Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Rose Nisbet

Rose Nisbet challenges us to listen to the big hints from the past…


A new millennium, leave the past behind, reinvent, do it new, throw out the old, history is dead! In youth ministry there is no question, we have to be relevant, up to the minute, hip.

But let’s “back the truth trolley up a little here” (Tim Taylor of Home Improvements fame). Isn’t this just another example of the consumer generation at its most wasteful? Isn’t there anything of value from the past worth a second look? In a time of enormous change how can the past inform our present?

Now in Context

We wouldn’t dream of counselling a young person without trying to find out as much as we can about their background and family. Why do we treat youth ministry differently? Just as a young person is part of a family system, so a youth ministry is part of a church or institution system. There is a past which shapes the present and will influence the future.

Our congregation used to have 200 young people in the Boys Brigade. It is part of our family history that is talked about often because people are proud of it.

Just as a family system is part of a life cycle with different stages, so a congregation has different stages. They are either in growth, consolidation or decline. The fact that the Boys Brigade was big fifteen years ago, and not now, indicates that our congregation has been in decline. Maybe we’re due for a growth spurt.

Reality Check

When we started a band we heard the statement “We don’t do that here”. However we learned that our church has quite a history of musical productions, choral concerts, Samoan events and community worship.

“We don’t do that here” can mean that it was done in a different form, the leader left and took the young people with them, it was done in a way that got people in a huff with each other, the budget changed and there’s no money now, or the person making the statement didn’t like it.

Permission to change

Youth ministry is relatively recent. 100 years ago you were considered adult at 14 or younger and sent out to work. Adolescence has only been recognised as a life stage this century. Secondary schooling has only been compulsory in the last 50 years.

The focus has changed over the generations. Youth initiatives for our parents and grandparents tended to be teaching-based. Youth initiatives for us were more programme-based. Youth initiatives for our current young people and children are more relationally-based.

Parents and grandparents in our congregation expect the church to provide what was provided for them – teaching and programme-based youth ministry. They need help to recognise that youth ministry here also happens during band practices, community performances, leading of worship services, meeting times, jam sessions and trips away.

Clues for the future

Keith and I organise adventure camps for senior highschoolers. The old farmer on the island would tell us stories about what they used to do: ” We used to have 200 boys on camp… we sailed right around the island…”, suggesting that we go back to running camp the good old way. We found it easy to shrug off his suggestions by pointing out how much harder it is to get leaders these days, that it is now a co-ed camp, that OSH (Occupatonal Safety and Health) wouldn’t let us. But after one disastrous camp, we took on board some of what he was saying. We were running camps for 15-18 year old young men and women and the biggest challenge they faced was walking across a couple of paddocks for an overnight sleepout! And if it rained they came right back. We did some hard thinking about how to build meaningful challenges into our camp, and the old farmer’s stories gave us the clues.

More Possibilities

Whatever it is we want to convey or express in the Christian faith, chances are someone’s already been there! Why chuck 2000 years of thought, prayer, music, and image just because it wasn’t done yesterday? Sure, reframe it, put it with the latest and greatest, but these things are our taonga (Māori word for treasure). Let’s celebrate with them!

Rose and Keith Nisbet live in Dunedin.