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Temporary community with young people: Residential work and young people

Putting the Go back into Gospel!

When I was growing up, I loved to read. I spent hours poring over the children’s section of the little bookshop in our High Street, I bought books with birthday money, and, one day when I had devoured my entire collection, my mum dug out her old books for me. They were all school or Sunday school prizes, written in the late 1950s, called things like “One Glorious Term”: tales of boarding schools where people were “jolly”, and said “super” and toasted tea cakes by common room fires. And I loved them – the bonds of friendship, the adventures, the minimal intervention of adults (who were often clueless!) and the home away from home.

I am not alone in this. Over the decades children have loved Malory Towers, The Worst Witch, Swallows and Amazons, Famous Five, Tracey Beaker and Harry Potter, to give a few examples. These stories, in some ways very different, have a lot in common. There’s always excitement and surprise. There are struggles with relationships and working out who is friend and who is foe. There are choices to be made and rights and wrongs to be figured out. They’re all about children having or making a different kind of home, finding their own way of being community and living daily life together. And ultimately, they are all temporary communities. Some lasted a week, some lasted a summer, some lasted an entire school career, but there was always an end coming.

Perhaps it is that temporary nature that makes the stories more potent, the relationships more significant, the experiences more heightened. The fact that there is a limited timeframe makes everything that little bit more intense. That’s certainly been my experience of residential youth work, both as a young person and as a youth worker. Breakthroughs happen that just don’t take place in the everyday setting. It could be that everyone lives a little more urgently when they’re away, in the same way that most of us are far more likely to sightsee on holiday than to visit interesting places down the road from where we live! But possibly there’s a more spiritual cause too.

Maybe I’m just a bit of a bleeding heart, but I found something very poignant about this description of Harry Potter’s attitude towards his school, Hogwarts. In the last book, Harry is walking through the grounds of Hogwarts to face his nemesis for the final time, certain that he will die, dreading what will happen. J. K. Rowling writes:

“He wanted to be stopped, he wanted to be dragged back, to be sent back home… But he was home. Hogwarts was the first and best home he had ever known. He and Voldemort and Snape, the abandoned boys, had all found home here…” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 34)

That sense of coming home – to God, to honestly facing myself, to a place of recovery and renewal – is an experience often found, paradoxically, in going away. Eric Blakebrough established a different form of temporary community: Kaleidoscope, a drop in centre and hostel for young people. A delegation from the UN visited the project and Eric gave a talk explaining their work. He said:

At Kaleidoscope, we are trying to return to the basic ideas about living, with an emphasis upon “farmhouse” food, authentic decoration and fittings and simple, unostentatious hospitality. We have the conviction that people need a place they can return to, where they are sure of acceptance and warmth, where the only condition attached to their welcome is that they are not intent on destroying the place. Homecoming has sacred connotations. We all need places where we can find warmth and acceptance whatever our failures and where we can live out our fantasies, where we are safe and under only the most natural constraints. Kaleidoscope is such a place.’ (No Quick Fix, Eric Blakebrough, p59)


What a fantastic and generous aspiration. Whether you’re working with young people at home or away, could you offer “such a place”? Debbie Garden

In the beginning… An introduction to this theme

REFLECTION: Think about your own residential experiences – youth camps, holidays, conferences, university. What were some of the highlights and low points? Which people, places or activities do you remember most clearly? What makes those memories stand out? What, for you, makes a great residential?

During the last year or so I have been away on some very different residential events with some very different goals:  A youth weekend of 30 people camping, competing, BBQing, night-walking and stories round the camp fire seeking to develop the young people’s spiritual awareness and share our faith with them.  A mid-week city centre retreat, staying in a youth hostel, creating opportunities for a team of gap year workers to explore God’s calling.  A weekend at a caravan park by the beach with a small group of Year 10 girls, swimming, sunbathing, undertaking peer education training in sex and relationships education and enabling personal development.  An induction week for a new gap year team involving basic youth work training, team building and theological reflection in a little country cottage.  A national youth work conference at a hotel where the whole staff (employed and gap year) spent time socialising, eating and learning together on an equal basis. Residentials are used for a wide range of purposes. The list above covers mission and evangelism, renewing, training and educating, forming and growing relationships, but these could all be added to that list:  Marker posts – My experience of working with gap year teams has found that the big events are usually the memory-makers. A few years ago, at the end of a normal Sunday night youth group session, one of the young people decided that he wanted to become a Christian. We (the leaders) were really pleased for him. We talked it all through and offered to pray with him. At that point he told us that he didn’t want to become a Christian right now – he wanted to “do it at Boys’ Brigade camp”! Having those memorable points to look back on is amazingly important!  Respite – Some young people have very stressful daily lives, from living in households where there is a high level of tension and conflict to situations where they are caring for ill or disabled family members, living with parents who are drug addicts or experiencing domestic violence. A short time of rest and relaxation can be crucial in sustaining them.  Blessing – Just for fun and because you love the young people!  Cultural exposure – Message 2000, Soul in the City and other social action projects in the UK and abroad can really help young people to become aware of their own culture and assumptions and to broaden their perspective on life.

REFLECTION: Who are you thinking of taking away? What for? What would they benefit from? What are you hoping to achieve? Why go away – why not run your programme at home? What difference does going away make?

MOVING OUT>8:p3 Thinking it through Some theory Relationships “Camping out is an experience that every girl and every boy should have… There are certain sides of our nature that will be underdeveloped if we have not lit the campfire for our teacher. The experience that softens the heart and kindles friendship and the imagination is no less educative than the knowledge that instructs the head. Camping intensifies friendship, and friendship furnishes the motive and the reward of most of our efforts. It doubles our strength for achievement. It gives us most of the joys of life. It is the riches of the spirit and quite as worthy of effort as wealth or learning.” Henry S. Curtis (Play and Recreation for the Open Country, 1914) It’s almost 100 years since Henry Curtis expressed this view about the importance of going away in developing relationship skills. Still today this is one of the major reasons for residentials: whether it’s networking, corporate team building or family bonding, time away can help. Even if you don’t go with an agenda to develop relationships, once you’ve been together for a while, it is not unusual for relationship issues to arise while you’re away! Psychologists have done a lot of investigation into the formation of relationships as well as the various things that can go wrong. Some of the key factors they have identified in whether we will want to form relationships are:  Proximity – sharing physical space, being near enough to get a sense of what the person is like  Similarity – identifying ways in which we are the same as another person, shared interests, taste in music, etc.  Familiarity – seeing someone around often, e.g. students are more likely to develop a relationship with someone they see in every class than someone they see once a week  Matching – ways in which people are equal to us, maybe in intellect, coolness-factor, popularity. E.g. in romantic relationships people will tend towards a partner they see as being about the same level of physical attractiveness as themselves.  Complementarity – the 2 people each have a need that the other one meets, which can look like a pairing of complete opposites, e.g. perhaps one person’s need for a tennis partner complements another’s need for adult company after a day at home with small children.  Reciprocal liking – the idea that we are more likely to like people who we think like us – not a great surprise! Most of these factors, which can lead positively to people initiating and developing relationships, can also lead to fractures within a group. Our fondness for familiarity could make it hard for a new member to make relationships in an established group. If we believe that someone is not similar to us or doesn’t match us or cannot complement us, we see little incentive to get to know them. If we suspect that someone does not like us, we will stay away from them! It can be easy for people to divide into cliques and for prejudice and conflict to occur. Allport (1954) identified 4 conditions which he said were necessary to reduce prejudice and promote relationships:  Equal status contact – For example, attempts to reduce racial tension in America in the 1950s found that simply living in the same neighbourhood wasn’t enough. Often the only contact was when black staff served white people in shops or other serving roles. There was more successful integration in schools where all of the children were pupils – they had an equal status.  Acquaintance potential – This is more than familiarity, this refers to frequent, close, meaningful contact, such as working together on a project.  Cooperation in pursuit of common goals – When a goal was identified that both individuals/groups felt was important and when they were dependent on one another to achieve it, cooperation was essential and was found to be very effective in promoting healthier relationships.

MOVING OUT>8:p4  Institutional support – All of these factors were only effective when the relevant institution was backing them up. For example, if a teacher continued to favour white children, there was not equal status. Role modelling good and fair relationships is crucial.


Design a team building activity that takes in all of Allport’s factors.


Look at your group. Can you see what forms the basis of the relationships? Where are there fractures/distances in the group?


Evaluate your week by week programme. How well does it allow for the relationship forming factors to operate? How well does it mitigate against prejudice?

Personal Development As Henry Curtis suggests above, another major reason that youth workers have historically run residential work is that it can be a great context for person development and education. One explanation for this is that there is significant educative power in “association” - joining together in companionship or to undertake some task, playing one’s part in a group. So, what is it that is learned?  Development of character – Being out of your comfort zone, doing things that are new, taking on and rising to challenges, having to deal with people in an intense situation, all of these things can help young people (and adults!) to gain insights into themselves (i.e. what frustrates or irritates me, what energises me, what drains me, how I react under pressure) and to develop qualities such as patience, generosity, kindness, integrity, self-confidence and perseverance.  Development of skills – Depending on the nature of the activities, young people could develop a whole range of skills: survival (building a shelter, making a fire, map-reading, problem-solving); communication and relational (negotiation, listening, mentoring, presentation); practical (cooking, hygiene, budgeting); artistic (dance, drama, art, music); social (team-work, decision-making, cooperation, serving); and physical (climbing, walking, sailing).


What skills and character development would you like to see in yourself? Think of an activity that might help facilitate it and do it. How did you feel doing that activity? How might this help you to relate to young people you take away on residentials?

Good Practice


Look back at the “Events” session and use the same principles for planning and running a residential. Look at the resources mentioned in AOB, particularly “Worth Doing Well”, for specific tips.

Faithing the Facts Some theology

“I got into an argument with a girlfriend inside of a tent. That’s a bad place for an argument, because then I tried to walk out and slammed the flap.  How are you supposed to express your anger in this situation?  Zipper it up really quick?”  (Mitch Hedberg)

One of the things about staying in a tent – and this is also true of a cabin, a dormitory or a narrow boat – is that there’s nowhere to hide when things get uncomfortable. John 1:14 tells us that Jesus, “The Word” became flesh and (depending on your preference) “moved into the neighbourhood” (The Message) or “made his dwelling among us” (NIV). The NIV study bible notes say that, in the original Greek, this

MOVING OUT>8:p5 phrased is linked to the word for tent, like the tabernacle that God’s people had in the wilderness, which was filled with God’s glory. So Jesus became a man and pitched his tent in our neighbourhood. One of my college lecturers, George Bebawi, used to tell us that the unique thing about being a Christian (as compared to other faiths) was the intimacy of the Holy Spirit indwelling us. On the one hand we are blessed with constant companionship. On the other, when you’re living that closely, it’s impossible to not notice conflicting values or differences in priorities. Jesus is not always an easy housemate. He challenges us to grow and develop; to become more and more our authentic selves; to bless, serve and create more; to take and consume less; and he never lets us escape from the real world.

REFLECTION: When are you most aware of the intimacy of the Holy Spirit? Is there anything you would like to “slam the flap” on at the moment?

Just as Jesus’ incarnation was him pitching his tent with us, so we are called to pitch our tents among others. We are called to follow Jesus’ example in living alongside others, sharing life with them and pointing out the Kingdom of God as we go. Sometimes this involves the discomfort of inviting young people to see intimately into our lives, to observe them up close and to question and comment on our choices. Sometimes it involves “camping” in places which are less than lovely and luxurious. Henry David Thoreau spent some time “going back to nature” and wrote about his experience. He said, “… the place which you have selected for your camp, though never so rough and grim, begins at once to have its attractions, and becomes a very centre of civilization to you: ‘Home is home, be it never so homely’.” When we allow Jesus houseroom in our own tent and engage with people as he did, we grow in awareness of the beauty of the imperfections and the brokenness around us and find a supernatural love and compassion. Then those of us already redeemed and adopted into God’s family are able to truly welcome home those on the edge.

REFLECTION: To what extent are you pitching your tent in the neighbourhood at home? Are you letting young people see your real everyday life? Could you inviting them to join with you in some of the little things – supermarket shopping, doing the garden, setting up before the youth group starts?

Story from the Edge

“Hodga, Hodga, Hodga” went the chant as we sat around the campfire enthusiastically waiting for Chris to read from the book. It was one of the few times I’ve seen young people actually wanting to listen eagerly for the “GOD SLOT”. Nasrudin Hodga may be a fictional mystic but his stories captivated the young people mostly from inner city backgrounds. The stories are funny, strange and often don’t seem to make any sense but I couldn’t help noticing that underneath all the laughing and banter that something in them connected deeply with the young people. The questions at the end, the jokes and the sense of openness about real stuff. Their seemed to be a slight chink in the window between earth and heaven letting something pass between.

At a previous camp too, around the campfire again, we listened to the local vicar attempting to introduce something of God and worship through song and teaching - it didn’t work. This was for various reasons, but later on in the same evening, as we chatted connecting with each other things that we had in common, all kinds of “spiritual” stuff came out to play. We were simply being people and sharing our experiences, we didn’t recognise this until later as we reflected over a cuppa.

How many times have I been asked about mission and how much does the church struggle to connect with the ordinary blokes on the street? Liturgies, coffee mornings, street cleaning initiatives (etc) but seldom do we simply take off our shirts and get stuck in, metaphorically and practically speaking? Most people are simply searching like the rest of us for peace and meaning to their lives, others to share the deeper things with, our feelings, hopes and struggles. As I approach the 50 mark

MOVING OUT>8:p6 I question much of what goes around in the name of God and Christ. I struggle with the myriad distractions of modern living and yearn for the simple things. Maybe I’m a bit simple but I’m less easily led, more self-assured and confident - but also less sure of what is true! And so the journey continues.

Camps are great but they are often very hard work! It’s not just sleeping on the floor, which is sacrifice enough (!), but emotionally, leaving behind loved ones, rituals (Bacon butty on a Saturday listening to John Peel on the radio - do they really appreciate what we give up for them!) or just a comfy chairmust be getting old! But as in life, on camp it’s the simple stuff that is the best. No frills or distractions for a week (some pay fortunes for similar experiences- retreats, health clubs etc) just relationships, plain and simple - oh and lots of fun together, discovering the child within again.

So, the questions for me as usual are what next step do I need to take to make time to relate to others? Not just to share my beliefs but to learn about God and myself too? How and where do I risk going that extra mile, away from my comfort zone? Where are the edges of my life and dare I go over them - with Christ and other people’s support? How can I connect with the eternal in others as well as within myself? Discovering the real issues that matter? The yearnings and desires deep within? What can I do which will change things, anything for one person for Christ, for me?

OK, camping experiences are unique and special, one off experiences, which I at least can remember vividly from my childhood. Some of our camps have seemed to fail to connect with some young people and the Gospel, but to help to give great memories to people may be one of the privileges of youth work. To discover something of eternal worth together… Have you got the time to think about it? Chris Bristow (Frontier Youth Trust – Out There)

Don’t just stand there… This section contains ideas for action – methods, tools, approaches to engage with young people – based on the session subject/content


Make a list of different types of residential that might work with or benefit your group (e.g. training, adventure, etc.). Search the internet for venues which would suit each one. What would you be looking for? What factors vary according to the goal of the residential?


Design an island! This is an activity to explore community without going away, or to help the group agree ground rules in advance of going away. Give out large sheets of paper and ask the young people (individually or in pairs/threes) to design an island to live on. What would it look like? What would be there? What would it be called? Share the designs as a whole group, then ask them to go back to their own islands and write rules for living there. If you want to, you could also ask for suggestions for consequences of rule-breaking. Discuss their ideas and values. How different were their ideas? Was there anything everyone agreed on? Which island would people most like to live on?


If you haven’t run a residential before, or you haven’t been working with your group for very long, it might be useful to have a dry run - run a sleepover! As well as being fun – hopefully! – it will give you an insight into what issues might arise with your group if you went away, what you might be looking for and want to avoid in a venue, how you want to deal with catering, etc.


Get the young people involved in the preparations – creating the programme, finding and booking the venue, organising catering, etc. Use the planning process to start working

MOVING OUT>8:p7 towards the aims of your residential and to create an excitement and sense of ownership over everything. I just finished reading a book called “Bright Young Things” in which 6 young adults all attend the same job interview and wake up sometime later on a small island. Initially they are all preoccupied with investigating why they have been brought there and devising escape plans. However, having all experienced trauma in the past, they gradually relax in the peace and safety of the island and the book end with their tacit agreement to stay. This is the potential danger of the residential – that it becomes an escape from the real world.

REFLECTION: How can you ground the experience so that it enhances the real world rather than simply being an escape from it? How can you keep home and the wider world in mind while you are away? For example, if your programme involves inviting the young people to respond to a challenge, can you help them to make this response specific and concrete? Rather than just saying, “I won’t lose my temper so easily”, help them to think about what or who particularly provokes their temper and define strategies to stay calm.


Look at an activity you might do/have done as part of a residential. How well does it link to the “real world”? What alterations can you make to make it more grounded?

“Just when you thought it was all over…” ACTION:

Read Swallows and Amazons or another story like those mentioned in the first section. Why do you think people love them? What can you learn and apply to your youth work, especially your next residential?

AOB Contacts, resources, links that relate to the session subject/content


Christian Youth Work Training – provides information about Christian youth work training in the UK. The site is now run by David Howell, a freelance consultant in the fields of training, Further Education, Higher Education and Christian youth work.

Frontier Youth Trust - please contact if we can help you to look a little deeper at this theme or other youth work related topics.

Frontier Camps – see,project,40.htm for details – this is a great way to enjoy a residential experience in a well established Christian Community (the camp goes back more than 50 years!)

Some Web Based Resources:

Theory, ideas and practice for youth work and other informal education: This article looks at the history and nature of residentials:


Download the Health and Safety Executive’s booklet “The Event Safety Guide”, which gives guidance on all kinds of things, such as music events, crowd management, camping, food, events for teenagers, etc.

Recommended Books:

'Worth Doing Well – Guidance and Good practice for Churches and Other Organisations' by Timothy Bradshaw, Judy Jarvis, Michael Jebson and Wendy Ross-Barker. Good practice tips, example consent forms, etc. published by Methodist Publishing House. The 2002 version is available to download at: 'Making Connections' by Tim Lovejoy (available from Frontier Youth Trust) and “No Quick Fix” by Eric Blakebrough (available from Kaleidoscope Project, Kingston-Upon-Thames) are both stories of and reflections on working with young people in a hostel-type setting.

Amen Corner Last month I went to hear representatives from youth work charities giving evidence to a committee of MPs who are holding an inquiry into youth services. One of the representatives was a girl named Rebecca, who volunteers with the Salmon Youth Centre in Bermondsey. When asked to explain the value of youth work, she told her own story. Here it is in her own words: I started going to my youth club when I was about 14. I remember one time in particular, when we went on holiday. That’s the only reason why I started it, because all my friends were going, and we got to go on a trip to South Africa. I realised that it was good, because obviously you can’t just go to the trip and you have to go to the club-they don’t just give it to anyone. So I started going, and then I obviously really started liking it. I remember that when we came back from South Africa, the building had been closed down for a number of weeks, and the things and habits that I used to do before, I got right back into them straight away. You don’t realise how fast you fall with things like smoking and drinking, because I got knocked out of a routine. I tried to go back. They tried to do courses and little programmes to get us coming back. They got a temporary building and things like that, but I didn’t go back, and a lot of things fell apart in my life then. I had moved out on my own very early, because I didn’t have a relationship with my mum at 15 or 16. Although I had things around me, like friends and stuff, I distanced myself from them. I felt that no one really cared, but the youth centre, no matter what age you are when you walk in, never turns you back. When I was 18 or 19, I’d be walking in to say, “Yeah, I want to start my sports again,” and they’d be like, “Oh that’s brilliant. Let’s do it.” But I wouldn’t go back, because it was really hard to get into that routine. At 21, I was really unhappy in life, because I had dropped out of university – I couldn’t afford it, because I was living on my own. I went back on to benefits, which made me feel really low, because I was just doing nothing. I literally just walked past [the youth centre] one day, went in and spoke to one of the directors. I said, “Can I be a gapper? I want to do a gap scheme and work-based training.” They said, “Well, you show us commitment, and we’ll show you commitment and help you.” I started volunteering when I could. They squeezed me in anywhere. I couldn’t even do a whole club, because I was working full-time in retail, so I was coming in for an hour in one of the clubs, which was late at night. They always offered help and oneon-one support, and never ever turned their back on you. Youth work doesn’t end when the doors close

MOVING OUT>8:p9 at 10 o’clock; it never ended then. You could phone up, or walk in at any time. Now I’m doing the gap course, which is something that I really enjoy. I’ve never been a believer in putting all your eggs in one basket, so I’ve studied other things that I liked, such as animal management. It’s just great that I got given it at 21 years old – I am 22 now. You wouldn’t think that a youth club would still be helping me, but it is, so it’s pretty great. I would not be here, or get to do stuff like this – [coming to speak] in Parliament.

REFLECTION: Consider Rebecca’s story – how a residential helped her to make a connection with a Christian youth project that supported her right through to adulthood. What might God want to say to you through this story?