PRAYER is the most effective way of encouraging children to attend church, a new report from the Scripture Union suggests.
The charity estimated that 95 per cent of children did not regularly attend church during its 150th anniversary, last year. The statistic led to the launch of the “95 campaign” to research and fund ways of increasing the figure.
The findings of the campaign, delivered in two phases, were published in the report The 95: Mission possible, on Saturday.
Phase one identified projects and activities aimed at the 95 per cent. This included 253 events organised by Scripture Union staff, 50 projects funded by grants from the Good News Fund, and 1305 activities identified in a census of 319 children and young people in England and Wales.
The success of these activities in engaging children with church and Christian life was calculated by the type of activity and overall participation, and how many of the children in attendance did not regularly attend church. The second phase tested these findings by interviewing leaders of 67 of the projects.
Researchers found that projects that offered children prayer support were more likely to meet their objectives, such as to change the behaviour and attitudes of children and increase finances and volunteers to help the project increase mission in the wider community.
This was more apparent in project teams that had a clear vision and a set of agreed objectives. “Teams frequently had very limited finances and people-power,” the report says. “It was therefore important that objectives were clear so that work could be prioritised effectively.
“Teams that were well-prepared felt more confident about what they were doing, and were more likely to report that they had met their objectives.”
The national director for the Scripture Union, Tim Hastie-Smith, said: “It [is] vital that God is not hidden in the heart of our church buildings. This research reminds us that prayer is vital to success in God’s work, and that programmes and missions are meaningless unless they meet real, felt needs.”
Projects which responded to the needs of the community, focused on relationships over the activity itself, and had a “distinctively Christian approach” — such as a focus on Bible reading, worship, and prayer — were also more effective in engaging children in mission, it says.
Mr Hastie-Smith continued: “Mission cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to community engagement. While theory and best practice can provide helpful foundations, we have to learn, adapt, and be agile to those in the community.”
The Scripture Union has listed recommendations in response to the findings. These include having support from project leaders and the wider Christian community.
“Lack of support was cited as the biggest challenge,” it says. “For paid workers, effective line-management often posed a challenge. Groups that felt the mission was integrated into the life and vision of the Christian community were more likely to meet their objectives.”
Experience working with partners was also key to success. “In theory, multi-church or multi-agency projects that pooled resources, finances, and volunteers had more potential to be sustainable.
“However, there were a number of factors that contributed to either the challenge or success of collaborative projects: the practical difficulties of two identities agreeing vision, line management, day-to-day decisions and working pattern, tensions where a member of staff worked across a number of churches but worshipped at one.”
Scripture Union also emphasised the importance of appointing local, experienced leaders and volunteers who were likely to stay in both the project and community. “A wide range of volunteer ages were recorded among successful projects, challenging the myth that you have to be young to work with children and young people.
“Many successful missions carefully considered the age, experience, and role of volunteers to help them find the right fit. There were challenges for different volunteer groups, e.g. young and lacking in experience, elderly and lacking in confidence; both required additional but different support and training.”
One Scripture Union development worker, Lucy Pearson, led a new residential event in the north of England for young people who did not go to church. “We did lots of adventure activities, which were great fun, but what we really wanted was for the young people to experience God in a personal way that would help them understand who God is.
“One 13-year-old year girl bounded up to me, bursting with excitement, ‘I did it! I did the abseiling, and I did the caving!’ The thought of stepping over the edge of a bridge and crawling through darkness were things that would usually petrify her, but, as she trusted in God, she found that God was right there with her.
“‘Do you think it’s the same with life?’ she asked, ‘like when we have to do scary things, God is with us then, too?’ We talked about some of the difficult things she would have to face when she returned home, and she was not looking forward to going back. But now she knew that she would be going into each situation with a God who loved and cared for her, and would always be with her whatever happened.”