Last month I celebrated seven years working with Youth for Christ in North Wales and last week after a gospel talk – involving both a severed rubber hand and a story about eating nasal mucus – seven young people gave their lives to Jesus!
Each of these seven young people come with a story. Dave, for instance, joined our school club two years ago as a highly critical and very intelligent atheist. Emma has been with us for three years, quietly hidden behind extroverted friends. Brian has only been around for six months and has a real hard time making any friends and Kelly is on the verge of failing school. We know these guys and girls and are committed to each of them.
This is the drive behind our work – getting to know the young people well, integrating them into a community, discipling them individually and then calling them to follow Jesus. Right now, it works: we have a well-trained and established team who know how to do this, a building that serves this vision and solid, trusting relationships with local schools and churches.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
I arrived in sleepy North Wales seven years ago after leaving behind a chaotic ministry job in London. This first job had almost burned me out, so I was looking for an easy two years to get my feet back under me… No such luck!
The ministry at the time was built around two struggling projects. The first was a state-of-the-art high-street youth café. It opened too late in the evening and the volunteers didn’t mix with the kids. Unsurprisingly, hardly anyone came. The other project was a school lunchtime club which – busy as it was – was mostly guys coming in to nick my food. Bless them! To rub salt into these new wounds, by the end of my first month my entire team had left. I wasn’t a happy bunny, but I was a bunny on a mission!
We changed the times of the café, stopped bringing food into school and insisted people sat on chairs and put phones away. We trained new leaders, started specific events, gave intentional talks and launched a new project to disciple isolated young Christians.
The first thing to happen was a huge drop in numbers (go figure) but by the end of six months we began to grow again. Things were starting to work. Kinda.
The thing is, this all worked too well. The café got popular. Very popular. At one point our Friday nights attracted ninety or so young people to a room that could only fit thirty. They spilled out onto the street, mingled with the patrons coming out of the three local pubs and caused havoc with our neighbours. Our shopfront became a skate park, our car park became the most awkward single-mingle imaginable and the local police adjusted their patrol routes.
Every week brought another story. I remember once having to lock the young people inside the café while I stayed outside to reason with a very angry man who identified himself as a member of the Welsh Mafia. Another week I was slapped in the face by a drunk mum who was trying to force her way inside to find out where I was ‘hiding the drugs’ (I wasn’t btw). Then there was the memorable occasion when I had to fish the toilet door handle out of the toilet bowl.
We were lucky to have more than three minutes of conversation with any young person that didn’t end – sometimes literally – with egg on our faces. Our team of agile, able, ninja leaders lost steam and eventually began to burn out.
This is not an uncommon story. Francis Chan once said that if you have some talented people then it’s the easiest thing in the world to fill a room. If you build it, they will come.
I remember once being stopped at the Youth for Christ national conference by a fellow director. He wanted to tell me that he thought our café was ‘the best thing in Youth for Christ right now!’ I thanked him – and wanted to scream.
Where we are now
Something drastic and unimaginable had to be done. So we closed the café and moved out.
We found a developing community centre in a local estate with multiuse rooms for a wider variety of projects. Since the move, we have been able to spread out, grow the team and develop deeper relationships. We’ve had a measurable impact on our community and have seen more people come to Jesus. It’s not as ‘cool’ but it is so much more effective.
It took a couple of years to settle but we’re now in the best place we’ve ever been. We still need more volunteers (who doesn’t right?), are looking to increase fundraising (again, sound familiar?) and stubbed our toes hard on GDPR. It is, however, working and working well.
God’s weird ways
When I was eleven, I gave my life to Jesus at an event in a church in Llandudno. I now live ten doors down from that church. When I was twelve, I heard Roy Crowne speak at a Youth for Christ event in a School. I now work in that school every week.
Seven years is not a long time in any kind of industry but is an uncommonly long time in a youth ministry position. What I’ve learned is that it really shouldn’t be! Because of the time I’ve been here, we’ve been able to play the long game, make clearer observations and steer the ship gradually. We’ve developed trust, seen young people through to becoming leaders themselves and shown ourselves to be dependable in the community.
My wife and I are no longer expecting to move back to London. We’re buying a house, putting down roots and looking expectantly to the future. This is the best thing in the world – we can’t wait for the next seven years!
Tim is the Director of Llandudno Youth for Christ and the curator and editor of Youth Work Hacks.