Methodism and youth work

Clubland - mks

In this feature we explore the outstanding contribution of Methodist workers to the development of youth work

contents: introduction · early efforts · the club · social groupwork · the challenge today · how to cite this article

In Britain youth work emerged largely out of the activities of evangelical Christians during the first half of the nineteenth century. Three particular developments were important precursors of the work.

First, there was the phenomenal growth of Sunday schooling following the efforts of pioneers like Robert Raikes and Hannah More. Some, like More, looked to conversation and to more informal ways of working (as well as engaging in the standard teaching). Sunday schooling was the main means by which many working class children learned to read and write. By 1851 some 75 per cent of working class children attending such schools – many associated with Methodist chapels and churches. Alongside Sunday schools a range of clubs and activities grew. Services, Sunday schools and associated activities had the special advantage of being one of the few organized and ‘respectable’ social occasions where sex segregation was not imposed.

Second, ragged schooling, one of the great movements of Victorian philanthropy, provided for children and young people who were excluded by virtue of their poverty from other forms of schooling. A key feature of their work was that they moved significantly beyond the simple provision of educational opportunity – and as such both provided an example for of youth and adult provision, and a concrete base for their development.  Perhaps ragged schooling’s greatest contribution, though,  to the development of informal education and youth work was that they provided a grounding for a number of key figures in early youth work. George Williams, the leading light in the formation and development of the YMCA worked in one, as did Quintin Hogg (the founder of the Regent Street Polytechnic), Tom Pelham (the writer of the first practice text on boy’s club work and in the growth of boys club work), Dr Barnardo and Mary Carpenter.

Third, district visiting – the practice of going to poorer people’s housing to give support and advice, and to make assessments of their deservedness of charity – was also significant impetus for the development of youth work. District visiting alerted a number of workers to the needs of young men and young women and motivated people like Maude Stanley to develop new forms of youth work provision.

An obvious, but important, factor in the growing focus on young people was that people began to talk about ‘youth’. In other words, the significance of ‘youth’ as a category began to be recognized. There were growing numbers of articles in newspapers, for example, about the problems facing young men and women – and the issues they presented to society. As public interest  in ‘youth’ developed, by the 1890s psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall began to build theories of ‘adolescence’. However, it was around the mid-century people began consciously working with ‘youths’ as a separate grouping with specific needs. Youths’ institutes and clubs began to be established in a number of areas (sometimes linked to the Ragged School Union) and by the late 1880s work was appearing in a significant number of Anglican and Catholic parishes.

Early Methodist youth work efforts

Some of the best known early Methodist youth work is associated with the West London Mission. Of particular note is the innovative work with young women undertaken by ‘Sisters’ Mary Neal and Emmeline Pethick. They eventually left the Mission in 1895 to set up a club on their own – the Espérance. Then, disturbed by the exploitation of young women by the West End dress trade, a tailoring co-operative (the Maison Espérance). Their particular contribution to youth work was the recognition of a social and political dimension to work with young women. Emily Pethick (who later went on to become the treasurer and key organizer with the Pankhursts of the English Suffrage Union) wrote:

The conditions, not only of the home, but of the factory or workshop had to be taken into account. It became our business to study the industrial question as it affected the girls’ employments, the hours, the wages, and the conditions. And we had also to give them a conscious part to take in the battle that is being fought for the workers, and will not be won until it is loyally fought by the as well.

At the same time, a few miles to the south and east,the Rev. J Scott Lidgett was developing the work of the Bermondsey Settlement (established in 1891). This was to be the only Methodist settlement and provided an opportunity for better-off Methodists to live in a deprived area and to share the lives of people there. Lidgett had a vision of the settlement as a ‘community of social workers who come to a poor neighbourhood to assist by methods of friendship and cooperation those who are concerned with upholding all that is essential to the well-being of the neighbourhood’. He argued for stronger action to advance the social, economic and spiritual conditions of the working classes. As well as becoming the Warden of the settlement, J. Scott Lidgett was an important Methodist theologian arguing for tolerance and Christian unity. He was a strong advocate of the formation of the Wesley Guild (1890) which became the main means of organizing work with young people within the Methodist Church (the Guild also involved older people). The Guild had 152,000 members in some 2000 groups by 1900.

The club

It was in the area of the development of club work that Methodist workers and thinkers made their most significant mark. The key figure in the early development was the Reverend James (Jimmy) Butterworth. He reacted against the formal activities and programmes of the Guilds, what he saw as an inability of churches to ‘move with the times’ and to the patronizing attitude that many had within the church to young people in slum areas. He established Clubland in Walworth in the 1920s and became a crusading voice for club work. His youth work approach involved four elements:

  • Young people deserved good quality facilities.
  • There should be a strong emphasis on participation and involvement in the governance of the club or group.
  • Members should make an adequate contribution to the cost of the facility.
  • All members should take their part in the life of the church. ‘Church loyalty’ and ‘all-round fitness’  were central aims.

As well as providing an influential model for the larger youth club, Butterworth was able to help alter attitudes within Methodism to youth work.

With the outbreak of the Second World War and the commitment of the government to the establishment of a youth service, the Methodist Conference began to mark out the shape of the church’s response. In 1943 it agreed the constitution of a Youth Department (which brought together Guild and Sunday school work) and which looked to develop Methodist youth work. The Secretary charged with this development was the Rev. Douglas A. Griffiths. As Douglas Hubery was later to comment, Griffiths possessed the gift of inspiring others to share his vision, to experiment in club methods, and to lead the church into the new Youth Service. His lasting, visible, contribution was the establishment of the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs in 1945 as a means of bringing together and supporting the massive, organic growth in youth clubs that had been occurring over the previous couple of years within Methodist churches.

It was with the appointment of the Reverend Leonard Barnett as National Secretary of MAYC in 1949) that a new stage in the work was realized. Barnett looked to the development of workers and the work. He was able to develop a very influential way of approaching the principles and practices of the work. These found expression in two important books: The Church Youth Club and Adventure with Youth. He saw church youth clubs as communities of young people engaged upon the task of Christian education. He placed a strong emphasis on self-organization and upon fellowship, friendship and association as key aspects of the work.

In the space of a decade, Methodist youth work had been transformed – and provided a model for other Churches. Barnett’s Adventures with Youth became the standard work on youth work within churches. The youth club – with its emphasis on informality, doing things together and friendship was seen as out-working of the faith and practice of local communities of Christians. ‘It is an expression’, he said, ‘of the Church’s awareness of its responsibility to care for all’. The Methodist Association of Youth Clubs had looked to ‘open club membership’ and was a pioneer in mixed youth clubs. membership.

Social groupwork and informal Christian education

Alongside the championship of the youth club, we see a growing contribution to the wider youth work field. In particular, Bryan Reed’s influential study of young people in Birmingham – Eighty Thousand Adolescents (1950) was a landmark. Reed was based at Westhill the Methodist teacher training college which also pioneered training for youth work and community work. He supervised research that provided the most comprehensive picture of youth work  in an area ever assembled in Britain and Northern Ireland. On the basis of his findings Bryan Reed argued that, among  other things, the youth service should provide experience of democratic living, and contribute to the strengthening and enrichment of home life. He also made a strong case for religious education that was ‘occasional, spontaneous and opportunist’. ‘Young people are assailed by the claims of many competing ideologies’, he wrote, ‘leaders need to know more than they do, both of Christian doctrine and of the possibilities of informal religious education’. He was convinced the essential requirements for successful religious education were Christian leadership, and the setting of a Christian community. Later he became general secretary of the Methodist Youth Department and was involved with the development of the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs. As part of his work there he organized the collection of one million half crowns to build a new headquarters along with a hostel for young people on the North Bank estate in Muswell Hill.

During the 1950s and early 1960s the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs continued to develop its work. Landmark activities such as the Annual Conference and Display (The London Weekend) which attracted many thousands of young people became important reference points. By the mid 1960s there some 3,400 clubs and over 110,000 young people in membership. At this time the the Methodist Youth Department was headed by Donald Hubery (another former Westhill College youth work tutor). He also wrote a number of books and booklets, the best known being The Emancipation of Youth (1963) which provided an overview of the development of youth work (with special reference to Methodism and to the Church generally).

A third Westhill tutor, Fred Milson, became a central figure in youth service debates during the second half of the 1960s and through the 1970s. His early work made a strong case for the use of social group work in Christian education – especially in his Social Group Work and Christian Education (1963). However, it was through his chairing of one of the committees that produced Youth and Community Work in the 1970s (1969) that he came into a wider, national, prominence. This report urged workers and policymakers to see youth in the context of community. (Milson also wrote a number of books for workers that explored the experiences of young people and the need to adopt a community development orientation). He advocated political education and the active involvement of young people in society.

The challenge for Methodist youth work today

In the twenty or so years since Fred Milson’s death there have been profound changes within the Methodist church and its work. The church itself has been the second fastest declining denomination over that period (just behind the Church of England), and it’s membership profile has aged. This has had a major impact on its ability to undertake youth work. Combined with a drift away from club and open work within youth work generally, and changing attitudes to volunteering, the result has been a pressure on many of the defining elements of Methodist practice. A further element has been the rise of evangelicalism within the Church as a whole. With its strong focus on work with young people that looked to individual conversion and the communication of the Bible’s message, there was a contrast with the Christian service model of open youth work that had characterized much of the Methodist contribution since the Second World War. Evangelical texts and magazines came to dominate the literature of Christian youth work. It appeared that an era was over.

However, recent work around the significance of clubs, groups and other associational activities – in particular the contributions of Robert Putnam around social capital – has highlighted the power of the sort of work that Methodist workers have pioneered. (See young people, youth work and association). They remain the inheritors of a tradition of youth work that has enduring significance. This includes:

  • Seeing clubs and groups as communities engaged in the task of Christian education.
  • Emphasizing democratic participation in youth groups and society as a whole.
  • Looking to youth work as Christian service to improve the well-being of people in local communities.
  • Valuing the contribution of volunteers and being concerned with vocation and calling in the work.
  • A focus on the whole person and working through relationship.

The challenge for workers today is how to develop ways of working, and a language, that stay true to these concerns. One of the problems of seeking funding from many trusts and state organizations is that they specify targets and requirements are set that undermine work based around relationship and association (see seeking out the gift of authenticity for a discussion of some of the problems). If Methodist youth workers want to develop their tradition of work, they will need to, for example:

  • Look for ways of funding their work that avoid tight outcome specifications.
  • Contribute to debates about re-imagining the Church and around new ways of being church.
  • Attend to the nature of work based on relationship, association and the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.

Together, these constitute a huge task, but the rewards could be very significant.


For other materials on Christian youth work go to our Christian youthwork index. We also have some important pieces in our archives

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2003, 2019). ‘Methodism and youth work’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

This piece is based on a talk given to a conference for youth workers organized by the Methodist Youth Department, March 2003.

© Mark K. Smith 2003, 2019
First published: March 2003 Refreshed 2019

Last Updated on April 8, 2021 by