IN THE side chapel of an 11th-century church in Reading, St Laurence’s, circled by stone monuments and fairy lights, and beneath a canopy of paper lanterns, about 30 teenagers are gathered on beanbags, listening to Shai, who is 17, and Rianna, who is 16, discuss God.
“Us as young people can hear from God, and our relationship with God is really important,” Rianna observes. Over the next ten minutes, members of the group talk about their experiences of hearing God through music, words, and pictures. It is clearly slightly nerve-racking to talk about something so personal, and it would be easy to break the spell with flippancy, but each story is received respectfully.
These are teenagers opening up in front of their peers about something that is now rare among their peers: Christian faith. Josh recalls seeing a picture he shared with a friend: “I saw him in the middle of a tunnel. God was at one end and his friends were at the other . . . it was telling him he should go to God, and not care what his friends say about him.”
GEOFF CRAWFORDCanon Russell leads the boys’ group on Monday afternoon
When the group is asked whether anyone would like to be prayed for, an initial hesitancy soon dissipates.
“We are all family of God, and as family we will all support one another,” Shai reassures them. Before long, almost all of them are huddled in the middle of the space. A handful of adult hosts are present, but it’s a demonstration of the skill with which young people can sensitively encourage and minister to one another.
When Rianna plays the word association game with “Church”, the most popular response is “family”, followed by “God”, “community”, “caring”, and “Jesus”. The walls are covered in artwork with other words: “Jesus gave me freedom”; “Life renewed”; “Healed”; “Rescued”. Yet she is conscious that if she were to ask her friends, “they would probably say: ‘Boring’.” This was once her experience, she admits. “I think churches should be exciting, and engaging, and be like a family: everyone wants to be there.”
GIVEN that half the churches in the C of E have fewer than five under-16s, the congregation at St Laurence’s, which has about 50 to 60 teenagers on a Sunday, and is in contact every week with 120, is a young one. But the Vicar, Canon Chris Russell, is adamant that it is not a “youth church”.
“We absolutely are not,” he says, in a room overlooking a nave filled with young people who are listening to music, chatting, and playing table tennis. “We are a multi-generational church with young people at our heart.” Since 2015, two Sunday services have been combined into one, so that all ages meet together at 2 p.m.
When he arrived in 2001, with a brief from the diocese to engage unchurched young people, the church had been declining in numbers since the 1970s. The interior was reordered, creating a huge pew-free space in the nave, which is overlooked by a series of glass-walled rooms on a mezzanine floor, and the congregation began praying for opportunities to reach the city’s young.
Today, the church enjoys a strong relationship with two schools in the town, and many of its young people have come through the doors by way of lunch clubs, having previously had no experience of the Church. But it took a challenge ten years ago from the Bishop of Reading at that time, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, to shake things up, Canon Russell recalls.
“He said ‘How many young people became a Christian last year?’ and I said ‘Three.’ And he was like ‘That’s not enough! Seriously, if you guys aren’t seeing loads of young people becoming Christians, what are you doing?’”
The approach is now much more deliberate: those who attend on a Monday are invited to learn about God, and given an opportunity to become Christians. “We say to people here, ‘You know we are Christians. It happens in a church, for crying out loud. But we’d love you to know Jesus; that Jesus loves you, because that is going to utterly transform your life.’”
Young people are reassured that nothing will change the welcome that they receive, he says, but there is a request to “at least give us a hearing on it”.
A RECURRENT theme in conversation with young people in the nave of the church is that they arrived at St Laurence’s with very little or no experience of the Church.
Josh started coming after the church’s youth worker, Chris West (known as “Westy”), came to his school, and invited the pupils to come to the Monday-night youth club. This runs from 6.15 until 7.30 p.m., before “Monday Night Extra”, the group run today by Rianna and Shai, which offers an opportunity to talk about faith.
It takes place against a backdrop of cuts. In 2016, Reading Council announced that it would reduce spending on youth services by £750,000, bringing an end to 27 youth-work sessions that were being used by more than 360 young people.
“I literally had nothing to do, and it’s free,” Josh recalls. “Some youth clubs you have to pay for.” Previously, he had never been to church in his life. “My mum and dad think people who go to church are Bible-bashers. I didn’t have anything against it, but if someone said ‘Come to church’ I would have laughed. . . I remember in Year 6 I went to church to sing at Christmas, but coming to this church was way different. It was fun.”
He has since invited many others (“I don’t really care about what they think about me”) and talks freely about his faith. “I never used to pray: I used to think it was a bit lame. When I started, it helped.” His friend, Tommy, describes it as “like a backbone, someone helping you”.
Courtney also came to the club through her school: “I thought ‘I’ll see what it is about,’ and I came and never left.” She did not grow up going to church, and the first time she came, she remembers thinking “Oh my gosh! What is this? Everyone was so welcoming and it was really nice. I was scared of Westy and Rev. at first, but they have done so much for me.” She was baptised a few years ago.
“After a few years of coming and learning so much about it, what really made my decision was when I heard from God. This was not just something that people made up, and this is how I want to live my life. . . Now, I feel like even when I feel like there is no one to talk to, there always is.”
GEOFF CRAWFORDMonday night is ping-pong night
What advice would she give to churches trying to reach young people?
“It’s not just about trying to force people to go to a church service: it is about building it up. . . It is about going above and beyond. Don’t just be there for, like, church-based things.”
She also recommends pairing teenagers up with young adults in the congregation: “That helped me quite a lot. . . When you go to church, you will always have someone you know. When there is something in church that you don’t know about, you can’t put your hand up. There is someone you can go to.”
Charlie, now 18, was brought by a friend, at the end of Year 11. “I was quite shy; so I would come in and only chat with my friends. It was good, but scary at the same time.”
She became a Christian this year, at the Soul Survivor festival. “There was a big meeting and at the end, they ask whether anyone wants prayer. I had to go to the front; then everyone said this prayer.”
She likes it that teenagers and adults gather together at St Laurence’s on Sunday. “They ask our opinions, which is good. They let us run the youth club now, with our ideas. We host that now.”
Casey, serving drinks today, was baptised a year after first coming to the church, having previously never been before. “It didn’t seem that strange,” he recalls. “It made a lot of sense. Everyone has lots of questions, and it does provide a lot of answers.”
He considers his peers to be “divided. I think a lot of people probably do believe, and there are so many people who are involved in the church.”
“THERE is a majority of young people in this country who are growing up with no idea at all about Christian faith or about church,” Canon Russell says. He recalls talking to one girl who “looked like she had seen a ghost”, about one month after first coming to St Laurence’s. “She had just been told Jesus was actually a real person. . . She said: ‘I thought it was a fairy tale, like Disney.’” There is “something beautiful about that”, he suggests. “They are hearing the gospel for the first time. . . The idea that God’s interested in them and God might love them — they are like ‘What? No one loves me!’”
Shauna, who first came four years ago and was baptised a year ago, recalls that the church felt “very welcoming. It felt like a big family reunion. You feel safe here.” But she also remembers wondering “Who are they even talking about? This person is not even real. If he’s real, where is he? You can’t even see him.”
GEOFF CRAWFORDShai, 17, leads Monday Night Extra
Canon Russell is conscious that, if God is no longer familiar, other things have filled the vacuum. “They are brought up by the culture . . . It might be they don’t have assumptions about church and God, but they have assumptions about what life’s about, and what they’re about, and where they find their identity, about what’s worth while in life . . .
“The toll of life on young people in this culture is crippling. . . There’s a reason that mental health [conditions] are at epidemic levels as they are.”
Employing a youth counsellor is one one of the ways in which St Laurence’s is addressing this. Young people can be referred to Zanelle Brackin, or approach her directly: she is available all day on Monday, and in the evening. Young people can see her as many times as they need to, and have arrived with issues including “pressure, anxiety, family . . .”. Faith is discussed if the young person brings it up, and wants to talk about it.
Sherlon, 18, who was brought to the club by a friend, five years ago, speaks readily about the stresses faced by his age group.
“How society says you have to be is the main thing. You have to wear this, like this; you have to be popular. Also bullying and stuff: that is massive. Judging people because of how they look. And jealously — everyone wants to be perfect, but they don’t realise that no one is perfect.” He is also conscious of anxieties about money: “People not having enough and are struggling to get by.”
Before returning three years ago, he stopped coming to St Laurence’s for a year. “We would talk about faith and Christianity, but I wouldn’t listen. I was just there for the fun. Then I stopped coming for a year, maybe longer, and got into lots of bad stuff. Then I stopped, and started coming back, and getting more involved in everything. . . They were praying for me regularly. It took me three years to get baptised.”
Today he has seen a change in his life — “I started praying, and seeing changes and obviously things that would not make sense unless it was because of God. My life changed a lot” — and he hopes to bring people to God and help people to grow in faith through dance and education: “to show people that we do not have to be perfect”.
GEOFF CRAWFORD“It is about going above and beyond,” says Courtney
His advice to churches is: “Get out more. Go out into the community. Host events. Throw parties. Even if you have redecorated, use it as a space like this, or rent a hall. Get a youth worker. Get the main focus the youth. You have to bring them all together. . . Also get adults to join in and help out.”
Some of the best volunteers at St Laurence’s are retired, Canon Russell reports. “We are not doing youth work with young people,” he says. “We are inviting young people into the family of God. That isn’t about programmes, and that isn’t about particular evenings. Young people need to belong to the People of God, and the People of God are old and young.”
It’s striking that the activities at the club, chosen by young people, are not particularly modern. Although house music is pumping out from speakers, most are playing table tennis, drinking milkshakes, and chatting on sofas. When Josh summons everyone for a game, it is not on the PS3 console, but Sardines. The lights are turned off, they all cram into one of the glass-walled offices, and then they are gleefully racing out to hide in the dark recesses of the church.
It is a reminder that they are still children. And among them are those facing difficult issues. Some have been threatened with being kicked out of their homes.
How much does the Church have to change to reach young people?
Mr Russell is conscious that he enjoys a privileged position — “I’m a Church of England vicar; we’ve been given a medieval church building; we have spent all our money on this, and everything we do is around this” — but believes that the Church needs to face up to the “huge challenge” that it faces with young people.
MADELEINE DAVIESSherlon, 18, wants to use dance to pass on what he has learned
“If we can look at that and say we are not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary, then, frankly, I’m not convinced it’s Jesus we are following. We just don’t have a choice in this. This isn’t just a ‘Well, this doesn’t fit in.’ If we live our life for ourselves, then in what way is that Christian? In what way is preserving the Church in the state that I feel most comfortable with it a Christian option?”
He is convinced that “there is absolutely nothing that we are doing that hasn’t been done and can’t be done. . . What we do here is offer meaningful and significant relationships with young people within a multi-generational community. These young people know they matter to us. . . How these young people are treated by us is how they can comprehend being treated by Jesus Christ.”
Amid high-level conversations about numerical decline, he is anxious to reject talk of “self-survival”.
“The commitment we should have to evangelism, proclaiming the good news of Jesus, isn’t because we want to guarantee ourselves a future. This isn’t why we are committed to young people. We are committed to young people because Jesus Christ came, taught, healed, suffered, died, and rose again for every single one of these young people, and they live life completely ignorant of everything that Jesus has done for them. That is why we should care.”