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/ 18 January 2018

Are you are a gatekeeper or permission giver?

I was reading Premier Youth and Children’s Work magazine last month and really enjoyed the interview with Kenda Creasy Dean. This is hardly remarkable as Kenda is a brilliant thinker in the world of youth work who continues to challenge and provoke us.

However, there was a phrase in the interview that I found particularly interesting that I wanted to think some more about; as a reply to a question about how we can be more innovative in our practice, she says we need to stop being the gatekeepers and start being permission givers.

Her argument is that there is a need for the church to change to continue to be relevant to young people and stop just doing the things we’ve always done but don’t really even know why anymore.

The people to lead this, she says are young people themselves; we don’t need to be the creative ones, young people given the chance will be far more creative than we can dream of. But the way we do that is not by opening doors for young people but by giving permission.

She doesn’t expand much on this, but it got me thinking. Why is being a gatekeeper a bad thing, when surely young people need gatekeepers who let them in? I guess (and these are my own ramblings now as the interview moved on) that the issue is around power.

By being a gatekeeper I retain control of the gate. I get to choose who gets through and if it comes to it, I can change my mind and close the gate. It says to the young people that the adults still have ownership and control but are willing to make some concessions to allow young people to not feel bored, but without giving too much away. In essence, they continue to be guests at a party that is still primarily for the benefit of adults.

Permission seeks to say this is their church too. It is more than just the relaxing of some of the control the adults retain as the acceptable cost of hoping a few young people might stick around. It welcomes young people as full members of the church with the right to shape its future.

This way the church will be relevant in their culture, in their generation, in a way it isn’t now. She argues that by this process the church is renewed to reach new generations and avoids getting stuck defending its past rather than embracing the future.

There are lots of ways that you can do this, but it will always come down to the same thing: talk to young people, listen to them and include them in the leadership of your congregation.

Too often, we think that welcoming young people to church means we need to buy a smoke machine and try to recreate Soul Survivor in a small parish church with three teenagers. In reality, it’s simpler but more profoundly challenging, as it involves us giving up trying to tell young people what they want and instead, listening and responding.


About Sam Donoghue

Sam Donoghue is Head of Children and Youth for the Diocese of London, a keen cyclist and a supporter of Everton FC.

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