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Churches and a gap that needs bridging

05 October 2010

Martyn Percy commends abook that engages with the challenges posed by youth


Religion and Youth
Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, editors
Ashgate £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

MENTION youth and religion in most church circles, and one can almost sense the rising levels of anxiety. The issues that cloud the agenda present a potentially perplexing array of worries and concerns.

Is religion taught well in schools; and how exactly are our young people experiencing a daily act of worship? What is to be done about the depleting reservoir of Christian knowledge in our society, and most especially among the young? Why are young people drawn to more intense forms of religious expression, and how can broader forms of church compete? Where do young people learn their values from, and how are these to be cultivated in a world that seems to be dominated by the various forms of technology-driven relating which seem to pander to atomisation, individualism, and con­sumerism?

A book that brings some intelligent and reassuring perspectives to bear on this arena is to be welcomed, and Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion have done precisely this. The volume is actually the first comprehensive international perspective — rooted in the sociology of religion — to explore the complexities of religion and youth, and take account of geographical and organisational contexts.

Divided into six parts, the book explores generations and their legacies; a survey of belief and practice today; expressions of faith and spirituality; identity in religion; transmission of faith; and has a concluding section on how to research religion and youth.

The editors are to be warmly commended for drawing together such a rich tapestry of voices. Linda Woodhead, David Voas, Elisabeth Arweck, Gordon Lynch, Eleanor Nesbitt, Matthew Guest, Abby Day, Leslie Francis, and Mandy Robbins — to name but a few — would all command attention in this field, and to have them together in a single volume is a consid­erable achievement.

The essays are, without exception, crisp, clear, and focused. If there is any kind of grumble at all, it is that the essays are quite short; but, as a primer for scholars wanting a rich overview of the field, this can occasion no complaints.

Gaining some kind of perspective on religion and youth is arguably one of the more pressing issues facing today’s Church. Some of the cur­rent missiological initiatives, while appearing to be savvy, are actually rooted in fear, not faith, and ultimately risk becoming glib. What this book highlights is that generational change and its implications for mission remain an under-researched area; and Churches, with what re­search data are available, are often reluctant to discern the signs of the times.

Deep down, perhaps, Churches are afraid of what David Ford terms “the multiple over­whelmings of modernity”, and so too easily cleave to the simplest and quickest panacea to hand. For example, promoting spirituality and soft-pedalling religion easily wins an audience, but does not necessarily win adherents who are to become disciples.

The Church needs continually to find a wisdom that discerns the many ways of en­gaging with youth culture and generational change, ways that are wise, and are practised both generously and courageously.

In this remarkable book, the editors high­light the changes and challenges posed by contemporary youth culture. Churches and religious institutions, in responding, may need to write in the sand more than inscribe on stone. Beliefs and values are not as fixed in generations — or between them — as is often assumed. Change is here to stay.

Canon Professor Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and the Oxford Ministry Course.

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