmes to the detriment of the young people I provided them for.  Yes, these programmes may have attracted a lot of young people, but how many of them really felt loved during these times?   How often did they have the opportunity to talk about their hopes, dreams, and fears?  And ... how much space was made for God to move in their lives?  

Hmmmm ....
Over the last ten years or so, I have read a lot about different youth work models and their claim to effectively impact the lives of young people.  Some of these have been very programme focused, whilst others seem to have no structure at all.  Leaning towards the latter is incarnational youth work.  This term has definitely done the rounds in the youth ministry circles I have been involved in.  But is there a biblical principle to this form of youth work, or is it merely a trendy Christian buzzword, with no real meaning or understanding?
A few years ago I researched the Incarnational Youth Ministry Model in my Professional Studies Module at Moorlands College.
If you are interested in my findings, I invite you to read on ...  
(The writing below forms part of an essay I wrote on the subject, all quotes are indicated and referenced at the bottom of the page)

Incarnational Youth Work
As a professional youth worker our aim is to facilitate the personal, social and educational development of young people, enabling them to gain a voice in society.  As a Christian youth worker our aim is to ‘love’ the young people (John 13:34-35), and fulfil the Great Commission to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19-20).  Jesus developed relationships with people that had both a significant influence on their attitudes and lifestyle, and encouraged them to become disciples.   Jesus came to the world, lived in it, and impacted it.  He was God incarnate.  Incarnational theology should influence our attitudes and actions as Christian youth workers, whether in a secular or Christian environment.

There are two main aspects of the incarnation that incarnational youth ministry focuses on.  Firstly, just as God came to dwell amongst humanity on earth, youth workers should go to young people.  The second aspect looks at how Jesus spent his time with people, loving and serving them sacrificially.  Similarly, youth workers should build relationships with young people in order to love and serve them. 

‘Incarnational youth ministry, or relational youth ministry as it became known, emerged in the middle of the last century’ and seeks to ‘communicate Jesus’ love simply by building relationships with young people through which they can experience the love of God.’[1] The hope is that through these relationships the young people will see Jesus.  This model of youth work, in its purest form moves completely away from that practiced by many youth workers, (especially church-based) today.  Incarnational ministry is less about programmes and more about people; the point of incarnational ministry is that the ‘person is the programme.’[2] With no programmes to prepare for, the incarnational model may initially appear to be a simple, and easy form of youth work.  However, it should be noted that when the ‘Word became incarnate, there was a lot more to it than merely becoming human and forming friendships.’[3]  It is the same with incarnational ministry; it not only takes time to initiate and develop friendships, but it requires youth workers to conduct their lives in such a way that they continuously demonstrate the unconditional love of Christ.  It is a costly way of ‘doing’ youth work.  

All incarnational youth work aims to reflect the incarnation of Jesus through relationships.  The majority of Christian youth workers see these relationships as a platform from which evangelism might develop.[4]  In line with the Great Commission they build relationships to look for opportunities to share the gospel, and disciple young people.  Critics of this approach include Andrew Root.  In his book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, he states the incarnation demonstrates how ‘God became human to be with and for us, not to simply influence us toward this or that end.’[5] In the same way he proposes youth workers should simply aim to show the love of Christ in relationships, fulfilling the command to ‘love one another’ with no further agenda.  This incarnational approach implies the youth worker is to be, as Luther suggested, ‘little Christs’ to the young people.[6]  Although this understanding of incarnational ministry fits well within secular youth work where overtly sharing the gospel is not permitted, the eternal impact on the young people has to be considered.  A more realistic and beneficial understanding of incarnational ministry is that the youth worker assumes the role of John the Baptist as one who points people to Christ.[7]  This involves both loving as Christ commanded us to, and looking for opportunities to share the gospel appropriately within relationships.  

Going to …

‘We do not have to climb a ladder into heaven in order to find God and be with Him.  God came down that ladder, in order to meet us where we are and take us back with him.’[8]  While we were still sinners, Christ came to save us (Romans 5:8).  He took the initiative.  Incarnational youth work reflects this aspect of the incarnation as youth workers ‘take the initiative to go to where the young people are, and make the effort to understand them and the world within which they function.’[9]  Simply put, youth workers are to ‘go to’ young people.  Pete Ward’s ‘outside in’ approach to youth work is a prime example of this aspect of incarnational youth work.[10]  He explains that ‘contact’ is the first step in incarnational (relational) youth work.  Contact involves youth workers ‘coming into social contact with individuals or groups of young people in ways that lay aside the normal adult authoritarian roles.’[11]  

Detached youth work reflects this principle.  This form of youth work aims to encourage personal and social development within young people, by ‘working where young people have chosen to be, whether this be the streets, cafes, or shopping centres.’[12]

‘When God chooses to communicate, he uses the language, customs and social relationships of a particular group of people in a particular time and in a particular place.’[13] This is evident in the life of Jesus.  To effectively reflect the incarnation, ‘going to’ requires more of youth workers than physically entering the geographical location of young people.  ‘To work incarnationally is to start by accepting young people as they are.’[14]  Youth workers must meet the young people and interact with them within the various subcultures of which they are a part.  They should be ‘students of youth culture’[15], and astute to the issues surrounding young people today. 

In order to engage relevantly with young people, Richards states that youth leaders are to ‘become youth.’[16] However, Jesus knew and understood cultures, and always met people in relevant ways, but he never relinquished his divinity.  He always remained fully God.  In the same way, the aim of youth workers should be to ‘understand, imbibe and function within the world of the young people, integrating and identifying with them, whilst still remaining adults, in an adult world, with age-bought wisdom.’[17]  Ward adds that to seek acceptance as one of the young people defeats the object of their involvement.[18] Youth leaders must approach young people with integrity, and not pretend to be ‘trendy’ to impress or fit in.  Young people will see straight through the fa├žade.  Authenticity is vital.[19] 

Being with …
Jesus’ life displays a deeper commitment than simply ‘going to’ people.  ‘He was close to people, empathising with their hurts, joys and aspirations, and he never adopted the typical style of the guru, aloof and distant, dispensing esoteric wisdom from inaccessible peaks.’[20]  Jesus cared deeply for the people he met.  He sacrificially served them.  He unconditionally loved them.  Through relationships, incarnational youth ministry aims to love and serve young people in the same way.    Warren identifies three attributes displayed in Jesus’ relationships that guide incarnational workers: He loved (Matthew 9:36 et al), met needs (Matthew 15:30; Luke 6:17-18) and taught relevantly (Matthew 13:34; Mark 10:1)[21]

Jesus not only demonstrated the importance of love through his actions, he also commanded it (John 13:34).  He unconditionally loved all people.   ‘Love overcomes obstacles and excuses; it sees beyond what it does not like and minimises it, in order to see the person who is at the back of it.’[22]  Jesus saw beyond peoples’ attitudes and behaviour, and loved them enough to die for them. Christian youth workers are commanded to love all those they work with, including those who are difficult, rude and obnoxious!  This love must be demonstrated within church environments, secular youth centres and to all young people met ‘on the streets’.  Incarnational youth ministry develops relationships with young people in order to express this love. 

Meeting Needs
Jesus demonstrated love tangibly by meeting the needs of those he met.  In the same way, incarnational ministry requires youth workers to meet the needs of the young people they work with.  James highlights the significance of this proclaiming that ‘faith, if not accompanied by action, is dead’ (James 2:17).  This is possibly the most difficult aspect of incarnational youth work to undertake within a secular settingActual contact time within which young people may reveal specific needs is relatively short, and various policies limit involvement outside of sessions. 

Teaching Relevantly  
Jesus used parables and specific situations in order to teach practically and relevantly.  Incarnational youth workers seek to do the same through the conversations encountered within relationships.  ‘The Son of God, who had all the answers to the world’s needs, who was the answer, so respected the personalities and individualities of his listeners that he allowed them to determine his communication agenda more than half the time.’[23] 
As youth workers spend time in relationships with young people, their lives also become a vessel for teaching.  Young people learn through the faithful lifestyles of youth workers who act as mentors and models.[24]  This requires Christian youth workers to live in such a way that their life reflects their relationship with God.  A life of integrity is essential within Christian youth ministry, but does not appear to be such a key element within secular youth work.  This may be due to the separation of professional and private lives, and the difference between viewing youth work as a career or a calling.   


Within a secular setting, there is a temptation to view youth work purely as a career, committing only to contract hours, and adhering to a pre-set job description.  However, Christians have a calling to live out their lives in such a way that shows people ‘who Jesus is, and what he cares about.’[25]  This calling requires Christians to be transformed by the Holy Spirit through regular communion with Jesus, and the reading of the Word, in order to become more ‘Christ-like.’ Incarnational youth work provides a framework within which Jesus’ love can be shown.  It is proactive, time consuming, sacrificial, and requires a life of integrity.  In light of this study and placement experience I conclude that although it has a specific focus on young people, incarnational youth work is ultimately no more than the calling to all Christians to ‘go into the world to make disciples’ and to ‘love one another.’

[For permission to copy any of the above, and full correct referencing, please email me]

[1] Dave Wright and Dixon Kinser, ‘Post-Relational Youth Ministry – Beyond Youth Work as we know it’, Youth Worker Journal, Sept/Oct 2004, 47.
[2] Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The God Bearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998, 29.
[3] Steve Griffiths, ‘Jesus Centred Youth Work’, 43.
[4] Pete Ward, God at the Mall, 19.
[5] Andrew Root, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, Illinois: IVP, 2007, 79.
[6] Martin Luther, cited in John Dillenberg (ed.), Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, New York: Anchor Books, 1961, 75.
[7] Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The God Bearing Life, 27.
[8] Alistair McGrath, Knowing Christ, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001, 196.
[9] Graeme Codrington, ‘Theology: Towards a Theology of Incarnational Youth Ministry’, May 20th, YouthPastor.com  <www.youthpastor.com/.../Theology-Towards_A_Theology_of_Incarnational_YOUTH_Ministry>_(accessed 4th Feb 2010).
[10] This approach is explained in several of Pete’s books including God at the Mall, and YouthWork and the Mission of God, London: SPCK, 2002.
[11] Pete Ward, God at the Mall, 57.
[12] Federation for Detached Youth Work, ‘What is detached youth work?’, 2009, (accessed 1st Feb 2010).
[13] Pete Ward, God at the Mall, 101.
[14] Pete Ward, God at the Mall, 25.
[15] Doug Stevens, Called to Care, 30.
[16] Lawrence O. Richards, Youth Ministry, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979, 25. 
[17] Graeme Codrington, ‘Theology: Towards a Theology of Incarnational Youth Ministry.’ 2008, <YouthPastor.Com> 2.1. (30th January 2010).
[18] Pete Ward, God at the Mall, 58.
[19] Steve Griffiths, ‘Jesus Centred Youth Work’, 44.
[20] Doug Stevens, Called to Care, 22.
[21] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, 208.
[22] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Children of God: Studies on 1 John, Nottingham: Credo, 1993, 110.
[23] Lewis and Lewis, cited in Brierley, Joined Up, 90.
[24] Pete Ward, God at the Mall, 35.
[25] Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion, Hertfordshire: Lion Hudson, 1982, 108.


  1. Thank you for being great during the years I was involved in :D (sincerely meant - just to clarify)

  2. Young people are more important than programmes!
    As a youth pastor in Hong Kong where programmes sometimes dominate everything, I still AGREE with you !


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