Replacing the cross with the dollar in youth work: the rise of capitalism in youth services

Youth workers are important. With rising inequality in our country exacerbating dysfunctionality in our communities and families, youth workers alongside social workers, therapists, community workers and others in the caring industries can be the repairing glue in broken relationships. My views come from my work in different communities and it means I am keenly interested in the training of youth workers.

Many of our youth workers in Aotearoa New Zealand are from church backgrounds. They tend to arrive to training with either a pentecostal or charismatic faith in which God speaks to and directs them, their relationship is is an individual relationship with God, they have no sense of the church’s history, theology or tradition, and are suspicious of having an identity that is based on a culture, race, gender or sexuality rather than a civilising Judeo-Christian projection of Jesus Christ. This faith is a strength in that it encourages them to risk, it gives them a vision to pursue, it sets a moral foundation and altruism is a central tenent. This faith is a weakness in that it inspires them to be fearful of diversity, to fear that mistakes and doubt are sinful, it puts them in unsafe situations in service of Christ and it reduces their ability to critique the systems of power in our society.

However there is another Jesus that they can encounter. The Jesus who did this:

12 Then Jesus went into the Temple, he threw out everyone who was selling and buying in the Temple, and overturned the moneychangers’ tables and the chairs of those who sold doves. 13 He told them, “It is written, ‘My house is to be called a house of prayer,’ but you are turning it into a hideout for bandits!”

14 Blind and lame people came to him in the Temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the high priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he had done and the children shouting in the Temple, “Hosannah to the Son of David,” they became furious 16 and asked him, “Do you hear what these people are saying?” (Matthew 21.12-16)

He was a revolutionary. He was trouble. And when a youth worker has a faith with this man at the centre, they are exactly the kind of trouble that our young people need in their lives.

So I listened with interest today as a group of young training Christian youth workers were trained in what it means to run a successful and responsive youth service. The key features:
1. consultation with young people;
2. good planning;
3. strong marketing;
4. secure funding.
The ultimate goal is the final point there: secure funding. My stomach twisted and my mind objected because it immediately stood out to me that there is nothing of the Christ of the gospels in the formula. A successful and responsive youth service is a successful capitalist enterprise; revolution lite where young people guide an organisation to business success. There’s nothing revolutionary, nothing that challenge injustices, nothing that says Good News. It is status quo; old news.

Yet it is the correct formula for success as our society defines it: influence and power; financial independence and affluence; prioritising profit over people. There is a fundamental mismatch between the passion of Christian faith that inspires many youth workers and youth services they work for. The successful youth services they work for are:

  • run by Pākehā management who have brought in Māori and Pasifika workers to better meet the needs of their ‘stakeholders’;
  • put asides ethics and moral doubt to access funding where it is available: pokies money; selling unnecessary consumer items to affluent youth here that made in factories in the Majority World; allowing themselves to be branded by multi-nationals;
  • run programmes with achieveable outcomes and outputs that can be described in the service specifications of contracts;
  • maintain a polite rebelliousness; a pop culture edge that can be easily assimilated into mainstream society.

Transformation in the lives of our young people who are already disenfranchised and feel rejected by their society cannot be achieved by agencies that provide a pathway to conformity. It can be achieved alongside youth workers who are not persuaded by the dollar, but are persuaded by life of Jesus of Nazareth. The cross that our batch of youth workers proclaim is not the symbol of the status quo; Jesus was hung on it because he challenged the society he lived in. He overturned tables in the temple; he didn’t set up a popular new stall.

He rejected the financial system because it was a system of impoverishment for the poor.
He rejected the religious structures because they provided no solace or protection to the poor.
He rejected military system because the only fruit wrought from war and violence is death.
He rejected his cultural constraints because it belittled particular groups and severed relationships between people.
He rejected conformity because there was no salvation there for anyone who actually needed it.

For youth workers who have a Christian faith, we need to educate them in revolution, not mould them into existing systems. They need to focus on relationships with young people, not the systems and requirements of an organisation. What this would mean is less wages, less certainty, less programmes but more youth workers living alongside young people in their neighbourhoods, more flexibility to share resources and use them how they want, a wider view of what it means to be family. Our capiltaist social systems have achieved very little for the people they were meant to help; they’ve achieved plenty for those looking for a lifetime job from others’ misery. The base for revolution is there in the story of the man many of these young youth workers proclaim to be God, if only we had the courage to show them.