*** DEBUG END ***

Growing up, and so is their church

26 April 2024

Blackburn was a centre of creativity in the Industrial Revolution. Is that spirit now abroad in its churches, asks Clive Price

Dr Duff (back row, centre) with Mrs Gardner on her left, and young people from St Luke’s

Dr Duff (back row, centre) with Mrs Gardner on her left, and young people from St Luke’s

YOU don’t need skinny jeans and the latest haircut to reach children and young people: all you need is love, says the Revd Jason Gardner.

It might be a youth-work cliché, but it’s among the key ingredients of a mission cocktail that is stirring at his church, St Luke’s, Blackburn.

A towering Gothic structure on the old main road to Preston, it was built 150 years ago to serve a growing population when Britain was the workshop of the world.

Jump to the post-industrial present. A brand new housing estate has replaced the old mill terraces near by. Until recently, 30 people attended services at St Luke’s. Over the past two-and-a-half years, their number has grown to 150 — and one third of them are under 16.

In the new wave of worshippers is a schoolboy who used to loiter in what he called the “dangerous” streets before being welcomed to church. “Ever since, we’ve been part of the family,” he says on a promotional video.

Another teenager, asked by a leader about a favourite church activity, said: “I like the blood-and-bread bit. That was really good. It made me feel like I was part of the family.”

Creating a fresh experience for young people is drawing in adults, too. A woman said: “If kids are allowed to make that much noise in a church, then people like me are welcome, too.”

The congregation is very local. Many of them walk 100 metres or less to church from their houses. Teenagers come on their own — though some also bring their parents.

THESE developments are the result of an initiative in Blackburn diocese to develop two multi-generational “resourcing churches” — one in Blackburn, one in Blackpool — to promote a younger and more diverse leadership, and help to revitalise church life in the diocese.

The Church Commissioners made a grant of £3.5 million for the Lighting Up New Generations project. The first step was the licensing of Mr Gardner, Assistant Curate at St Luke’s, as resourcing church leader in July 2021, and his wife, Rachel, as youth innovation lead. And the Revd Andy Dykes is now a resourcing-church leader at St John’s, Blackpool, with a focus on social-transformation projects.

The Bishop of Lancaster, Dr Jill Duff, heads the initiative. “It’s not a management project,” she says of St Luke’s. “It’s not how funky a service you can make. For me, it’s a work of the Spirit.” She says that the previous Vicar, the Revd Cath Brooks, prayed ten years ago for St Luke’s to be a “youth-focused church”. That prayer was the start.

The congregation of St Luke’s is described as developing into an intergenerational family

As part of the scheme, the main building has been completely remodelled, and a new church hall has been created to facilitate youth, family, and community activities.

“It’s a highly deprived parish,” Mr Gardner says. “We wanted to breathe fresh life back into the church, into the estate, and also to connect with several schools on our doorstep.” These include St Wilfrid’s C of E Academy, a couple of hundred metres away.

The aim was to build on existing connections with schools, “to seek fresh growth among people that don’t attend church normally”. A great deal of schools work and local outreach followed, he says; and the existing congregation responded wholeheartedly to the challenge to become more welcoming to other generations.

“Quite a core of the people who’ve been coming here for decades have stayed with us and have journeyed with us, and have just been so excited . . . to see families and children come in, and really engaging on Sundays and throughout the week as well,” Mr Gardner says.

HOW do they ensure that they meet the various needs of the different generations? The key is for the church to act like a family, they say: the older looking out for the younger; the younger valuing the input of the older. “We create that family feel,” Mr Gardner explains.

When working with children and young people, consistency in building relationships is viewed as important. St Luke’s leads regular collective worship in three or four primary schools, and also runs lunch clubs at St Wilfrid’s. “We do lots of wonderful ‘stepping-stone’ things,” Mr Gardner explains. “We’ll meet them in one place and say, ‘Why don’t you come to this?’”

St Luke’s also makes the most of Christian festivals. It took a roadshow to five primary schools before Christmas, with a “mini-pantomime” about the story behind the festival. This was followed by church events, including a “carol mash-up” and a live nativity with real donkeys. More than 200 people attended the carol service.

The sense of fun carries on at weekly services. “We do Messy Church every Sunday,” Mr Gardner says, “because it’s just a wonderful mess.”

The Revd Jason Gardner at St Luke’s, Blackburn

Services include action songs; something to engage everybody to think, “like a mini quiz or a big discussion question about something significant around our faith”; a 15- to 20-minute tea or vape break; then time when the congregation “break into our groups”, Mr Gardner says.

“We work hard in our welcome and trying to put people at ease. For us, it’s important that people feel like they’re coming into an environment where they know they’re not going to be judged or shushed. It’s a little bit unruly.” He jokes that they are “a Blue Peter church — but not quite as polished”.

Family and community engagement is important, and mid-week events are held, such as a community kitchen. “We’re not going to wait for people to come here,” Mr Gardner says. “We are a youth resourcing church. But, for us, that’s reaching the families and supporting them as well.”

The church also arranges family-style outings. For February half-term, St Luke’s booked tickets and a couple of mini-buses for a trip to a safari zoo. “That’s encouraging for families around here, to know we’re here for them and to bless them,” Mr Gardner says.

They look to cater for mature Christians in the congregation, as well as for those wanting to explore more about faith. “It’s about being intentional on Sundays, and saying we are family. We have a kind of church mission statement, which is: ‘We are a family on a mission to love God, love each other, and love God’s world.’”

Tips for youth mission from St Luke’s

  • Be consistent: follow up outreach with other events.
  • Take it to the streets: get into café conversations and estate engagement.
  • Make connections: work on links with local primary schools and academies.
  • Feast on the festivals: use Christmas and Easter to reach families with fun events.
  • Be welcoming: let people in with all their quirks and concerns; no judging or shushing.
  • Allow mess: God is still at work, even if it’s fun and unruly.
  • Spread the focus: empower both young people and their parents.
  • Take breaks: split the service in two if this helps young people engage more.
  • Create community: offer mid-week events and family-focused days out.
  • Be intentional: re-imagine and redesign church to suit people.
  • Mix it up: make lots of small changes as you adapt to your congregation, rather than thinking it’s just one big transformation that is a key to growth.
  • Spread the word: share your stories, and help other churches on their journey, too.

Clive Price is a freelance writer and editor, and part-time communications manager for the London-based charity MMHS.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)