Why youth clubs?

infed archives

Leonard Barnett explores the essential qualities of the church youth club. Chapter 1 of Adventures with Youth, London: Methodist Association of Youth Clubs, 1962.

contents: preface · introduction · our specific purpose · what is education · the educated man · technical education · social education · moral and spiritual education · the prime necessity for spiritual education · our distinctive task · a free response · questions

Leonard P. Barnett was a key figure in the development of youth work within the Methodist Church. He was  National Secretary of the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs (between 1949 and 1958) – and wrote two particularly important and influential books: The Church Youth Club (1951) and Adventure with Youth (1953; 1962). were important and pioneering works. 

This particular chapter, taken from Adventures with Youth, was written for church club leaders and examines the purpose and nature of the church youth club.

also on infed.org: Leonard Barnett and the church youth club. Other pieces by Leonard Barnett in the archives include: responsible people; and club and church
links: Methodist Youth; Methodist Youth Executive  

Are these your club members?

[page 1] Look round the club room. Christine and Barbara are reading the current notices on the board, arms and fingers entwined. They’re both fourteen, and inseparable. Christine’s clothes hang rather shapelessly, for her body still shows the straight, severe lines of childhood. Barbara on the other hand has assumed so rapidly the outward aspect of young womanhood you just can’t believe it’s the same child who shyly asked for a place in the club six months ago.

Over in a corner is Joan, feet tucked awkwardly round the legs of her chair, engrossed in a glossy magazine, and chewing an apple, her straggly hair falling over her eyes. Harry and Brenda whose mutual enthusiasm is table tennis, are enjoying a hectic duel. It’s about the only thing they ever seem to concentrate on; that and each other. They are quite oblivious of anything and anyone else. So are Jean and Keith, sitting in front of the gramophone and listening enraptured to the twentieth rendering this evening of the latest “pop” disc.

You wonder how they can stand it. Keith is being teased a great deal at the moment about the dark down sprouting hardily on his chin. He unconsciously fingers it as he listens.

Two boys arguing fiercely come to you to settle an argument about the countries in Europe where capital punishment has been abolished. Before you’ve finished with them, the assistant leader has claimed your attention with a problem concerning horseplay on the stairs. Valerie has been tripped up and torn her only pair of nylons. She began work a fortnight ago, you recall, and has appeared rather thoughtful and quiet ever since—apart from one evening when she unaccountably burst into tears and departed for home in a hurry.

Young Ted, throwing a pretty dart in another corner, is causing you a headache at the moment. He’s suddenly shot up three or four inches, has learned to shave without cutting himself and has set the cat among the pigeons by taking home three different girls in a fortnight. You happen to know that he too, is having a tough time at the garage where he works. They think young Ted needs taking down a peg, and [page 2] are seeing to it. But nothing seems able to disconcert Ted for long. Rene is pinning up yet another news clipping on the noticeboard about conditions in the Congo. They call her “Rene the Reformatory”; but she doesn’t mind. Her father is an ardent UN branch member, and Rene adores him. She can tell the club everything—and constantly does—about world problems, from fall-out hazards to malnutrition in south-east Asia. That girl’s a godsend in the discussion group. Boys, to her, are rather immature toddlers to be alternately humoured or dusted down; and Rene can do either.

Donald has you a bit concerned. He seems to spend a lot of time mooning about. He starts something then drops it again like a hot coal, for no apparent reason. He’s by turns scornful, disconsolate and downright rude. He didn’t have those dark shadows under his eyes six months ago, either.

Arthur is very different. You don’t forget the awful time he had when he stood up in club one night and started to say something, then forgot what it was he wanted to say, and stopped dead, crimson of face. He’s come on since then, but whenever he gets earnest about anything he begins to flush from the roots of his hair. Dorothy’s even worse. You can’t speak to her without her becoming scarlet and tongue tied.

One way or another, they’re an interesting lot, these club members of yours. Lots of good stuff in all of them, and you feel as though at times you’d give almost anything to be sure of saying just the right word, or doing just the right thing, at the right time, in your dealings with them. They’re not all causing you anxiety of one sort or another, of course. There’s a whole bunch not mentioned, grand healthy, happy youngsters, irresponsible at times, and yet full of life and bright ideas, and capable of kindnesses and thoughtfulness that sometimes move you strangely. If anything catches their interest and imagination, they’ll go to all manner of trouble, and make all kinds of genuine sacrifices to see the thing through. Nobody asked George to spend hour after hour tinkering about with biscuit tins and bits of wood, or to turn up with yards of flex which you’d seen him buying at Woolworth’s earlier in the day. But buy it he did, and afterwards you wonder where the club show would have been without the lighting he rigged up or the curtains which drew beautifully after he’d worked on them all one evening. George seemed to be a different person after that show. It was just the same with Margaret, who laboured with just as much patience and enthusiasm, and infected half a dozen others to work similarly, [page 3] when the annual club banquet demanded home-made paper table runners in the club colours, and dozens of fancies the like of which you’d never seen before. Again, when that bad break happened to the Harris family, and John’s mother died, you went round to see what you could do to help, and found the club had got there first. John showed you a letter signed by a dozen club pals which was the most sensitively written thing you’d read for a long time. You detected Ivor’s style of course, but afterwards you learned it wasn’t just due to his idea and initiative.

Do you recognize this club? It may be yours. Let’s hope it is. Perhaps you know people like George, and John and Arthur and Margaret. They are real people, members of youth clubs, and they did the sort of things referred to. They were young people growing up. The older people who lead their clubs, were engaged, like you, on a most exacting, stimulating, challenging job. And you also know it for one of the most deeply satisfying jobs you can attempt; a job of enduring value to both leaders and led.

Our specific purpose

What kind of a job is it? What is the purpose behind your youth club work? To “get them off the streets?” That’s laudable enough if you simply want to afford them protection from the weather. But you envisage a far bigger goal than that: yet if you haven’t bothered seriously to bring it into focus, your tactics may be passing strange; as indeed those of some club leaders are. It is only when you have a clear idea of the job in hand that you can choose your tools sensibly. Not even a safebreaker can do a good job completely in the dark.

Clearly we must begin here. Everything that follows in any discussion on club work must derive from the answer to the question, “Why church youth clubs?” The answer is clear and specific. Our business is to help young people, by every means within our power, to grow up so as to enjoy the more abundant life; remembering that that phrase comes straight from the New Testament. Our job is to provide such opportunities for development of body, mind and spirit, as will enable the boys and girls in our club to enter upon fullness of life as the sons and daughters of the living God.

We go all the way with the avowed aims of our partners in youth club and other allied youth movements everywhere. We endorse gladly the work of everyone who is seeking in Youth Service to further [page 4] the all-round development, the happiness and welfare, of young people. But we are bound in humility but conviction, to say dearly that for us, to grow to the full stature of men and women involves not only as healthy a body, as alert and informed a mind as possible, but also—supremely essential, and giving sense to both these—a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. “Spiritual development” must be interpreted in those terms. The Christian Gospel is at once universal and authoritative. And “by their fruits, ye shall know them” must be taken here as everywhere else, as the acid test by which such Christian convictions must be judged.

That is to say, as Church club leaders we are educators, and evangelists. These are the two great focal points about which our whole study will revolve. If you have so far never thought of yourself as either educator or evangelist, don’t despair. You may eventually find yourself in the position of the man who discovered he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it. The youth club job is to educate; and to evangelize, in a Christian sense. And though we must part these two foundation principles in order to see their respective functions, it is of first importance to remember always that in practice they interweave inextricably throughout the whole of club life.

The discussion begins, then, with the club viewed as an educative agency; and you may probably come to it with feelings of resignation rather than interest. To say that church life is educative in a high degree may at worst sound pretentious and at best impressive; but hardly attractive. For “education,” to our minds, may stand simply for the process which began at the school gates, and finished each day as we ran whooping homewards; and which finished for good when schooldays were over.

What is education?

If that is so; if between normal life and “education” there is any sort of gulf fixed, do your best to bridge it. This word must stand essentially for something far wider than “schooling.” It must mean for us, the total process of “making the best of ourselves” in every way; developing to the fullest extent possible, every latent capacity, every native gift, with which we have been endowed. A good education will provide the right conditions under which that all-round development can take place. A poor education will place a superior and false emphasis on one aspect (intelligence, special gifts, etc.) or another, with unhappy results. Education must succeed, ideally, in helping every [page 5] one to play the highest and best part possible for him in the life of the society he belongs to, at each stage of growth and development.

It is inevitable that the word should have become so bound up with school experience. Yet “formal education” is strictly speaking the accurate phase to use here. It is a bad mistake to suppose that school represents the be-all and end-all of the educational process; and to ignore the fact that with the best will in the world, the school cannot offer the total equipment for life which is the goal of education. We must recognize that a school can sometimes do its job of formal instruction extremely well, and yet produce an undeveloped person.

The educated man

Let us see this business of education in a practical setting. Think for a moment of the friends and acquaintances you regularly mix with. How many of them could you honestly say were characterized by an infectious zest for life, an obvious capacity for vigorous enjoyment of all it offers day by day? From how many of them do you confidently expect a considered opinion on any matter of general moment? How many strike you as balanced people holding reasoned (albeit simple) convictions? How many are typically stable, reliable people, not given to touchiness, mulishness, lethargic indifference, or other common features of an ill-balanced emotional life? How many practice consistently high personal standards and values? What proportion of them find regular enjoyment in reading books (other than light novels), listening to or helping to make decent music or stimulating conversation? How many of them are not only good at their work, but good also at getting on with their workmates and getting the best out of them? How many of them, would you say, habitually display the fruits of what can only be termed a philosophy of life? Do many betray abundant signs of a practical faith in themselves, their fellow-men, or God?

These are a few facets of the good life; the life of the educated man. A true education means the provision of such conditions as help human life to achieve abilities like these. Their scarcity reflects in part upon the inadequacy of the educational provisions of one sort or another, which we have so far contrived. It is probable that many of the people you know seem to regard their journey through life more as a sort of amble than as a zestful pilgrimage. They do not appear positively to enjoy it overmuch, even when allowances have been [page 6] made for British reticence. Their opinions, like most of their clothes, are ready-made from their favourite easy-to-read newspaper or TV programme. Emotionally they are still children, capable of being played upon and swayed by mountebanks and fanatics, and resentful of real or imagined slights or grievances. Their personal standards are often enough determined by expediency rather than conviction or principle. One could not with honesty accuse them of pitching their standards too high. Their conversation revolves round their hobbies, their homes and themselves and rarely goes further afield. On the whole, they treat with suspicion anyone who takes a real interest in art or music or literature or the drama. Their tastes are trifling. Religion is on a level with amateur photography or map-reading—a rather superior pursuit for those who like that sort of thing, and unrelated to the challenge of workaday life. They have not seen its relevance dearly enough to want to go themselves on a spiritual pilgrimage. In a real and tragic sense, they are crippled people.

Is this too gloomy a picture? One would like to think so. What is said above is not set down with any malice. It is simply an attempt at appraisal. It is against this background that we must think afresh what education is. The plain, hurtful fact is that our nation includes vast numbers of stunted people, suffering the various social and spiritual penalties of educational neglect, one of the worst of which is that we are unaware of our starved condition, dully content with the third rate and without real experience of the wealth, glory and beauty of life at its best.

Technical education

There are three great areas of experience which must be glimpsed before we gain a full picture of what we mean by education. The first we have already indicated. Bound up with the idea of formal instruction at school, and similar institutions is not only the necessity for helping the mind and intelligence to grow, but also the essential task of equipping people to earn their living. What we might term technical education then is the first of the three areas of life.

Social education

The second involves recognition of the fact that men live in society. They are always and inescapably social in their nature. They are members one of another. The very nature of human life makes it vital [page 7] that people should know how to get on with each other, how to adjust themselves happily and effectively to life in close association with each other in an immense variety of ways. Good personal relationships necessarily undergird the fabric of any tolerable society. Let those relationships corrode and weaken, and the whole structure is threatened. This is the point at which we see the need, for the sake of individual happiness and the welfare of society, of an education which we can best describe as “social.” It is by no means only a matter of knowledge. Rather is it the art of utilizing the knowledge we have acquired of our own nature, and our present and hoped-for place in society, in relation to other people. To become proficient in that art is the process of social education.

Moral and spiritual education

But it is clear that in a variety of ways, technical or vocational education, and social education are dependent upon the third element, moral and spiritual education. What kind of job should a person seek to fit himself for? Why should he bother to strive to understand his fellow-man so as to live happily alongside him? Why should he respect him? Why should he practise honesty, chastity, unselfishness or any other personal or civic virtue?

Fundamental questions of this sort enter another world—as real a world as that of the five senses; the world of spiritual values and standards; the realm of ultimate purpose. What we mean by “developing one’s powers to the highest” goes back upon what we believe human life is in existence for, and how we contrive to make sense of it.

A passage from a remarkable book, Education for a World Adrift, by Sir Richard Livingstone, puts with great lucidity, the essential relationship of the spiritual element in education to the other two already mentioned.

Education, that maid-of-all-work, has to set her hand to many duties as a general servant. But two things she should give everybody before her work is complete—an intellectual attitude to life and a philosophy of life. I would define the right intellectual attitude as threefold: to find the world and life intensely interesting; to wish to see them as they are; to feel that truth, in Plato’s words, is both permanent and beautiful. And a philosophy of life? The right intellectual attitude to life is already a partial philosophy of it. It is complete, if you extend it to cover Goodness, Truth and Beauty, and [page 8] define Goodness to cover those words which have been trumpet-calls to many generations, and, once sounded by unknown men far back in history, have been borne round the world on waves of the spiritual air, now loud, now low, but never wholly silent: love, justice, courage, self-mastery, mercy, liberty. Philosophy passes into religion when these are seen to point to and derive their validity from that ultimate spiritual reality we call God. Philosophy and an intellectual attitude are high-sounding terms; yet their rudiments are within the powers of any school-child to find work interesting, to see the difference between fact and fiction, and to acquire an outlook, a habit of mind, a sense of values, an insight into ‘the science of good and evil’, which will later ripen into a rational conviction. The fundamental task of education is to put into the mind some idea of what these things are, some desire to pursue them. An education that does this is a success; an education that does less is a failure. (page 31)

Our education, the same writer goes on to say, only appears to do this partially and sporadically. With his verdict few would be tempted seriously to disagree. Whatever else may be involved in this state of affairs, the root explanation, for Christians, lies in slack or absent convictions about God and His purposes for mankind. Only a religious faith can finally integrate into a coherent unity the structure of human life, whether the individual or his society is under consideration.

Christ, the centre of our faith, is the Bread of life; the staple ingredient, not the fancy garnishing. In essence, education must be religious to be complete or consistent. Of old, education was seen to be thus. Latterly, religious faith has become tragically divorced from the other elements in education: a thing apart, a cult. We see the results on every hand, in the chaotic welter of contrasting values which men may set upon the same thing; a bewildering situation making directly for the confusion and torment of our time.

The prime necessity for spiritual education

Individuals without loss can afford to pay little attention to many of the possible varieties of formal education. It is by no means necessary for everybody to essay the thousandfold mysteries of science. Variety and individual specialization are not only desirable but vital. To create music, or pictures, or books, are by no means the necessary pursuits of every man. It is far more necessary for everyone, in order to live [page 9] a satisfying life, to be versed in the art of right personal relationships. To be socially unacceptable is a far more miserable business than to lack the ability to appreciate Beethoven, da Vinci or Shakespeare.

But even the art of practising various social graces, is by no means as fundamental as the discovery and acceptance of a faith which alone can help us to set the right store by such skills, and see them in their true setting—the setting of the truth about life, and its purpose. Social education is highly desirable. It is a most necessary part of the good life. But Christians would view it, in the last resort, as a fruit of the Spirit rather than a simple product of the understanding. There is no gospel of Salvation by Social Skill or Redemption by Charm. There is a Gospel which, rightly and appropriately appreciated, brings in its train the right kind of personal growth and development in the arts of social living. If it is not productive of those arts, it is a caricature of religion. That is not to say that social education cannot be seen in isolation, nor taught without reference to religion. It is to say that the bases of social learning are ultimately matters of religious conviction. How A, for instance, reacts to mean or unkind treatment by B, is coloured to a great degree not only by the kind of help he has received through the years in the matter of social relationships. His attitude to B will be shot through and through with the influence of religion, if A happens to be a religious man. The one interacts upon and is conditioned by the other.

Education, then, is concerned not with a sector of human experience, but with the whole of life, physical, mental, cultural, social, moral, spiritual.

Our distinctive task

Clearly this has great significance for our job as club leaders. Youth clubs are not primarily designed to help the growth of intelligence; to be voluntary evening institutes. Though it will be plain later regarding club activities of many kinds, that the good club should prove useful in this sphere. Any club which does not so contrive its life and programme as to enlarge greatly the members’ store of general or particularized knowledge about life, with the whole rich treasury of the world about it to explore at will, is squandering its chances.

It is in the spheres of social and spiritual education, however, that the club’s major functions are seen. Ours is the high and responsible task of alliance with all the other agencies at work in the life of the growing [page 10] boy and girl, whereby they can be brought to see and explore the largest horizons of all; horizons which do not stop short at any point short of a true vision of God, and His purposes for every separate human life. In the sphere of social development, the club provides an ideal type of community setting in which the teenager, entering slowly upon the adult word, can essay with increasing self-assurance and skill the kind of behaviour expected of a fully matured adult. In the manifold encounters of club life there should be abundant opportunity to adjust himself adequately to the social pressures at work in his environment at home, at work, or school. The various ways in which the club makes its contribution to this steady growth are essentially bound up with an appreciation of the kind of changes in body, mind and spirit which are taking place throughout adolescence. We shall therefore proceed to consider in broad outline what these changes are and what particular psychological needs attach themselves to our club members throughout this vital period of their lives.

A free response

Before doing so, however, we should note one fact of critical importance in the whole process of education, which is very germane to our consideration of the club as an educative community. It is an almost self-evident truth, which educationalists join in emphasizing, that learning takes place most easily and enduringly when it is entered upon with eager willingness. There can be no such thing as forcible feeding of the mind or the spirit. Growth in these spheres is dependent upon a free response. “I’ll larn yer!”, as Professor T. H. Pear observes in “The Maturing Mind,” implies a wrong attitude to learning. The same truth is emphasized by Sir T. P. Nunn (in Education: Its data and first principles, page 4). “Nothing good enters into human life,” he asserts, “except in and through the free activities of individual men and women … educational practice must be shaped to accord with that truth. This view does not deny or minimize the responsibilities of a man to his fellows; for the independent life can develop only in terms of its own nature, and that is as social as it is truly “self-regarding”. Nor does it deny the value of tradition and “discipline” or exclude the influences of religion … It reaffirms the infinite value of the individual person; it reasserts his ultimate responsibility for his own destiny; and it accepts all the practical corollaries that assertion implies.”

[page 11] This principle is of first importance to club work. The whole of its strategy is built upon the idea of voluntary association. Members are not compelled to join, though the internal discipline of the club may well exert influence over the member to attend some group activity within the programme of the club. This is not, however, to imply a fundamental element of coercion. We may reflect that not only is the club in line with sound educational principle, but also that the voluntary nature of club membership confronts the leader with a challenge inherent in that fact: the challenge so to order the club’s spirit and programme, that the member’s loyalty, interest and active participation may be sustained freely. Legal sanctions are neither possible nor desirable. The leader has no authority save that of “personal” moral authority. He stands in a unique relationship different from that of teacher-pupil or parent-child. And because he has not had authority over his members during their recent childhood, he will be in a position to take helpful advantage of the teenage tendency to confide in and take particular note of the opinions of such people. He stands in the relation of a friend, separated from his members by the simple, scaleable barriers of age and experience. The education that the club provides must therefore be informal, and interesting as possible.

In consequence, two temptations lie always close at hand; to rest content with a superficial, largely recreative programme which makes no demands on intelligence or loyalty; or to put one’s faith in such binding and restrictive rules as will weed out all but the most earnest and selective young people. But it was to call sinners, not the righteous, to renewal of mind and heart that the club method was called into being; to help the normal boy and girl, with glorious and undeveloped capacities for rich and satisfying life, to enjoy such life. To take refuge in a thinly disguised school regimen is to betray the cause. There is a middle way, a hard, sometimes exasperatingly slow and apparently unrewarding way, in which the balance is held between restriction and licence, between the forbiddingly earnest and worthlessly superficial. This is the way demanding indeed the proper craft of club leadership That craft calls into play every effort of the mind and the imagination (particularly the imagination) to create the right kind of approach to and presentation of the various elements in the club’s life and work, so as to stimulate the mind and fire the imagination of the members.

If we can evoke interest and enthusiasm from our members for any worthy object we shall be true educators. “A boy learns,” says Professor [page 12] Bompas Smith, “when he achieves an interest” (Growing Minds, page 188). Our range of potential interests in club life is as wide as life itself, and takes in every high and fine ideal and activity which human lives can glimpse. To arouse interests that will finally emerge as elements in a balanced, Christian personality is the day to day aim of every church club leader.


1. How does the Youth Club help the teenager to grow up?

2. Many young people attend “night school” and belong to a Youth Club? What is the essential difference between these two organizations, and in what ways are they complementary?

3. “If we can evoke interest and enthusiasm from our members for any worthy object we shall be true educators.” What do you consider “worthy objects” and how can you interest young people in them?

To cite this page: Barnett, L. (1962) ‘Why youth clubs’, the informal education archives. [https://infed.org/mobi/why-youth-clubs/. Retrieved: insert date]. First published in Barnet, L. (1962) Adventure with Youth. The church club leader’s handbook, London: Methodist Association of Youth Clubs.

This piece has been reproduced here with permission.
First placed in the archives: August 2002. Updated June 2019