KEEPING children who have grown up in church is important - but the Church must also reach out to young people who "have never ever considered the possibility of faith", the Archbishop of Canterbury's evangelism adviser said last week.
The Revd Chris Russell, Assistant Curate of St Laurence's, Reading, was speaking in response to a new report on church growth commissioned by the Archbishops, From Anecdote to Evidence (News, 17 January). The report spoke of "the increasingly urgent challenge to retain the younger generations in the Church".
"If you look at youth work in terms of church-based youth work, a huge amount has been about the retention of churched young people," Mr Russell said. "So many youth workers know the conflict of being employed by the PCC to retain the children of these parents, and the fact that that is their main job, and I think there has been really amazing, great work in that. . . Of course it is about retaining, but it is also about reaching those young people who have never, ever considered the possibility of faith. It is about seeing young people who have no faith come to faith and become followers of Jesus Christ."
Mr Russell reports that the majority of young people at St Laurence's are non-churched. He described how, eight years ago, despite running lots of activities with about 400 young people, he could "count on one hand the number of young people in one year who had come to faith".
The situation changed after the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, told him: "The reason you are not seeing growth is you are not doing anything that invites commitment." The emphasis is now on moving from initial contact, with about 250 young people a week, to "nurturing".
"We need more significant places of nurture to grow young people," he said. "Young people will not just come into the church building. Prime contact needs to be made outside the church building."
Part of the programme is residential weekends, held three time a year. Last week, Dr Pete Ward, Professor of Theology and Ministry at King's College, London, described how these had been a crucial element in the success of Evangelical and Charismatic churches in engaging young people.
"They have generated activity outside of the parish, where they gather larger numbers of young people together. And they have been doing that for decades. . . It's not rocket science," he said. "I would love to see other parts of the church putting in as much energy."
He gave the example of CPAS, which this year is running camps for 4000 young people, accompanied by 3000 leaders. "Churches that focus on young people and children are seeing fruit," he said. "The thousands of young people going on camps today are the result of a long period of faithful investment by volunteer leaders over decades."
Both Dr Ward and Mr Russell agreed that the report had been important in highlighting examples of growth.
"This isn't about fear of what is going to happen," Mr Russell said. "Evangelism doesn't have its best roots in fear for the future. It's not about 'Let's make people believe the same stuff as we do, let's have a recruitment drive', but about faithful, joyful witness to Jesus Christ."