“I HADN’T realised there were other people like me. It’s stopped me giving up on the Church.”
Stephen is typical of many young people around the country — a member of a small Anglican church in which he is one of only a few teenagers. It was not a crisis of faith that had started him thinking about giving up on the Church, but a feeling of isolation.
Being part of a Church of England Youth Council (CEYC) weekend away gave Stephen (and many like him) the chance to form friendships, deepen faith, celebrate difference, engage in leadership, and resolve to continue connecting with other young Anglicans.
Young people yearn for a sense of belonging, love, and relationship, and they have hopes, dreams, energy, skills, and vision that the Body of Christ needs. Yet too often the Church has seemed to legitimise their disappearance from our congregations as “part of growing up”.
The Rooted in the Church research was commissioned by the Church of England’s education office to help parishes to understand some of the factors that help adolescents stay with their faith and the Church (News, 16 December 2016).
What struck me was how ordinary these were: the desire to be equal members of the body of Christ, not members-in-training, or waiting-but-fellow-pilgrims; the importance of inclusion — not always being segregated by age, but being in a community where the generations worship and serve alongside each other; a need for a non-judgemental space in which to explore questions of faith and life, space to discover and shape an identity that might not conform to adult expectations; the importance of leaders who do not strive to be “one of the cool guys”, but who build bridges between generations and are part of the vision-making of the Church.
None of these require huge numbers or financial resources, but they do require a commitment from all generations to build relationships, and to be hospitable and generous.
When we think about families, we must not default to families with children under 11, and we must remember the teenage children of churchgoing families. They observe the difference that faith makes to their parents, even if they are not going to church themselves.
AS A Church, we need to grapple with the importance of supporting families in living out and passing on their faith. We need to keep the lines of communication open with those who have left, and to be generous when they return, because walking back through the church doors can be a terrifying experience.
Work is under way at a diocesan and national level to address some of the challenges set out in this short series. Engaging with unchurched young people is one of the central strands of the Strategic Development Fund, some of which has gone to empowering parish churches.
In Worcester, for example, the money is being invested in mission enablers, who will spend time in a particular church or group of churches, to increase their confidence in work with children, young people, and families (News, 20 January 2017).
In 2016, Jimmy Dale was appointed as the Church of England’s Youth Evangelism Officer, with the specific remit to develop, pilot, and evaluate models of evangelism with and among 11-18-year-olds (News, 12 August 2016). Working with Hope UK, he has helped to develop and deliver Mission Academy Live, a joint venture with Hope UK which offers video-based sessions to help 11- to 18-year-olds become confident in sharing their faith.
Across the country, more than 400 churches have signed up, with an estimated 4000 Christian young people taking part and growing in confidence as they reach out to their friends.
National support and diocesan initiatives have an important part to play in supporting and resourcing this ministry; but it is at a local level where the lasting impact will be made. This might mean that we, as adults, have to change some of our behaviours and attitudes. Young people are not another species: they are our people, first and foremost, made in God’s image and loved by God.
Setting God’s People Free noted that younger people were under-represented in elected membership in the Church. We need to find the right ways to involve them in decision-making. When we embark on a building project, are we asking young people for their ideas?
Once young people know that you are listening, they think hard about what is best for all, not just themselves. There is a generosity of spirit in this generation that delights and thrills me.
At the last meeting of the CEYC, one young man turned up with his knitting: he was making blankets for his local night shelter. This is a generation of young people who want to serve and give back. Are we ready to receive?
Mary Hawes is the C of E’s National Children and Youth Adviser.