Even prior to Covid-19, the number of children and teenagers attending church services in the UK was in steep decline. But after a year like no other, is the answer going back to the way we’ve always done things, or is it time for a fresh approach?
It was a tweet that first caught my eye. Rachel Gardner, a director at Youthscape and widely accepted doyenne of all things young people, posed this question to the twittersphere: “I’m about to tell a bunch of amazing ordinands that they’re the church leaders who will either preside over the death or resurrection of youth ministry. Is that too harsh? How do we sow seeds of hope while also express the seriousness of investment in youth ministry NOW?!”
It was a provocative statement. Suggesting that young people – and for the purposes of this article, read children too – may become an endangered species in Church within our lifetime is a horrifying thought. But is it really as bad as all that?
Nearly three-quarters of young Britons now identify as having no religion. The number of under 16s in the Church of England has fallen by 20 per cent in five years. Three-quarters of Anglican churches have less than five under 16s in their congregation and just over a third have none. There is less data available for other denominations but Youthscape believe the picture is not much better elsewhere and in some quarters, it’s worse. If something is not done to halt the decline, they conclude in a recent report, we could hit ground zero within a decade: children and young people could be entirely absent from our churches.
A YEAR, INTERRUPTED
Youthscape’s bleak assessment was made before the arrival of Covid-19. The pandemic caused our usual ways of doing children’s and youth work to stop. Some of our Sunday morning kids’ ministries and midweek youth groups moved online, but much else – Messy Church, outreach clubs and parents and toddler sessions – was put on pause. Even now, many are yet to restart.
So what has been the impact of a year, interrupted? Tim Alford, director of Limitless, the national youth arm of Elim, confesses that things have not gone quite as he predicted: “When we started to go into lockdown last March, I assumed that youth ministry would be fine. I thought, this is the Wi-Fi-in-your-pocket generation; young people will take to this like ducks to water. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Alford says that all the evidence points towards a steady decline in online engagement among young people as lockdown progressed, despite being the generation best suited to embrace it.
For Alford, the explanation for this lies not in the quality, creativity or commitment of youth and children’s workers, but in deeper discipleship issues that predate the pandemic. “I think what has been exposed,” he says, “is that our models haven’t been effective in raising robust, independent followers of Jesus. Attendance and discipleship are not the same. Because if we did have robust disciples who were passionate about Jesus, who knew how to spend time with God on their own, who knew the scripture, who knew how to open it and hear from God, we wouldn’t be worried.”
Unsurprisingly, those on the margins of Church were the first to tune out, he says, citing the young people without Christian parents who could encourage (or nag!) them to attend online Bible study and the vulnerable children whose only connection to church was via youth group or schools-based activities.
“That tells us something really important,” Alford continues. “Young people need spiritual parents more than spiritual programmes. There’s a mandate on all of us – not only youth workers – to give our attention to raising up spiritual parents with an intense commitment to passing on the gospel to the next generation, rather than volunteers who help us to maintain programmes.”
Young people need spiritual parents more than spiritual programmes
It is a view shared by Rachel Turner, director of Parenting for Faith, who worries that our current models focus too heavily on segregated activities. This does little to empower parents and carers to pass on faith, she says.
Forty-two per cent of Christians attribute their faith to growing up in a Christian home, according to Care for the Family. When Youth for Christ quizzed Generation Z on what or who influenced the way they thought about religion, 73 per cent said family.
Despite this, Turner says, our current models have produced a situation where “you have families who aren’t used to feeling the weight of saying: I get to disciple my kids, I get to help them meet God, and the church is the extension of that. Instead, the church is the centre of that. There’s this idea that if you can get your kids to church, that’s the most important thing.” The concept of the Church as the expert, and Sunday morning as the one hour of the week where children and young people receive all of their spiritual input is at odds, Turner argues, with what the Bible says. In Deuteronomy 6:7, parents are encouraged to teach God’s commandments to their children as part of everyday life: “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
Alford cites Paul’s words: “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). By choosing familial imagery and emphasising the importance of sharing our whole lives, Paul was making an important point, Alford says. Children and young people need to see faith modelled, lived and breathed. They need adults in their lives who will walk and talk with them, remember their birthdays and when their exams are, ask after them when they spilt up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, celebrate their successes and share their struggles.
Neither Alford or Turner are suggesting that youth groups or Sunday schools are bad. Presenting the gospel in an age-appropriate way has its benefits (we shouldn’t expect toddlers to sit through a sermon designed for adults). But the experts are agreed that our church programmes, clubs and activities have their limitations. They are labour-intensive, relying on teams of staff and volunteers who, ultimately, have a limited amount of contact time. They can only scratch the surface of what it takes to do real, whole-life discipleship.
A NEW MODEL
Post-Covid, we must look again at how we pass on faith to the next generation, or risk losing them forever. Parents and carers, youth and children’s workers and all of the adults in the wider Church community have a vital role to play. For too long, too much emphasis has been placed on church activities alone.
“We mustn’t just pick up the same model and think that we’re going to get different results,” says Alford. “Discipleship is not something that can happen from a platform. It’s something that can only happen when we do life together. Could you imagine a children’s and youth ministry where you had a spiritually mature ‘parent’ for every two or three young people, who was committed to a long-term journey of investing their life into raising up spiritual sons and daughters? How much more effective would our ministry be?”
Turner adds: “Churches have historically seen the discipleship of children and young people as a children’s and young people’s specialist problem. I see it as an adult discipleship issue.” In her 2018 book It Takes a Church to Raise a Parent (BRF) she speaks of the role that whole church communities play in passing on faith. The approach has solid benefits. Age-appropriate children’s and youth work takes place within a wider Church culture that values multigenerational faith and resources it accordingly. Parents and carers are supported to develop the skills and confidence to do everyday faith well, but do not shoulder that responsibility alone. All adults in the wider Church community – including grandparents and those without children – come alongside families and commit to loving, supporting and sharing their lives, not just the gospel, with the children and young people in their church family.
You are absolutely needed in the life of children and young people. Now
For many adults, building relationships with children and young people can seem fraught with difficulty. Teenagers can be especially scary. Abdicating to those whose ‘specialism’ it is or who are ‘called’ to children’s work can seem attractive. But Turner encourages us to put our own discomfort aside for the greater good of the next generation “You are absolutely needed in the life of children and young people,” she says. “Because of your stories, of how you walked with God, because of what is happening in your life. They need to be loved by you and be allowed to see your authentic life with God. There are kids who need your coming alongside them, your welcoming, and your empowerment.” It’s especially true for the children and young people in our churches that do not have adults at home who can spiritually parent them.
REAL WORLD FAITH
My own faith journey began at 13. My parents were not Christians and had recently separated due to my dad’s drug abuse and an extra-marital affair. When I recall the faith of my teenage years and why it stuck, my strongest memories are not of events or gatherings, but of sitting on my youth leader’s settee and crying, of them being available to me, holding my hand and praying for my parents. I remember a man in my congregation writing me a long letter, encouraging me in my faith. I thought it slightly odd at the time, but nearly 30 years later, it still sticks in my mind and reminds me that God knew me and saw me, even when I did not want to be seen. I remember how the women welcomed my mum when she finally plucked up the courage to come to church, how they gathered around us and showed us faith in action before we were even sure what we believed. I remember how leaders cheered me on, gave me responsibility when I wasn’t sure I deserved it, disciplined me when I needed it and showed me their own vulnerabilities, asking us teenagers to pray for mortgage decisions, premature babies and their own health needs. These things, and a thousand more, built real, lived faith in me more than any programme or meeting ever could have.
We are still a long way from knowing how a year of isolation, uncertainty and loss will impact this generation of children and young people. We will have to work hard to rebuild relationships with those on the margins who have drifted away. But we also have the opportunity to look afresh at the type of faith community we see in scripture and work towards creating a church family that reflects that.
If we are going to staunch the flow of the thousands of teenagers leaving the Church each week, we are going to need to take drastic action. Now, more than ever, our children and young people need every member of the body of Christ. As Turner puts it: “If we can all step into this space that says: it’s my job to play my part in this sticky web that holds children and young people and families together. How can I play my part, to make them feel loved, to show them who God is, to welcome them into a faith community? If we all step up, it will be so different. So different.”
But if we don’t act now, it may be too late.
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