A very wise man once wrote, ‘Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it’ (Proverbs 22:6). More recently another wise man, the American trendspotter George Barna, writing in ‘Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions’ (Regal), identified the spiritual upbringing of children as the most critical factor in the church’s survival. 

So what is the shape of children’s ministry like in the UK? What do the latest statistics say, and what resources are available to help us to teach children about the Christian faith? 

The latest statistics on English church going from Christian Research show that the number of children attending Sunday School continues to drop. The number of under-11s in church on a given Sunday (including Sunday School) in 2005 was 421,300 - this compares with 482,900 in 1998. Year-on-year 10,000 less children attend church and/or Sunday School. This rate of decline has been steady for over 10 years now. While this is clearly bad news, it should be noted that it mirrors a similar overall decline in attendance among adults. Peter Brierley of Christian Research says this indicates that whole families are dropping out of church attendance. 

Of those children and teens that do attend church, 57% are aged under 11, 22% are 11-14, and 21% are 15-19. The gender ratio is 54/46% in favour of girls. Only half of the churches in the UK have any form of children’s or youth ministry! Churches with a regular children’s or youth activity are much more likely to he led by a minister in their 30s or 40s, than a minister in their 60s or 70s. This trend is true across the UK. But barely a third of ministers (32%) are under the age of 50. 

Alan Charter, Scripture Union’s Head of Evangelism and a Director of Children Matter told Christianity magazine, “There’s lots of fantastic work being carried out by churches. Many are really grappling with how to engage with the world that children live in today and trying to reach those outside the church.

As with much of church life, there is a great spectrum of what takes place. The tragedy is that so many churches don’t have any provision for children at all.” Where children’s ministry does take place, on a Sunday it operates mostly on a rota basis. Typically children will be with the adults for a short time in the worship service before leaving for Sunday School groups. These are usually staffed by volunteers – some children will have different leaders each week on a rolling six week rota. 

Charter is pragmatic about this trend. “Children are remarkably resilient and typically cope with change better than adults. They do benefit from structure, stability and continuity though. Just as a child in a school class might not do so well under a variety of supply teachers, as opposed to a single regular one, so we need to take care with how we appoint leaders to church groups.” 

Ali Campbell the Diocesan Youth Advisor for Chichester is less positive. “The days of the rota are numbered – kids want to build relationships and we need to be providing the possibility for intentional discipleship from an early age. With a different set of leaders every week, it is harder to generate enthusiasm and motivation from the children.” Campbell points to a cultural shift in the style of the mid-week Bible studies for children. “What used to be the format for 11-14s has become the norm for 8-11 year olds and is more akin to an open youth group with an epilogue talk. The dynamics of children’s social engagement with others has changed and they have become more interested in who is leading their group and their relationships with them.” 

Campbell observes that in the Anglican church, statistics show that more children are attending mid-week activities than Sunday school. “There has been a huge shift in how we work with children, says Campbell. “The roothas been sociological factors – as family breakdown has increased and children are split between their mothers and fathers at weekends, regular Church attendance is less consistent and is having an impact. The church is adapting though and realising that ‘doing church’ does not equal the Sunday services. “The extended Schools and Every Child Matters government agenda need to be impacting the way churches view their work with children,” says Campbell. “But if kids are at school until 5:30 doing after school clubs and then we take them from 6 until 8pm, is this a good model for kids to be away from their parents to such an extent?” At present according to Peter Brierley barely a quarter of all English churches (27%) have some sort of midweek activity. This suggests that Anglicans are forging ahead in this area. Brierley notes that these midweek activities attract proportionately more 11-14s than Sunday School. The number of churches that are employing specialized children’s workers appears to continue to grow. However this has not even got close to the number of youth workers employed by the church, which is estimated to exceed 7,000. 

Looking to the future Campbell predicts, an increasing move away from employing professional children’s workers to family and community workers. “The essential need for working with parents is being realised. There is a shift in the understanding of children’s ministry to being part of a wider ministry to the whole family. We need to be equipping parents to be discipling their children. Parents still have the most influence over their children, far and above the media and their friends.” Both Campbell and Charter agree the role of supportive parents is key. Expecting your child to grow in their faith thanks to a couple of hours input at church each week, if their home life is a spiritual desert, is clearly unrealistic and an abrogation of parental responsibilities. 

Charter predicts in the future there will be “an increase in the current trend of churches that have made no provision for children and will, therefore, be in decline with fewer leaders. But thankfully, there are also many churches currently striving to build strong faith foundations. In ten years, more young leaders will have been nurtured - people who have been encouraged from an early age, empowered with responsibility and growing through using their spiritual gifts.”

John Buckeridge is the Senior Editor of Christianity magazine, he teaches Sunday School to 8-11s on a rota at his local church.