LIKE a scene from the Pied Piper or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, across the Church of England, children and young people are missing.
The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, called for a younger and more diverse Church on his appointment last year. The facts, though, are stark: in 2018, national Sunday attendance figures for under-16s dropped below 100,000 for the first time. The single-church returns showed that 38 per cent of the 903 churches that responded had no under-16s in their congregation at all, and more than two-thirds (68 per cent) had five people or fewer of that age.
The situation has been a cause for concern for years. The General Synod’s 2019 Growing Faith report stated: “Despite regular publication of reports like Children in the Way (1988), All God’s Children (1991), Youth A Part (1996), Going for Growth (2010), and Rooted in the Church (2016), it is not always clear that the Church is sufficiently focused on the engagement in ministry with children and young people, and the appropriate connection between education, mission, and evangelism and discipleship at national, diocesan and parish/school level.”
In 2019, the Growing Faith Adventure was launched by the House of Bishops, in an attempt to tackle that disconnect. “The key thing it’s calling for is culture change,” says the deputy chief education officer for the Church of England, Andy Wolfe. “It’s not a short-term project to be implemented. We’re looking to place children and young people instinctively at the heart of our mission.”
Growing Faith is centred on three spheres of influence on children and young people: church, school, and home, and, more particularly, the relationships between them. “Clearly, there are other spheres of life — friends, peer groups, social media, and so on,” Mr Wolfe says. “But our understanding of young people’s faith is that it’s more likely to grow and be sustained if it happens in these intersections.
“We are being systematic about it, trying to approach it coherently from different angles.” At a national level, he points to the establishment last year of “National Younger Leader Groups”: 200 young people from primary age through to further-education level who have been feeding their views to the Archbishop of York’s vision and strategy work.
“We hope to see increasing representation from younger leaders at every level of leadership and governance,” Mr Wolfe says. There is also a new investment in leadership development through curriculum partnerships with colleges such as Cranmer Hall, Ridley Hall, Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and Trinity, Bristol, focusing on children and young people during training for ordained ministry.
THE Growing Faith initiative is seeking holistic change in the Church of England. Every diocese has designated a senior leader as a Growing Faith champion, and six “trailblazer” dioceses — Coventry, Peterborough, Truro, Durham, Salisbury, and Gloucester — have agreed to pilot different practical initiatives.
On the Walk and Talk, children stop to explore and chat
The diocese of Salisbury, for example, is using its existing connections with local schools to create “community hubs” to “work out how can we develop opportunities for children and young people to grow as disciples of Christ, and to work for the transformation of their communities”, to the diocesan director of mission and ministry, Canon Jonathan Triffitt, says.
The children come up with the vision, he explains, “which the church and school then work together to serve”. In Shaftesbury, young people said that they had nowhere to go outside school hours, and were seen as a nuisance on the streets. Last summer, therefore, the church and schools worked together to set up a gazebo to serve drinks and create a gathering-place.
In Bridport, young people said they felt unsafe to go into town, because of anxiety about county lines and drugs. “None of the adults for one minute had thought they felt unsafe,” he says. Plans are now being drawn up to address these issues.
These response might seem modest, but actively listening to children and young people, and acting on what they say, is one of the goals for every parish outlined in the Growing Faith report. “If what we’re doing isn’t aligned to what matters to them, then we’ve got something wrong,” Canon Triffitt says.
IN TRURO, the challenge is particularly hard. The diocese has the oldest average congregation age in England: in 2016, half were aged 70 or over. Only 11 per cent were aged between 11 and 17.
“Being a trailblazer for Growing Faith is both a push and a pull for us as a diocese,” the Suffragan Bishop of St Germans, the Rt Revd Hugh Nelson, says. It is the emphasis on working in the intersection between church, school, and home that appealed.
Lee ChantlerThe Revd Lee Chantler and his children at the Jesus Well, St Minver Lowlands, Cornwall, one of the sites where they made videos on Cornish saints were filmed
“It’s not about getting children into church, or kids’ workers and ministers into schools, but an imaginative shift,” Bishop Nelson says. “We’re asking: What might a church that takes children and young people seriously look like? How do we design that? What would we need to change to be that?”
So far, that has included making organisational decisions such as appointing their newest archdeacon as “director of intergenerational church”, and asking each deanery to establish a plan for their area that makes children and young people a priority.
“We have no children in our church community at all. In fact, we’ve got nobody under 60,” the Assistant Curate of St Michael’s, Newquay, the Revd Lee Chantler, says. Before the lockdown, he was a familiar figure in local schools. In having to create video versions of acts of worship, he is now engaging with parents and families, and his Lent films — inviting families to make mini-pilgrimages to explore the faith stories of Cornish saints — are being shared across the diocese. It’s a move from measuring faith development by attendance to engagement.
“One of the things that’s come out of this time is how much people have been outdoors,” the director of children and youth in the diocese of Peterborough, Peter White, says.
Besides investing in training for clergy and lay leaders in how to put children and young people at the centre of everything that the church does, the diocese is also paying attention to what has been emerging through lockdown, which has allowed the Church to explore new avenues of possibility, as the realms of church and school have collided into the home.
“Forest church, wild church, muddy church — however you call it — has been one of the exciting things that’s grown: not just doing a church service outside, but actually engaging with nature.”
THE shift from church as Sunday service to church as living presence in the community is key to the long-term success of the Growing Faith project, a youth and children’s ministry consultant, Ali Campbell, says.
“The church, as a building facilitated by clergy, isn’t the dynamic that’s going to change our nation. I don’t think we’re doomed, but, institutionally, we’ve got some challenges unless we completely shift our model.
“I’m excited about what we’ve done during this [pandemic], despite how awful it’s been. Faith has been spilling out of the home, this place of faith, and having an impact on the street and in the communities where people live.”
Anna Naish, a learning-mentor for holistic small groups and loving relationships in the diocese of Coventry, agrees that the home, as a place of faith, is crucial: “We want to move from the idea that children can be taught about God at church or school, so that they can make a decision later, to recognising that children can connect with God and grow in faith now.”
She refers to research conducted by ComRes for the Church of England that found that 76 per cent of Christians who responded said that they had come to faith below the age of 18 (40 per cent before the age of five). The home played a crucial part.
Although Coventry initially identified a few pilot parishes, lockdown has led them to take a diocese-wide approach, creating intergenerational resources that churches and schools have shared for families to use at home, such as a reflection on the Stations of the Cross. Similarly, the diocese of Durham, working through primary-school chaplaincy, is seeing fruit in the overlap between church, school, and home.
The Walk and Talk Mentoring Project at St Mary’s C of E Primary School, Bridport, in Dorset, part of the work of the community hub, gives young people the chance to go on a walk, explore nature, and talk about big issues. They are also given a route card to take home and explore with their families
The diocese’s school-chaplaincy-development and growing-faith adviser, Catherine Simpson, says: “Primary chaplains are fairly thin on the ground, but families are much more closely tied to primary schools. There are lots of opportunities to build relationships with parents and carers, and support them in practical as well as spiritual ways.”
Churches have helped schools with food parcels for families, and offered support to staff. In more normal times, church members have volunteered for gate duty and reading with children.
Mrs Simpson confesses that it does not look exciting on paper. Building relationships was playing the long game and being present “in a really underwhelming way”, she says. “The impact of these things is harder to measure, because it’s not as straightforward as: ‘We did so many assemblies, and a harvest-festival service that had X number of children.’ But I believe the quality of this kind of work is so much better.”
WILL Growing Faith stop the terminal decline in the number of young people and children in the Church of England?
Eighteen months in, and with the disruption of a pandemic, it is too early to say; but Mr Wolfe believes that this is more than another good idea. “We’re confident. We’re not simply saying there should be more youth clubs, or youth services, or school-based clubs, or parenting courses. This is not a project. This is calling for a coherent culture-change, in which the faith of children and young people is more likely to develop.”
The “trailblazers” are discovering that this means training clergy differently; actively seeking out the views of children and young people, and incorporating them into decision-making; and looking to support faith wherever it is rather than expecting people to find it housed in a church building.
As with any significant shift, there are no quick fixes; but Mr Wolfe and others see this moment as an opportunity for a fresh start. How the wider Church responds remains to be seen.