Charis Robertson is the Acting Director of Hot Chocolate Trust in Dundee. She tells how the city centre youth work organisation is seeing the signs of a developing church community.
Hot Chocolate started in 2001 in the heart of Dundee. There is a shopping mall built around The Steeple Church in the city centre and, in front of the church, is a grassy area which became a meeting place for young people from the 'alternative' culture (ie. those dressed in black with piercings and tattoos and skateboards and thrash metal music etc).
At that time, there was a young woman on placement as a part-time youth worker with The Steeple who was looking outside the church, saying,
There is a community inside the walls of the church and there is a community outside the walls.
She went out with a small group of volunteers and they had no agenda other than to go and meet young people on that grassy area. Within a few months, there were quite a few significant relationships developing. We are called Hot Chocolate simply because that's what the volunteers took out with them and the young people themselves started calling the encounters, Hot Chocolate. The name just stuck.
Then we started to ask the young people, 'If you had a bit of space in the church building, what would you do with it?' The answer was that they wanted some rehearsal space, a place they could just crash out and be themselves, and so we ended up with some thrash metal bands come to rehearse in the sanctuary of the church!
Since the outset, it has been the young people who have made the decisions about how, when and what happens. These roots remain totally foundational to who we are and the way we operate today.
It all grew very organically and was very relationally-based. We became an independent charity in 2004 and we now have six paid staff (two of whom are full time) and around 35 youth work volunteers each year. We work with about 300 young people in the course of a year and do lots of things, including group work and one-to-one sessions but we don't preach at them or do anything that would be seen as typically 'churchy' in any way. Instead we get alongside to support them and are always asking the question, 'What do you want to do?' We've got good facilities, including a sports room, kitchen and chill-out room so we have the space to accommodate lots of different types of activities.
Many of the young people are from difficult family contexts and some have been in and out of young offender institutes. The young people we encounter hear from so many sources that they are bad, stupid, worthless, and will amount to nothing. Giving as much of the responsibility and ownership of Hot Chocolate to the young people as possible has resulted in a deep commitment and respect for both the place and the relationships around it. Creating a space that is truly owned by the young people has been vital to this. They most commonly describe it as their 'home', where they can make their own cup of tea, hang their art on the wall, and find a place of belonging. Hot Chocolate is not here to do things for young people or to provide a service for young people, but instead to grow a community with young people. That actually makes all the difference.
We've found too that language can also play a huge part in unhelpful power dynamics, and Hot Chocolate works hard to be thoughtful about this. For example: we are not a service. We do not have clients, customers or service users. We are a community, and the young people are young people. We do not have staff and volunteers, we have team. We do not try to fix the young people but walk alongside them, open to learning as much from them as they might from us.
Our approach is not that of a typical church based youth work organisation. We don't do God slots, but we share our lives, and those of the team who have faith share our faith when the time is right. A lot of the young folk are interested in spirituality and it is not difficult to get spiritual conversations at all.
As time has gone on, some of the young folk have found faith. That has often coincided with them coming onto team and experiencing a more explicitly Christian part of the community. As the former young people find that sense of belonging amongst the team, it opens up all sorts of questions. One young person started coming when he was 13 or 14, became a Christian along the way and is now one of our key volunteers. Not all of the team are Christians, but all are open to exploring and all feel that the Christian ethos is very important. We also often attract team members who are disillusioned with mainstream church - especially artists and social activists especially who feel they haven't found their place.
What they tend to describe as their 'church' time is when we're sitting around the dinner table together, three times a week. Before opening for any youth work session, the team has a meal together and shares some sort of devotion - and that's where they find belonging and faith. We want to develop specifically around that time, and help grow an indigenous Christian leadership. We feel uneasy about importing worship resources that are not appropriate to our context so we have started writing worship and prayers of our own. In a way, everything that has happened so far in the way of church community is completely accidental, and so tends to be quite different to intentional church planting models and approaches. (This is not a bad thing, it is just different).
Hot Chocolate has never been about getting the young people into church on a Sunday morning and it wasn't even about starting a youth project. It was simply about building relationships and seeing what might emerge, motivated by the love of God. It seems that every couple of months we stop and say, 'What are you up to now God? It's changing again!' We know we are very strong on belonging, on community and activism; we are not necessarily great at discipleship but we are learning.
Hot Chocolate experiments: not recklessly, but without anxiety of failure. There is a strong culture of reflection, vulnerability and learning together, even when we have made mistakes.
We've learned a lot about the God of mission. It's God's mission to transform the lives of the young people and not ours. God is already at work doing this, and so our job is to get alongside him, not the other way around. This has been a liberating, challenging realisation.
In terms of challenges, when you work for a charity, finance is always going to be a challenge but we do have support from various agencies, including the Church of Scotland's Go For It Fund which aims to encourage creative ways of working which develop the life and mission of the local church and are transformative for both communities and congregations. We have had some major staffing changes in the team in the past couple of years too, but we have just appointed a new director to start in January so we are looking forward to starting the new year with a leader who is very missional-minded, someone to help us grow this amazing community together.