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Diocese of London gets £2m to win back its lost youth

06 July 2017


“Genuine interactions”: Youth Apprentices in the diocese of London, including Isaac Wheeler (far left, back row), Beth Dobbs (centre, back row), and Moses Baako (left, front row)

“Genuine interactions”: Youth Apprentices in the diocese of London, including Isaac Wheeler (far left, back row), Beth Dobbs (centre, back row), and M...

THE dearth of teenagers, fewer than 2000, in its churches on Sundays has prompted the diocese of London to seek, and secure, almost £2 million from the Church Commissioners, to take a “radical approach” to the problem.

Over the next five years, £3.3 million will be invested in “Capital Youth”, of which £1.88 million has been awarded in strategic development funding (News, 21 October).

Despite a target set in 2013 to “double the number of young people involved in local Christian community” by 2020 (News, 14 June 2013), the number of under-18s in the diocese’s churches has “remained stable”, a blog from the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, says. “There are some success stories, but we are yet to see a trajectory of growth as the norm.”

Sunday-attendance statistics suggest that there are fewer than 2000 11-to-18-year-olds in churches in the diocese of London, which has 500 worshipping communities, and serves a population of 3.6 million people (of which 1.8 million are defined as Christian, in Statistics for Mission). Average Sunday attendance for all ages is 58,300, of which 10,100 are children (defined as under 16). This is a slightly higher percentage than the national average.

Attendance at midweek school services that take place in church is 11,600, and the 2000 does not include those who attend youth groups or services on other days. The diocese has 150 church schools, which serve more than 52,000 pupils. But a survey of 300 parishes, carried out by the diocese before the launch of Capital Youth, showed no statistical link between a parish having a church school and higher numbers of young people.

The Capital Youth plan includes investing in six “youth minster churches” tasked with “reaching out to unchurched young people”. It is envisaged that up to 1000 young people will be involved, and that they will then “plant or revitalise” eight “youth congregations” to engage another 1000. The churches proposed are: St Andrew’s, Enfield; St John’s, Hoxton; St Peter’s, Harrow; Holy Trinity, Brompton; Christ Church, Turnham Green; and St Saviour’s, Sunbury.

Other objectives include recruiting an additional 20 youth workers. There are already eight “youth advocates” in the diocese, tasked with raising the profile of youth ministry, and eight youth apprentices, who are paid the London Living Wage and work 30 hours a week, while being trained by the YMCA and working towards a degree-level course.

On Tuesday, the Vicar of St John’s, Hoxton, the Revd Graham Hunter, one of the youth advocates, said that the Capital Youth strategy was “cross-tradition. We want young people to be able to serve as acolytes in Anglo-Catholic churches or play in a worship team in Charismatic churches, but make sure those pathways into being involved are really supported.”

St John’s has about 30 teenagers in its congregation and runs a Friday evening service dedicated to 11-18 year-olds.

Previously a youth worker at St Stephen’s, Westbourne Park, Mr Hunter suggested that it should not be possible for a priest to become an incumbent “without having some engagement with how you are going to support mission and ministry with young people”.

It could be argued that the diocese had focused on children’s ministry to a greater extent than that focusing on young people, he said, and had “sometimes surrendered youth ministry to para-church organisations”. It was wrong, he said, to think that you had to be “young and trendy and a youth worker to have an influence on a young person’s faith”.

The Vicar of St Andrew’s, Croydon, the Revd Wealands Bell, who is also a chaplain at the attached secondary school, in Southwark diocese, said that there were four secondary-school-age children in his congregation. Reflecting on the 2000 figure, he pointed to the existence of many other churches, suggesting that “what is perhaps missing is a refusal to think ecumenically but to imagine that the Kingdom stands or falls with the numeric fortunes of the C of E.” In addition to other denominations, there were new churches such as Everyday Church and Love Loud, which “accommodate and nurture the faith of many”.

The number also failed to include “the worship and witness of schools”, which was both “part of the overall life of a parish now” and potentially “seed-corn for the future. . . Many of those who encountered Anglican worship and ethos at school will feel sufficiently familiar with it to return to a parish church.”

For schools struggling to retain staff and keep abreast of curriculum and inspection requirements, “the chances of involving the school in demanding extras, other than things like a carol service, will be harder to bring about,” he suggested. “Besides, with teachers and students often struggling to keep their heads above water as it is, it is of doubtful morality to expect them to make their weekday journey on a Sunday as well, even if they are not involved in the other activities in which, as we know, weekend life now abounds.”

The Organist and Master of the Choristers at Portsmouth Cathedral, Dr David Price, said on Wednesday that reviving children’s choirs should be part of the solution. “It gives them a stake and a role in public worship. I’m a great fan of Sunday school, but they get ushered out, and come back at the end of the service, and haven’t learned to be part of the liturgy.”

Participating in a choir enabled them to “understand how church works, and they are participating with all the other generations”. It was a “tragedy”, he suggested, that children’s choirs in parishes had been “decimated” in his lifetime. Safeguarding concerns and the challenge of finding leaders had contributed.

Portsmouth’s Classroom to Choirstalls initiative is supporting schools and parish churches in reviving the tradition. Children’s choirs could be a form of mission to adults, he said. The mother of one of Portsmouth’s choristers, who is not from a church background, is now considering ordination.


Youth work at St John’s, Hoxton

JULIAN POWELL is youth minister at St John’s, Hoxton, where there are five streams of work under way: a Friday-night service dedicated to 11-18 year-olds; Streetlevel, an open youth group for 11-16s held every Tuesday evening; mentoring; Sunday and mid-week Bible studies; and Creative Me, a pilot programme that enables young people to explore photography and videography.

Streetlevel includes an opportunity to do homework, play games, and “have free space just to be themselves”, he explains. “We put a lot of events around people who are extroverts; there is not always a space where introverts are valued.” Mentoring is in part a response to the high levels of criminal activity in London, and a means of meeting young people’s desire for “someone to look up to”, and to be heard.

ST JOHN'S HOXTONReaching out: the youth minister at St Johns, Hoxton, Julian PowellThe Sunday congregation includes around 30 teenagers, many of whom come without parents. Other young people come to gatherings during the week. “One quote I live by is that our aim is to pull up the gold that is in every single young person that we encounter,” he says. “It’s so important for us to make them feel valued. The fact is we are just people who want to plant seeds.”

In many churches, “there isn’t really an emphasis on young people,” he says. “We say young people are important to us, but I don’t think that young people are a part of the main vision.” An important element in youth ministry is drawing out the leadership potential in young people, he says. “It is about saying ‘Listen — you are the vision. Let’s do this together.’ It’s about empowering them to take on the baton and run with it.” An invitation to church is “more powerful” when it comes from a peer, he suggests. An analogy that he often uses is inviting friends to a house party.

The advice he would give to churches without young people is to “ask yourself what is your vision for the young people in that area. When they come, what is it that they are coming to first of all? What are your values?” It is a question, primarily, of relationship, he suggests. “Make that key the foundation to everything that you do. If you encounter a young person, build a relationship. It may take two weeks or a year, but I would always say, persevere through that.”


Listening to youth apprentices


Beth Dobbs, St Saviour’s, Sunbury

“BEFORE the apprenticeship, I was doing a gap year for Youth for Christ, working with young people. I learned a lot about leadership. The leader at my church saw the passion I had for working with young people and he told me about the apprenticeship, encouraged, and helped me.

“I work in schools as well, and think that there are quite a lot of stereotypes that young people have about what church is. When I talk about it, they are really surprised. In some places, there are not enough things to get them engaged, to come down to their cultural level and draw them in. I try to reach out to them. And also, the idea that they are important. With leadership stuff, I remember thinking I wasn’t old enough, but I’ve seen a lot of potential in young people. They haven’t heard that they can do things now.

“Churches need to go out into the community more, rather than it being separate thing. We started youth church, and a thing that worked really well was getting young people involved in running it and getting them to lead worship. We can learn things from them.”


Moses Baako, St John’s, Hoxton

“I WAS working as in-house supply teacher at school in Wimbledon and training to become a youth counsellor. I started to get a bit frustrated with the school system: everything was very much geared around academics, not investment in the youth themselves. The apprenticeship was posted on Facebook; I applied, and was accepted by the church.

“In most of the places I have been to, the youth almost feel as though they are a means to an end. They don’t necessarily feel valued in and of themselves: it’s almost like they are something to put on display. Some of the issues and questions that they have are not necessarily addressed, and . . . they feel as though they cannot really be themselves in the church, but need to put on persona as they walk through church doors. They start to look elsewhere for these genuine interactions.

“We had a half-term club that we ran with workshops, and that was something that was requested by the youth themselves. We were trying to put something together with their involvement, and it spiralled into a whole initiative that we are running. It drew in both youth within the church and youth that didn’t come to the church. It was listening and meeting a request. The church was coming together to support and value and show love to the youth.”


Isaac Wheeler, St Luke’s, Kentish Town

“I ALWAYS wanted to do children-and-families work within church, but also to do it seriously and develop it as a skill. What caught me about the apprenticeship is that it gives you an opportunity to train and develop seriously. It’s a great balance of practice and theory. You get really strong support from people with experience: theological and spiritual support.

“I think the language [among young people] is very different to what currently the Church is expressing. The willingness to step out into their community and their world is a real display of love. At the same time, it’s not about diluting. Others have really gone with it, to speak their language, and in the end just diluted the whole message of the gospel, just offering what the world is offering.

“I think there is a nervousness, a hesitation. The teenage generation is changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up. Churches are looking for people who are almost peers, who have understanding, and saying ‘You head this — you understand what is going on there.’

“Recently, we took the older kids and partnered with other local churches and went camping to a field in Kent. We were just talking about Jesus, praying, worshipping together. What I loved was it was local. With big events you can get lost in the crowd. When you come back to London it is like that is washed away. There is something deeper about that local feel.”

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