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In need of a heart transplant

12 January 2018

A recent survey of churches’ views on youth work revealed anxiety and a loss of confidence. Phoebe Hill find reasons to be hopeful


Young people from youth groups across the diocese attend “The Pulse” at Durham Cathedral

Young people from youth groups across the diocese attend “The Pulse” at Durham Cathedral

LOSING HEART is the title of a Youthscape report published a year ago. Its subtitle is How churches have lost confidence in their work with children and young people.

Although the picture is not entirely gloomy, there is no doubt that some churches have lost confidence in their ability to do youth work. For these churches, the numbers of young people coming into church and remaining there are dwindling, leaving a painful gap where teenagers used to be. As much as they would love to work with young people, these churches do not have the resources or the know-how to begin — and perhaps never did.

Our survey, conducted by Christian Research, was completed by 2054 churches, of which 90 per cent were in England, and almost half were Anglican. A quarter of the churches were large (150 or more in the congregation), and 28 per cent were small (fewer than 50). In total, 14 per cent had no young people aged 11-18 at all, and 40 per cent had no volunteer or paid youth workers, leaving 26 per cent with young people but no one to work with them. We suspect that these statistics paint an optimistic picture of what is really going on in the Church in the UK, given that the sample was not representative.

The respondents’ own assessment of their youth work was revealing. Confidence is difficult to measure: it tells us more about how the respondents perceive the success of what they are doing than the actual impact of what they do. Half the churches believed that their youth work was “effective”, while roughly 20 per cent said that their work was neither effective nor ineffective (perhaps indicating a lack of any active youth work), and 30 per cent said that their youth work was “ineffective”. These percentages became more extreme when the findings were split by church size: 41 per cent of the smaller churches said that their youth work was ineffective, compared with 11.2 per cent of larger churches.

The respondents were then asked what worked well in their ministry with young people. Responses ranged from “not much” to “nothing”. When asked what they needed most in their ministry, the tone was similar: “Anything!”, “Everything!”, “A miracle!” The churches’ desperation was almost palpable: they felt out of ideas, and lacking in resources to provide anything for the young people inside or outside their churches.


SO, YES, churches are lacking confidence in their youth work. Yet, up and down the country, thousands of men and women continue to spend time with young people each week, in church halls, community centres, and sitting around dining-room tables. The Church is believed to be one of the biggest voluntary youth-service providers in the UK*, a testament to the many volunteers who quietly and faithfully do their bit for the young people in their community.

There are, therefore, a few questions we must ask ourselves. The first is this: what does effective youth work look like? Given that many churches do not believe their youth work to be effective, what is it that we are expecting of them? If we are expecting hundreds of thousands of young people to flock to our churches, to see young, “cool” youth workers put on astonishing Technicolor worship services with all the trimmings, then we may be disappointed.

But, as far as I am concerned — and I am sure that many church youth workers would agree — effective youth work often looks small (fewer than ten people), and humble (a weekly meeting round a dining-table), and it often does not feel very effective (you sometimes wonder whether you are doing any good at all). And yet it is these humble acts of sharing, of loving, and of being with young people which have proved “effective” in many young people’s lives, and certainly in my own journey of faith.


THE second question to ask ourselves is: who does youth work? In our survey, when asked what their greatest ministry need was, many respondents replied “a youth worker”. But what does this term mean? From my point of view, a youth worker is someone willing to work with young people, often as a volunteer. Yes, God can send workers into the field. Yes, there are many talented youth workers out there who are specifically called and gifted for employed ministry to young people.

But the truth is that there may well be no one else coming: your church may never have the funds to employ a worker. The future of your church youth work cannot rest on your being able to employ someone to work with young people. Given that youth-ministry training colleges are closing, and the numbers of those training for youth ministry are declining**, the future of church youth work looks likely to be volunteer-driven. We need to make the most of what we have available to us, not wait for somebody else to come along. We all need to think outside the box and ask ourselves: Could I do youth work?


THE third question to ask ourselves is this: do we believe in God’s power to sustain his Church? One of the difficulties of the decline narrative and the apparent disengagement of young people from our churches is that we begin operating from a place of anxiety. We become fearful for the future of the Church, and start to think: “Quick! We’ve got to do something! The future of the Church is in jeopardy!” We search high and low for the latest models and “proven” solutions, in a desperate attempt to fix the problem that young people present us with.

The future Church might, indeed, need to look and feel different, but productivity driven by anxiety will not lead us where we need to go. One of the most profound phrases to come from our Losing Heart focus group was that we need to develop a “theology of hope”.

What does it mean to live as people of hope in the face of difficult statistics? How do we do youth ministry from a place of abundance, with Kingdom aims, and not from a place of fear or scarcity? How do we live in the confidence that it is God’s job to sustain his Church, and our job to be in partnership with him, and faithful in reaching out to the next generation?


Phoebe Hill is head of research at Youthscape, and a theology doctoral student at King’s College, London. The Losing Heart report can be read at youthscape.co.uk/research.


*See, for example, Danny Brierley’s Joined Up: An introduction to youth work and ministry (Authentic, 2003), page 12; and Martin Saunders’s Youth Work from Scratch (Monarch Books, 2013), page 29

**Report of the Consultation: Christian Youth Work and Ministry across the UK (Christian Youth Work Consortium, May 2016), page 16. www.cte.org.uk

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