David leads an Urban Saints Group in Newtownards, Northern Ireland. He spoke about the challenges of youth work today, and how his group – 30 years old this year – ‘learned the hard way’ about the necessity of prayer.
Urban Saints Newtownards has been running for 30 years this November, but leader David describes a ‘rough spell’ for the group in the early noughties. ‘We had quite a rough crowd coming in, the facilities weren’t brilliant and there was a bit of rivalry going on; tension between local schools.’
It meant leaders were occupied with having to ‘resolve problems, break up fights, and usher people off the premises, the prayer just melted away if you like. We just didn’t make the time for it that we should have.’
One night, they decided they’d have to close the doors, and the group remained closed for three months. ‘We met to pray and realised that was something we hadn’t really been doing.’ The group got good support from the local church (though this Urban Saints Group is separate from any specific congregation) and have since made time for regular prayer supporter evenings.
One lesson David has learned from the group is that ‘when things don't go according to plan, don't criticize – learn from it!’ The group now consists of about 32-34 young people, aged 10-18, but split into a junior and a senior Group. It’s an ‘outreach/youth club type group’ that balances games, crafts, Bible talks and building friendship.
So what, despite a rocky spell, keeps young people coming regularly today?
‘I think it’s friendship,’ David says. ‘They look forward to a safe space, no one shouting at them. I always say “we’re not school teachers, we’re here as Christians who want to love you and share the gospel with you. Come in, make friends, bring your friends, we’ll have fun.” Friends, fun, fellowship… I think that’s what brings people week by week.’
They provide prayer boxes where the young people can put in prayer requests, helping young people feel heard and valued. David also highlights the bonding value of the annual residential weekend away, which is a ‘great opportunity to get alongside the young people.’ There are also mission trips and fundraising events, helping develop a sense of the wider world and what outreach can look like. David spoke to Urban Saints before driving seven Newtownards Urban Saints to the airport for a Rebuild trip to South Africa.
When it comes to challenges facing youth today, ‘the biggest challenge is to become a Christian,’ David says. ‘To be different and to stand out, in a good way.’
The Newtownards leaders try and encourage their young people to be ’salt and light where they are,’ particularly in the pressured school environment.
‘They will get a bit of stick for going to Scripture Union or Urban Saints, or for showing any interest in Christian teachings, increasingly we find the young people have a number of questions about how to live as a Christian in our secular society. We try to equip our young people by sharing God’s love for them and by explaining what Bible says about issues they are facing…we try and do that [Bible teaching] in a loving and sensitive way.’ The group have found great value in the Energize teaching material, having drawn on it for several years, picking different themes to focus on each year. They encourage the youth to use tools like Bible-reading apps on their phones. ‘We keep the Bible pretty central to what we’re doing. We try to make the Bible relevant, particularly in homes where there’s very little church connection.’
It’s essential David says, to have leaders who are committed to Jesus and being good role models, who believe in Urban Saints and see the value of camps and residential opportunities. David’s encouragement to other Urban Saints leaders is to ‘look for the positives, seeing God working in small ways, to see young people growing.’
He describes one former young person who is now engaged in full time Christian work, a role that brought her back to Newtownards. Now, one of her children has joined the Urban Saints Group. ‘We’re starting to pick up second generation kids from our first time round, and I‘m still there, 30 years later…’
His advice for those considering starting a Group? ‘Get a good group of sound, Christian leaders, sit down and plan about it, pray about it, and see where God’s taking you. Invest in the young people.’
Newtownards is just one example of Groups across the UK and Ireland, committed to journeying with young people for the long haul. Urban Saints are passionate about supporting these Groups in every way we can and we'd love to plant a whole load more too.
£10 can help one young person be introduced to the Lord Jesus and find a sense of belonging in a weekly youth group. Could you give a donation to help Urban Saints support and plant more of these groups?