Youth work – lessons from the past

Youth work – lessons from the past.


A lecture delivered by Peter Corney at the Ridley Youth Ministry Conference, July 2004.


 Some historical observations

Imagine it’s just at the turn of the century in the UK (1890s to 1900) and you are wandering about a large town or city in the UK and you stumble across a group of about eight or nine boys in their early teens walking in a group. They are all wearing colored scarves knotted around their necks and some have short staves or thumb Sticks, one or two even have hats that are shaped like a Canadian Mounties. The rest of their clothing is the same as that of any other 13-year-old boy at the time.


You do not identify them as scouts, as the organisation did not begin in the UK until 1908. What you have stumbled across is a spontaneous phenomenon that was occurring around Britain among young adolescent boys in the cities at that time. What triggered this was the Bore War (1899 to 1902). It was the first war to be reported daily in the popular press and the first war in which journalists were embedded with troops at the front line. Winston Churchill was one of these journalists.


These boys read the romantic reports of fighting on the Veldt by British troops defending the Empire. They followed eagerly the adventures of soldier heroes one of whom was Baden Powell. The Bore War was a significant conflict in which 22,000 died.


Young boys endured a very rigid, controlled and uncreative education in late Victorian and Edwardian England. They were longing for freedom and adventure. They imagined themselves as army scouts, bushman on the African Veldt, scouting out the enemy and living rough. This was a spontaneous movement organised by young people themselves. It was only later captured and organised as the Boy Scout movement. Baden Powell the British military media personality was brought in as the PR figurehead. It became an instant success.


In the late 19th century and early 20th century several other sociological factors that impacted on youth are quite fascinating and fed into what became the Scout movement.


1. The industrialisation of Britain in the 19th-century and the consequent urbanisation separated people from the land and country. Children grew to young adulthood without ever seeing a beach or walking in a forest. They lived in overcrowded, cramped houses – ‘Coronation Street’ England.


2. One of the reactions to this, coupled with the Romantic Movement in art and a new interest in Europe’s pagan roots, was a great revival of interest in nature and the outdoors. Groups sprang up like ‘The Woodcraft Folk’, camping, nature studies, hiking in the country all became popular.



3. In Europe they were called ‘Wood Crafters’. In Czechoslovakia in the early 1900’s there were a large number of groups who called themselves ‘The children of Zivena’ the old Slavic goddess of nature and crops. These groups were outlawed under Communism, but in a fascinating example of cultural survival, with Communisms fall in the 1990’s 700 Wood Crafter groups emerged from secrecy!


4. There was a great interest in the culture of the North American Indians their bush craft and traditions and reverence for nature. All this was popularised and romanticised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. ET Seton an American naturalist and artist, wrote and illustrated books about the North American Indians that became enormously popular. He visited the UK in 1906 and influenced the formal beginnings of the Scout movement in 1908. In fact, Baden Powell borrowed many of his ideas from Seton’s writings about the red Indians. Seton, known as ‘Black Wolf ‘, began the US Scout movement in 1910, he was a friend of  Rudyard Kippling who wrote the famous and Mowgli stories about the jungle boy.


5. The Scouting youth movement was the product of a number of sociological factors coalescing and the opportunistic organisation of these into a structure by a group of people who saw its potential.


6. By 1914 Europe was once again plunged into war, a war so bloody and futile that its effects reverberate down to this day, for example our own Anzac legend. Because Scouting was influenced by both the Woodcrafters (naturalists) and the military ethos, a tension grew in the movement sparked by the futility of the 1914-18 war. Eventually two of the founding figures who came from the naturalists side split from the organization. In England John Hargreaves formed a new movement and in the U.S., ET Seton did the same forming the Woodcraft league of America. Hargreaves was an idealist and pacifist and his movement eventually morphed into the ‘Green shirts’; a semi political movement promoting social credit, international cooperation and world peace. Remnants of these groups still exist today.


7. Out of World War I and the defeat in Germany came the ruin of the German economy, the loss of faith in its government and then the beginning of the great depression. This laid down the seedbed for the rise of fascism in Europe – Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Many other factors lead to the formation of the Nazis and National Socialism in Germany, eg; the weakness of the German church eaten away by liberal theology, the subtle effect of Nietzsche’s death of God philosophy on European thought and the re emergence of ancient European paganism.


One of the things Hitler did was to exploit the rise of paganism and capture the naturalist youth movement, the Woodcrafters etc, and blend these elements into the Hitler Youth movement. You have probably all seen some of the old footage of healthy, blond young Germans hiking into the picturesque countryside singing folksongs together ‘We will build a strong and healthy new Germany!’ Many of these young people became storm troopers and members of the SS.


Some implications of this history for youth work today.


  1. The theory of the sociology of knowledge says that ideas do not succeed in

history just by virtue of their own power or value but also by their relationship to social processes. For example the Reformation in Europe in the 16th century spread at the same time as the invention of the printing press. Scouting took off because of the coalescing of the social factors listed above. Other earlier examples of youth work that grew out of the social conditions created by the Industrial Revolution are the Sunday School Movement (1831) and the YMCA and the YWCA.(1844 -55)

The Sunday School movement grew out of a Christian response to educating the urban poor and the YMCA and YWCA as a Christian response to protecting vulnerable and lonely young women and men who came from the country to the city to work as servants, shop assistants or apprentices and to bring the Gospel to them.


Most successful youth movements since the 19th C have captured, adopted or exploited spontaneous social and cultural trends. Someone saw a need and opportunity and organized.


2.   If we jump forward to the 1960’s and 70’s some Christian evangelists, youth and student workers became deeply involved in the tumultuous cultural changes of the  counterculture, the civil rights and protest movements and the reaction to the Vietnam war –  the Jesus Revolution resulted. Out of that sprang significant creative new youth work that lasted for a decade and impacted on a lot of people. This was mostly para church as youth workers reacted to the conservative style of churches at the time. In Australia the new initiatives included  “Theo’s Coffee Shops”, “The Masters Workshop”, “The House of the new world”, “The House of the Gentle Bunyip”, “Truth and Liberation Concern”, “God’s House”, etc. Some of these also had elements of intentional community associated with them. Groups like “Teen Challenge” developed ministering to the emerging drug culture. A whole new generation of Christian music emerged with numerous Christian rock bands and folk groups.

Some of these initiatives have had a lasting effect but it is worth noting that this movement in general was significantly shorter in its duration than earlier ones for two reasons. First it was not organised or institutionalised as previous movements were like Scouting or the YMCA and second, the rate of cultural change had picked up.


3.   There is always somewhere in the background a philosophical religious or political worldview influencing the social trend. In the late 19th century and early 20th it was romanticism and pagan naturalism. Today it is post modern subjectivism.


4. There is always a political dimension. If the movement for social change is influential enough and big enough, politicians will seek to use it. In the 19th and 20th centuries Scouting was used by British imperialism and German fascism. In the 1960’s and 70’s in Australia Whitlam and mainstream Labor cashed in on the counter culture and radical left politics with the “It’s time for a change” campaign.


5. Wars and major conflicts influence youth and youth movements. We have already commented on the influence of World War I. In the mid-1950s a new hedonism and risk-taking took off as young people reacted to living in the nuclear shadow and the Korean War. In the 1970’s the Vietnam war and the accompanying protest movement contributed towards the development of the counterculture. The question for youth leaders today is “What will the backdrop of international terrorism and the environmental crisis produce among young people today today?


6. New technology also influences youth and youth movements. Just as the Industrial Revolution affected youth in the 19th and early 20th century so electronic and digital technologies affect young people today. The question to youth leaders today is how will the new technology influence young people and youth Ministry today?


7. Educational models influence youth work. As indicated earlier late Victorian and Edwardian education was rigid, controlling, uncreative and stifling, Scouting was liberating and exciting and so had strong appeal. In the late 1950’s and early 60’s adventure camping was popularised as an educational experience. Prince Charles was sent to Gordonston in the Scottish Highlands, a school with an outdoors program developed out of `preparing sailors for survival experiences in WW2. The ‘Outward Bound’ movement also grew out of this experience, it began in Australia in 1956. ‘Timbertop’, developed by Geelong Grammar School in Vic., was influenced by these developments and became a model for other schools to create a ‘camp year’ at a country site with outdoor and wilderness programmes. Prince Charles also spent a year at ‘Timbertop’ which drew much attention to these initiatives.


Many Christian youth organisations had developed campsites and camping programs in the 1950s but the kind of camps run were very conventional. This new trend in education sparked a Christian adventure camping movement which became quite significant until the late 80s.( S.U’s Camp Coolamatong in Vic.; the Diocese of Sydney’s Camp Howard; Crusader Camps;  The Anglican DCE Adventure Camping Program in Vic.; Mill Valley Ranch in Vic., etc.)


Currently many Christian organisations are selling off their campsites as camping is now not as popular as it was. Also it has become more difficult due to the fear of litigation, risk management, rising insurance premiums and the increasing cost of maintaining campsites. But camping will come back again in different forms. The nature of the modern city, high – tech urban living and the distancing from the natural environment will create a reaction and a longing for more natural experiences. Also the environmental crisis will also create a new sense of importance about the natural world. There is also again a revival of pagan naturalism through influences such as the ‘New Age’ movement. These are often linked with environmentalism and green politics.


8. Currently with the breakdown in community and family the response of politicians is to look to the school as a quick fix. Making schools the hub for community redevelopment is a popular idea. This provides many opportunities for chaplains and youth workers but we cannot expect the school to do all the work of the family.


9. A new educational initiative in Victoria has particular significance for work with marginalized youth. The new Vic Certificate of applied learning (VCAL). A pathway to TAFE it can also be a flexible pathway to university courses. Units can also be credited to VCE. VCAL will be available in non traditional educational settings such as community centers neighborhood houses and youth centers. Youth programmes could be built around this.

So educational models influence youth work  – study them.


The influence of the media on youth culture.


Since the 1900’s and the reporting of the Boor Wars and its effect on the development of Scouting this influence has kept growing. From satellite link ups over Bagdad to mobile phone photos from Afghanistan no war today can be fought away from public scrutiny and the influence of the media.

 In the past three of the most powerful influences on the formation of culture have been; (1) The family/tribe or clan. (2) Religious belief. (3) Commerce. In our time commerce has joined forces with the media, advertising, the internet, and the popular entertainment culture to form a ubiquitous and almost irresistible force. This monster has now overpowered the influences of family and religious belief. It is now the creator of values, world views, purpose and meaning. A “lifestyle” is now defined by the model of car or the mobile phone you buy!




One of your tasks as strategists’ and influencers in youth ministry is to discern the significance of the times and adapt your methods and organise or re-organise youth ministries. Remember that culture today is both global and local. Because of the contemporary media culture has common global features but it always has a local expression.


Some theological observations


1. Because effective youth ministry is always adapting to the culture certain tensions arise: – Evangelism vs social justice

          – Christian discipleship vs cultural conformity

          – Nurturing the children of believers vs reaching non Christians

          – Using popular cultural movements and mediums vs being captured by them.                                     Eg: sport, music, etc.

The options in response to these tensions are:

(a)    resolve them by going to one end or the other of the tension. Eg: Avoid cultural conformity by isolating your self from the culture, or conform to it. The first leads to isolation the second leads to a loss of Christian distinctiveness.       

(b)   Maintain a healthy balance. But to do that requires strong theological formation in the leaders and a clearly articulated theology of mission,

      particularly a theology of word and deed, Gospel and culture.


2.The Christian formation of young people that lasts almost always involves some form of peer cell group experience that is intensive and involves the following elements in some shape or form:                  

(a)    A leader with strong convictions who becomes a model

(b)   A highly relational experience of  peer friendship

(c)    Study of the Bible and Christian doctrine

(d)   Extemporary prayer


When I look back over the years at all the youth ministry I was involved in and then look around today at the people who have remained actively involved in the Christian faith from those years, almost all at some point had a powerful peer cell group experience.


I do not subscribe to the view that all we have to do is run peer cells. I believe it is important to have regular larger group experiences and to use methods like camps and conferences, drop in centers, concerts, social nights, etc. These events provide opportunities to reach out and connect with unchurched young people and are very important peer social contexts. But unless an intentional peer cell group strategy is the foundation there will be little lasting fruit.


One of the secrets of successful youth work is to get the peer group pressure working for you rather than against you. If it’s working against you it is very hard work. Peer approval, peer learning and peer friendship is the most powerful emotional factor in a teenagers life. Working in small cells enables the development of a positive peer group dynamic with the constructive influence of the committed Christians and the serious enquirers on their friends.


3. Any Christian youth movement that fails to take seriously leadership development and leader multiplication from the ranks of its members will have a very short life and a limited influence. Many Christian camping programs have faded away because of this failure.


4. Reductionist, liberal theological frame-works in the end destroy effective Christian youth ministry, but enthusiastic, intelligent and relevant orthodoxy builds strong youth ministry. Four examples of once strong evangelistic youth ministries that have either collapsed or changed into largely secular youth programs are: The YMCA, the YWCA, The Methodist Youth Movement (now UCA) and the SCM (a student movement). Over time all these movements shifted away from their orthodox theological base to a liberal stance. Their decline or move to a more secular youth work (as in the YMCA and YWCA) coincides with this theological drift.


Reductionist liberal theology creates a spiritually impotent Christianity shorn of conviction and inner strength. Of all the stages in life youth requires strong faith, conviction and passion. Only a vital, intelligent and passionate Christian orthodoxy has the energy to catch their innate idealism.



Peter Corney (12/7/04)