A Match Made In Heaven: The Bible & Youth Work

Tim Gough
March 12th, 2020

Hi, my name is Tim, and I kill bonsai trees. I kill them dead.

It’s not that I don’t like the cute, miniature Japanese trees; I really like them. Actually, I think they’re brilliant! I love how they add immediate sophistication to a room, no matter how much other chaos exists in that room. When people walk into my office they don’t say “Hey where did the bomb hit?” they say, “Hey, you’ve got a bonsai tree – cool!”

It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing – I’ve read prolifically on bonsai trees. In fact, after the first few bonsai tree-related mishaps, people started buying me books. I know about the tiny scissors that make the leaves look uniform. I know about different grades of training wire which give bonsai trees their curves. I know about root exposure, moss integration, deadwood imitation, and summer defoliation. I know all this stuff, but they die, every single one of them.

I’m even quite creative in my care of bonsai trees. I don’t just talk to them, for instance, I sing to them. Sometimes I leave the pot right in front of my guitar amplifier and pull out some Metallica riffs for their enjoyment. I gave up on simple water and boring bonsai feed a while ago; instead I give my trees the daily ‘Dr Pepper experience’. I even once thought my bonsai tree might enjoy a soak in the tub, bubbles and all.

At this point you might be thinking “no one could be that stupid, he didn’t really do those things.” Well, shamefully, yes, I am, and yes, I did. The list of the dead has grown, and I don’t own bonsai trees anymore.

Bonsai trees are effectively house plants, and I don’t know anything about keeping house plants alive. I understand there’s some pattern of regular watering, sunlight, feeding and pruning, but I’ve got no clue how, when, how much or even why. I spent my time learning how to make bonsai trees look cool.

When it comes to bonsai trees, I know all the particulars, but none of the essentials. It is the essentials that keep things alive and healthy, and the particulars which add vibrancy and attractiveness. Trying to do the latter without the former is a recipe for disaster.

Particular vs. Essential

So many amazing books on youth ministry cover particulars in fabulous depth. They dig into teenage culture, societal strategies, and missional specifics. It feels like it’s getting harder, however, to find books on the essentials.

Essentials are found in the Bible, and it is in the Bible we learn how to keep a youth group truly healthy and growing from within. When it comes to Youth Work, however, the Bible can easily become conspicuously absent. When we dive down and uncover the foundational principles that under-gird our work, the substance of it isn’t always there.

It’s not that we don’t use the Bible. We know in theory just how good and enriching it can be and we can stretch out a cheeky proof-text for days. But the question remains, do we actually know and understand enough of the material to point clearly back to it in all that we do?

We should hunger and thirst for God’s Word. Settling for stale, reheated pizza when there is a fully cooked feast is just crazy! Consider that reading the Bible in a year is seen as quite a spiritual feat, but in reality, it only takes three 5-minute sittings a day. We spend four times that eating and drinking, and nearly eight times that on social media.

The Bible’s expectations for young people

It’s too easy to settle for our natural expectations for young people (“Tommy, stop eating that glue!”). God’s expectations for them are incredibly high! We desperately need the Bible’s lead on what to expect from our young people, or we will end up valuing them less than we should.

Many crucial events in the Bible find a young person centre-stage. Just ponder for a moment what some of its heroes accomplished, when they were children and teenagers.

  • Joseph – Rejects sexual sin when advanced upon by a powerful, older woman (Gen. 39)
  • Samuel – Called to speak to God’s nation during their most difficult times (1 Sam. 3)
  • David – Defends God’s honour and holiness against a giant (1 Sam 17)
  • Esther – Risks taking a plot against her people to the King, saving many (Est. 2)
  • Daniel – Remains pure in Babylon surrounded by sin that makes our world look tame (Dan. 1)
  • Mary – Remained a virgin and trusted in God’s promise of a virgin birth (Lk. 1)

At the very heart of God in the Bible, there is the heart of a youth worker. He simply loves to use young people and does uncommonly world-changing things with them as a matter of routine. Having this perspective lifts our expectations and even starts to shape how we approach our youth work projects and strategy.

Why I Wrote Rebooted

This article has actually been a sneaky set of excepts from my book, Rebooted is full of stories of silly mistakes I’ve made and quirky experiences I’ve had, but it’s also full of wisdom from fabulous thinkers and practitioners. Glen Scrivener (Speak Life) , Rachel Turner (Parenting for Faith) , Mark Oestreicher (The Youth Cartel) , Dr. Sam Richards (The Institute for Children, Youth and Mission) , Andy du Feu (Moorlands College) , and Neil O’Boyle (Youth for Christ) , have added their thoughts too and lifted the wisdom way beyond anything I could muster!

I hope Rebooted will give us a renewed passion for the Bible, provide tools to understand the whole narrative better, and help us put deeper roots down into God’s Word.

Tim Gough

Tim Gough is Director of Llandudno Youth For Christ, Wales, and has been a full-time youth worker for over a decade. He studied at Oxford University, Oak Hill and Cliff College. He hosts the multi-award-winning blog www.youthworkhacks.com. Tim is passionate about training and speaks on youth work at events across the UK.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.