Written by Marco Hipwell
Marco Hipwell from Aigburth Community Church, Liverpool, is one of the funding recipients from the Tim Peters Training Fund, and here tells us something of his story.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” – Matthew 13:44
Just over 6 years ago, I started out as a volunteer youth leader at Aigburth Community Church, Liverpool, and since then have become the church youth worker. When we first started out we had six lively year 7s who loved having a youth group of their own. They had left the lofty heights of Year 6 at primary school, and were starting back at the bottom in a whole new world: secondary school!
Fast forward to today: six formative teenage years have passed, and these young people are now entering their final year of our Impact + youth group. My heart isn’t quite prepared for when they leave, probably because I remember so clearly the days of sitting in a dimly lit living room, getting to know them properly as they began their journey. As I’m writing this, it’s Friday night Impact tonight, and things look very different! We’ve got two youth groups across this age range now, meeting in our main hall, with 35 young people attending regularly and more set to leave the lofty heights of year 6, to come and join us for the next academic year.
I begin each September with a talk on the parable above because if this passage is true, this is what matters most. Knowing Jesus and finding His Kingdom is the greatest treasure of all. It’s worth giving everything up for. From this conviction; my theological training began.
The elders at church believe that young people should receive good Bible teaching, and encouraged me to begin a long flexible Masters degree with Reformed Theological Seminary on their Global Campus. This covers systematic, applied, historical and pastoral theology which I’m studying on a part-time basis alongside my role as the youth worker. I’ve been so thankful to receive funding through the Tim Peters Training Fund, and for their passion in seeing people trained up for Gospel work.
I’m going to quickly unpack 3 particular challenges during my time as a youth leader, to demonstrate the benefit of formal training for youth workers, and how this serves the local church. Here we go:
Challenge 1: Evangelism Or Discipleship?
It’s been amazing seeing some of the young people at Impact profess faith, repent, and be baptised! For some others it’s harder to discern where they are at. I find navigating this spectrum a really difficult challenge, particularly when it comes to teaching the Bible. Should my focus be more on evangelism, or discipleship?
The first thing I learnt in my theological training has always stuck with me when I’m unsure of this answer: Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
The truth of this throughout Christian history has been what drives the lost to faith & repentance, whilst also serving as the soul’s anchor throughout the Christian life. Jesus is the sweet milk and honey that meets every one of our deepest desires. He alone saves, and keeps the Christian going.
The application to repent, believe, be baptised, or live as a Christian in the school canteen naturally flows as we delight in who Jesus is – so that is where my focus must lie as I teach from the Bible.
Challenge 2: The Teenage Years Are Tough
When I sat down to plan my first Impact year I had the freedom to sink my teeth into any book of the Bible! Naturally, I taught the parts which excited me, but as terms passed I started to run out of the ‘exciting’ passages, and felt lost. The pressure to step out of my comfort zone was becoming greater, and the young people were starting to struggle at school, being called homophobic because they went to church, or being forced to debate the existence of God at lunch breaks.
Meanwhile parents seem to have acquired a brand new child – their friendly 11 year old had become an uncaring 12 year old overnight, whose relationships with friends and God are now a cause for concern.
What should I be teaching? Should I run a series on the ‘5 best ways to answer questions on Christianity’, or spend the term focusing on ‘honouring your parents’?
This is another area where theological training has massively grounded me. Spending time chewing over the depths of passages like this:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” -2 Timothy 3:16
The solution isn’t cherry-picking the bits that I see fit, or tailor-making a term plan that tackles a particular problem. I needn’t panic over which parts of the Bible to teach – all of it is God’s word, breathed out to us. What he says to us is of infinite importance, in all areas of life; he made us, knows us, and speaks into our darkest times with bright light.
Challenge 3: Tackling Deep Questions
At Impact we have a question box, and it is always full of questions from the young people. Every half term we have one question night, and we answer on average 6 submissions every time. Here’s some examples:
- Is it fair that God saves some people and not others?
- If abortion is wrong why does God allow miscarriages and stillbirths to happen?
- How far should we take the verse about losing a hand if it causes us to sin? What’s a sensible limit on things to ‘lose’?
One thing stands out to me: young people are thinking more deeply about Christianity than we give them credit for. When I first started, I didn’t think we’d be getting questions like this from kids as young as twelve. These questions really matter to them, so how do I answer them well?
In the past I would try to find one relevant verse, and build on that, and whilst this can be effective, it doesn’t take much for a young person to Google another interpretation of the verse, or to think that it’s just Marco’s opinion; leaving the question unanswered. Theological training has given me a better understanding of systematic theology – a way to see how the Bible answers questions across the whole of scripture. In doing this I can start to give a larger, fairer reflection of what God’s Word says in its entirety. What’s more, it also helps to reinforce that these aren’t just my good answers, but they come from the Bible which is our ultimate authority as Christians.
Those are just three honest challenges that I’ve faced as an untrained youth worker, but they are also three very specific areas where I’ve seen significant change after I began studying theology on a more formal basis.
It might be tough to hear, but the local church often under-equips it’s youth workers. I’m part of online groups where there are daily posts from youth workers who are asking for help in all types of tricky situations. Some are struggling with knowing how to teach the Bible, scrambling for resources, whilst others are unsure how to answer questions like the ones above. They need to be equipped to handle the Bible well, and grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. Training up a youth worker should be high on the local church’s agenda.
As I mentioned earlier, very soon our first young people will be moving on to new horizons whether that be University, or the workplace. It’s vital that they enter adulthood on firm foundations that are rooted in gospel truth – eager and equipped to share Jesus in the big wide world. We must make the most of this time in their lives. This is the next generation of Christians; they are digging for life’s great treasure at a young age, let’s make sure that we show them Christ, and show them well.
Perhaps you’re looking to contribute to training people for Gospel work, can I encourage you to give towards something like the Tim Peter’s Training Fund; they love to equip people to serve their churches and tell their communities about Jesus. I hope you can see the difference it’s made to me, the young people at Impact, and the local church that I serve.
Maybe you’re reading this as a youth worker who feels under equipped: let me encourage you: seek out good theological training! You’ll see God’s love impact the young people in your church for years to come, and know God more personally and intimately than before. Your church might not have the budget for this right now, but if you’re based in the North West of England then reach out to the Tim Peter’s Training Fund.