There’s no limit for Limitless online
Lockdown has caused Tim Alford, National Director of Limitless, to question what the future of youth work will look like
Dozens responded to the gospel at this year’s online Limitless Festival. For Tim Alford, it was a huge success.
"The best thing is when you say, ‘Come, Holy Spirit’ and God does amazing things. That was the hardest thing about taking it online, to replicate that in this format," said Tim Alford.
He's talking about the virtual version of Elim’s annual youth event – a two-day online programme last August packed with worship, seminars, prayer ministry, and even comedy, which attracted almost 14,000 hits on YouTube.
"One of the things I loved most was seeing people engaging as groups, socially distanced. They’d set up camp-fires and tents, big screens and fairy lights; people did barbecues, garden parties, or were at church.
"God was moving throughout the programme.
“We prayed for people for healing, to be filled with the Spirit, and some amazing stories came back. We had somebody who had problems with their hearing that had been healed.
"There were 42 young people we know of who responded to the gospel for the first time. And 136 young people received one-to-one prayer ministry over the weekend."
The programme included four seminars on Saturday afternoon: Life with God; Life Online; Life of Peace and Life at Uni. Watchers could ask questions via chat during the sessions which were put to the speakers.
"They asked brilliant, relevant, honest, and vulnerable questions. It actually felt quite raw; that was something the online format allowed us to do that wouldn’t have happened in person.
"They didn’t have to put their hands up and ask a question in front of several hundred people in a tent. It also enabled the speakers to be honest and speak specifically into those situations."
The prayer team was busy during the Life of Peace session, where anxiety was a big topic.
“We knew what we were talking about was relevant and real, having watched lots of young people struggling with anxiety. That’s been amplified during lockdown, so people engaged with that really well.
"A lot of stuff about eating disorders came out so we were able to speak to that, to pray publicly for people, who then went into virtual prayer rooms and received one-to-one ministry."
Taking Limitless online had many other benefits.
"For a young person to invite their mate who isn’t a Christian to Limitless Festival, convince them to take out a week of their life, get their parents to pay £100 for their child to go to a Christian event, get all the consent forms signed by the youth worker, it’s just a big ask. But with the online format, it’s just a case of sharing the YouTube URL, or saying, ‘Come and watch this session with me.’ It’s much easier."
"If we had the choice, we'd far rather be together with 5,000 people. But God took the online event and used it – people responded to the gospel and were healed. These things are the reason we do things like Limitless Festival, in whatever format."
We then asked Tim to address some specific questions:
Limitless may have been a huge success online, but is online the future for youth work? Has putting Limitless online made you rethink how to do youth ministry?
"Massively, but not in the way you’d think. We put youth ministry online during lockdown because we had to. I thought ‘we’re youth ministry, we’ll be fine because young people spend their lives online'. But actually, we’ve seen a gradual decline in engagement."
So young people are switching off from online programmes?
"Yes, and what’s particularly interesting is that the first people to disengage – from church, not just Limitless – were young people who are not connected to church via their families."
Has that changed the way you view online youth work?
"I actually don’t think online is the future. I’ve heard people say it is, and before lockdown, I probably would have agreed. But although young people are digital-native, this gradual decline has really reinforced the value of embodied encounters for them. There is no substitute for radical, diverse, loving communities, in and through which the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit is at work in signs and wonders. And actually, youth groups might be one of their main ways of experiencing that."
How should churches and youth leaders respond?
"I’m not saying everyone should ditch online. During lockdown, we have picked up online tools which will help us in the future. But it’s not a substitute for disciple-making, which has to be done in proximity, life-on-life.
"Also, young people need spiritual parents more than spiritual programmes. We need to focus on raising up spiritual parents who will have an intense commitment to passing on the gospel to the next generation and discipling young people small-scale, especially for those from non-Christian homes. The priority should be creating radical communities, and pursuing the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit."
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