ROUGHLY half the Anglican churches in the UK have fewer than five under-16s in their congregations (48 per cent), and a significant portion of the rest have no children or young people at all. But, as bald as that fact is, it is not new news.
This may be one of the most recent statistics, taken from the Church Growth Research Programme’s 2015 report From Anecdote to Evidence; but the English Church Census first highlighted a decline in young people as long ago as 1988: an average of 300 15-to-19-year-olds leaving per week in 1988; more than 900 per week by the 1998 census. Nearly 20 years on, From Anecdote to Evidence states that “Retaining children and youth is critical; it’s easier to raise people as churchgoers than to turn the unchurched into attenders.”
Last November, the Church of England published its own report on this, Rooted in the Church, after surveying teenagers, young adults, and parents around the country to ascertain why some young people stay within their church community, and others leave — most critically at the ages of 13, 16, and 18.
The overarching theme of their findings was that churches that did well in keeping their young people were the ones that were most inclusive.
“What we found was that what helped [young] people stay connected was when they felt needed and wanted. When people — including young people — are included in the decision-making and boring everyday stuff of being a church community,” the Children and Youth Adviser to the Archbishops’ Council, the Revd Mary Hawes, says.
Two other reports published in November 2016 also looked at identifying the underlying reasons for the continued exodus. Losing Heart concluded that churches were more likely to offer some form of children’s work, such as a Sunday school, than youth work; that many were failing to talk about issues that young people wanted to discuss (including mental health, world faiths, and sex and relationships); and that only half the churches surveyed spent any time regularly talking to their young people about basic beliefs. One of the main conclusions was that churches had lost confidence in working with young people.
Martin Saunders, the deputy CEO of Youthscape and author of Youthwork from Scratch: How to launch or revitalize a church youth ministry (Monarch Books, 2013), believes that this is partly to do with the pace of cultural change, fuelled by digital technology. “The Church has been completely unprepared for this titanic shift, and I think young people scare some adults because they feel there’s a digital barrier between them [that] they can’t understand.
“It’s possible we’ve written off the current generation of young people, because we don’t feel we can understand them, to concentrate on children’s ministry in the hope we can hang on to them.”
Another report, Passing On Faith, highlighted that the family was still central to the transmission of faith.
It also uncovered, however, that only 31 per cent of British parents hoped that their children would believe the same things about God as they did. That figure rose to only 36 per cent among the responses of self-declared Christians.
While this figure was 69 per cent among those who attended church once a month or more, the author of the report, Olwyn Mark, stated, in a blog about it, that the overriding challenge for families and the Church centred on “parents’ apparent reluctance to exercise this influence, and their perceived indifference towards the spiritual outcomes of their children.
“It [thus] falls to faith communities themselves to provide the necessary resources to respond to this challenge.”
The youth and children’s ministry consultant and former youth adviser to the diocese of Chichester, Ali Campbell, says: “It boils down to saying we’re not making disciples. If that’s the Great Commission, then, basically, all of us are failing.”
For Mr Saunders, this means something beyond religious education or communicating the doctrine and statements of faith. “We want to encourage churches to give young people the opportunity to participate in the life of faith straight away, without them having to believe. To let them try some of those ancient spiritual practices and to give them a faith they can touch, feel, taste and smell, rather than just one they understand intellectually. In other words, we need to introduce them to the presence of God.”
Paul Windo, of the youth organisation Urban Saints, says: “Discipleship starts when a person begins a faith journey. It’s about being guided and accompanied so that when you get to a situation where you have questions, you can ask them without feeling judged, and work out answers together that work in the real world.”
ALL three reports also highlighted that there were many churches being creative in the way they shifted culture to be more inclusive of young people and their families. Losing Heart found that, while one in eight churches had seen a decline in the number of young people over the past year, two in eight had seen an increase.
For some churches, the solution was to employ youth, children’s, or family workers — Losing Heart reports that a third of churches have at least one of these — and Rooted in the Church supports the notion that youth workers make ideal “bridge people” between children and teenagers and the wider body of the church.
Nevertheless, that leaves 66.7 per cent of churches without any specialist work in this area. The Youthscape report found that 30 per cent of churches felt that they needed more helpers or leaders, and a further 15 per cent suggested that an employed worker was their greatest need.
‘We know that, since the recession, churches have significantly cut funding to youth ministry; organisations have seen their funding cut; and national institutions have pulled out of youth ministry,’ Mr Saunders says. “A lot of churches that used to have youth ministry either now have nothing, or have squashed it together with children’s ministry.”
Far from seeing this as a threat, Paul Windo, of Urban Saints, sees it as an opportunity. “If we’re really going to see young people grasp hold of church — and, more importantly, their faith — then it needs to be something the whole church is involved in. It’s not sustainable for one youth worker, or even a small team, to do all of it,” he says.
“You can’t have a whole life-transformational effect on a young person in two hours a week,” Mr Saunders says. “It does need parents to be on their game, and other members of the church and key volunteers to also be thinking about the spiritual formation and development of our young people.
“The role of the paid youth worker needs to shift to fostering an environment where the whole church is able to take responsibility for youth work. That’s about empowering, equipping, finding, and inspiring volunteers; about engaging with families and helping parents to understand the role that they might play in faith at home; and about getting alongside, and building relationships with, key young people, and promoting young leaders from within.”
In a survey that Youth For Christ (YFC) conducted with 200 young people, asking what they looked for in a youth worker, 85 per cent of those questioned said “A parent or grandparent-like figure”. “We so often have this picture of a young 20-something in youth ministry,” the director of resources at YFC, Phil Knox, says. “But it’s not what young people are after.”
Sara Alexander is a part-time youth worker for St Michael’s, Newhaven, on the south coast, who takes this kind of holistic approach to her work.
“Relationships are key to keeping young people in church,” she says. “We run an open youth club and Messy Church. At Messy Church, we also provide a hot cooked meal for parents and their children. It helps meets the needs of busy parents, and build whole family relationships. We’ve seen cross-over into youth work and the church through this.”
The Youthscape report gives a case study of “Open House”, an intergenerational youth project where teenagers from Oasis Academy John Williams, in south Bristol, spend time with, and play games with, older people. “This model might work for ageing congregations who aren’t sure what they can offer to young people,” it says.
Ms Hawes speaks of a small rural church that opened its hall and offered hot drinks to young people on their way home from the school bus.
“It’s not about having a mega-congregation or mega-resources, though those can sometimes help,” she says. “It’s about making a change that says the church sees young people as people who are a vital part of the community, with something to offer.”
There are other ways in which youth and children’s ministry might look different. Tim Friend, from CPAS, believes that it is about looking beyond the church walls.
“Lots of churches are realising that they can’t just expect young people to walk through their doors. Sports clubs, estates, and schools are good places for the church to be present. Church isn’t just ‘in here’. It needs to be ‘out there’.”
Loyd Harp is a full-time youth worker in Rudgwick, West Sussex, a village of about 3500 people. “All the youth work is paid for by the parish church, but over half my time is spent with non-churched young people in our youth centre,” he says.
“We still don’t see massive numbers of people from non-church backgrounds coming into the life of the church, but it does happen, little by little, and we’ve had a few young people involved in the youth centre who’ve made the journey to involvement at church. But we understand that the youth centre is church in its own right for them.”
Ms Hawes believes that changing the culture of churches to include young people will be for the good of the whole church, and will help everyone to feel more connected, not just children and young people.
“We find it easier to focus down on an age group,” she says. “But fostering a culture of welcome and hospitality for all ages, including children and young people, is about how we become intergenerational communities, and together become good news for our towns, villages, and cities.”