THE average attendance by children (defined as being under the age of 16) at Church of England services fell by 22 per cent between 2006 and 2016, the latest Statistics for Mission show (News, 20 October). In the smallest 25 per cent of churches, the average weekly attendance by children — at church services or Fresh Expressions on Sundays or weekdays — was zero.
If you can drag your eyes away from the attractive infographics hailing the reach of the C of E on social media, these statistics are more than sobering: they are devastating. Writing in the bulletin Resourcing Mission, published on the Church Growth Research and Development website in 2011, the Revd Dr John Walker wrote that the C of E was in the “Last Chance Saloon”. Six years later, the saloon doors are swinging shut for the last time.
WHAT I find most troubling is the lack of response from the C of E to the almost overwhelming recent research that identifies why the Church is losing its children and young people at such a rate.
A glance at almost any research into faith formation and faith transmission over the past decade should have led to wholesale change: a paradigm shift in focus and intent.
A report, Passing On Faith, published by Theos in 2016 (News, 4 November 2016), conducted an extensive study of existing literature on the subject of faith transmission. Fifty-four studies were examined. It reinforced what had been asserted by people in children’s ministry for years: that foundations for faith are laid in early childhood, and the part played by, and the responsibility of the family is central to faith transmission.
A report, Generation Z, published last May by Youth for Christ, found that, when young people were asked who or what influenced the way that they thought about faith and religion, 73 per cent who believed in God said their family. Just nine per cent said youth workers.
The home environment matters; family matters; the faith community as a whole matters for the nurture, faith development, and discipleship of young people. Yet the Church is failing them. As Professor David Voas says in his report for (yes, for) the C of E’s “Church Growth Programme” in 2014, “The problem is not adults’ leaving the Church: it is that half of the children of churchgoing parents do not attend when they reach adulthood.”
The most damning of recent stats in relation to faith transmission comes from the European Values Study. When asked what was especially important for children to learn at home, just 11 per cent of people who identified themselves as Anglicans put “Religious faith”. On average, people who considered themselves Anglican seemed unconcerned about passing faith on to the next generation.
With all this evidence — much of it not news to those of us working at the coalface of children’s and youth ministry — it is deeply depressing and scandalous that the C of E, nationally, has not made engaging with the nurturing of faith in the home and family of paramount importance for effective mission.
There needs to be a paradigm shift in the Church’s thinking and our practice. Fewer “mission statistics” that measure church attendance, but more tools and activities that see us develop vibrant “households of faith”.
We do not even have to create the tools: numerous organisations are already doing it, such as Care for the Family, which has developed the “Faith in the Family” initiative; New Wine’s “Where the adventure begins”; and the Bible Reading Fellowship, which has established “Parenting for Faith”, a dedicated team to resource churches in equipping parents for passing on faith. In 2016, Children Matter launched “Faithfull Generation” to give churches confidence and encouragement for engaging with children and families and reconnecting the generations.
WHAT might be done at a national level? The work of Setting God’s People Free could have a focus on faith transmission in the home; the General Synod should set aside time to explore faith in the home with some urgency; there should be a lead Bishop for “faith transmission”, exploring how we pass on faith through the generations; and the Archbishops could speak more about this and encourage a national conversation that leads to practical action and engagement.
Let the Church of England grasp this; so that homes of living and vibrant faith spring up across the nation. If we do not do this soon, then it will not be only the smallest 25 per cent of churches which have zero children. And the only way in which children or young people may be able to engage with the Christian faith will be to log on and follow one of the C of E’s booming social-media accounts.
Ali Campbell is a youth and children’s ministry consultant, and a former youth adviser for the diocese of Chichester.
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