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Six ways to retain young people

18 November 2022

Teenagers often drift away, but that need not be the case, argues Rob Hudson


IT IS a common experience in churches that a large proportion of young people between the ages of 10 and 13 stop attending worship, so much so that the drop off is almost expected and accepted. But some churches are bucking the trend by investing in this crucial transition age group.

As part of the Church of England’s vision to grow younger, a small team of clergy studied churches of all sizes and traditions around the country which were managing to retain and disciple young people as they entered their teenage years. Six key lessons stood out from churches that were doing this well.

First, look for commitment over passion. We know the feeling — an announcement from the front that the youth group needs more helpers. No one comes forward. It is easy for a church to conclude, “We don’t have anyone here with a passion for youth work.”

Yet, we discovered that commitment to the need to disciple young people is more important than feeling gifted or passionate about working with young people. As one volunteer youth leader puts it, “I never felt called, I simply saw a need and got involved. And God then supplied me with the gifting I needed to do the job.”

Second, reach out to schools. Taking assemblies and helping with lessons can feel like a job too far for stretched churches. The results, though, can be significant, and it need not be a huge time commitment.

One vicar in Welwyn Garden City provides mentoring in her local school. A church in Preston offer the schools in its parish a chance to hold special services in the church. Although members of the congregation from one church we spoke to in Winchester regularly go into 27 local primary schools (!), most are engaging regularly with just one or two, and are finding that being a recognised face in school made it easier for church children to invite friends to youth groups or Sundays.

THIRD, invest in Year 6 (children aged ten to 11). Most of the drop-off in participation for young people happens between Year 6 and Year 8 (aged 11 to 13). Investing as heavily as possible at the start of this stage is something that was focused on by almost all the churches we spoke to.

The form it takes varies considerably, from getting Year 6 children involved by serving in church, or giving them responsibility in helping younger ones, to including them in socials with older age groups, and taking them on a weekend away as a rite of passage. One church in Watford produces simple welcome packs for their Year 6 children to mark the transition point into youth groups.

Fourth, have a hook. Several churches include something a bit out of the ordinary to build expectation for the moment when children can “graduate” into the older youth group. One church in rural Essex serves pre-service breakfast waffles, complete with squirty cream, for their teenagers. Younger children see this happening, and long for the day when they are old enough to enjoy the same experience.

Another church with a choral tradition finds that choir trips and socials build enthusiasm among young people to belong to the group, and the words that they sing offer a natural bridge to talk about faith.

Fifth, invest in children’s and youth workers. Ah, there it is: the conclusion that says that we need to employ someone to have a thriving youth work. Well, not exactly.

It is true that many of the churches managing the Year 6 to Year 8 transition well have paid youth staff; if money is available, spending it here can have a real impact. Yet, plenty of smaller churches with no paid youth staff are excelling here, too. One city-centre church in Leeds puts emphasis on public “Thank yous” to its volunteer leaders to help them feel valued, and socials to knit them together as a team.

Training and equipping youth and children’s workers, both paid and unpaid, makes a real difference in helping young people to stick with church. We need to ensure that there are opportunities and avenues to do this in the Church as a whole.

FINALLY, work with parents. A number of churches we spoke to said that the key to retaining young people in their context is dedicated work with parents to help them to disciple their own children.

One church near Stockport runs “Partnering with Parents” evenings to explore parenting challenges and explain what is being taught to children at church. Another church we spoke to, which, on an average Sunday, has 60 adults and 30 children, expects most Christian parents to join one of the teams that run the youth and children’s groups.

In total, we spoke to more than 50 churches that are defying the statistics and retaining a high proportion of their children across the critical Year 6 to Year 8 transition period. Unsurprisingly, there is no silver-bullet approach, no one-size-fits-all guaranteed method. We were surprised, though, by how frequently these six notes were struck, and how little they relied on a big budget to implement.

The statistics on young people and church often make for grim reading, with so many children drifting away as teens. Yet, many people also know of good-news stories local to them. These six nuggets of wisdom that lie behind such stories could be part of turning the tide.

The Revd Rob Hudson is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Harold Wood, in the diocese of Chelmsford. He is part of a Strategic Leadership Development Programme project on the Growing Younger agenda in the Church of England.


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