Young people have a serious PR problem. According to UNICEF’s 2007 report, British young people are the unhappiest in Europe, coming a pitiful 21st out of 21 industrialised countries. According to the Children’s Society’s The Goodchild Report released in 2012, ‘half a million children in the UK aged 8 to 15 have low well-being at any given time’. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s New Year message urged the country not to give up on our young people. The fact that he needed to remind us to love our children is an indictment in itself, but he has in mind the fearinducing images of young people looting and rioting last summer. With our young people being described as ‘feral’ and an increase in child poverty biting at our heels (the campaign group End Child Poverty claims one in three children in the UK lives in poverty), we have to acknowledge that our culture thinks there is a serious problem with the rising generations.
Our churches have a problem with young people too. We have tried to keep young people in church by appealing to the parents’ drive to educate their kids, but the once thriving Sunday school movement is on its last legs. The 20th century saw attendance drop from 6 million in 1903 to less than half a million in 1998 – despite an overall increase in the population.
Despite all our attempts to provide relevant programmes, 87% of teenagers who left church did so because they thought it was boring – a decision the majority of those who left made between the ages of 8 and 10. We have tried to keep young people in church by employing a star player to beat off the attacks and attractions of secularism and relativism, but we may as well ask Andy Murray to singlehandedly take on Manchester United at football. Our youth workers, however gifted and energetic, commonly end up burned out and disillusioned.
The Church has been torpedoed below the waterline, and we are losing young people so rapidly that according to Rev Dr Patrick Richmond at the last York Synod of the Church of England, the Church may well be extinct by 2020. A 2005 survey found 39% of Anglican churches had no one attending under the age of 11, 49% had no 11 to 14s in attendance, and 59% had no 15 to 19-year-olds in their congregations. Care for the Family has also highlighted the drastic situation through Rob Parsons’ best-selling book Getting Your Kids Through Church: Without Them Ending Up Hating God (Monarch) and major nationwide event tours. Christians have been attending in their thousands as they recognise the problem in their own congregations. A young person in church is becoming an endangered species. We need to urgently address the issue: this means you and I must take action because it takes a whole church to raise a child.
Key One: Relationship
The Gospel of John’s language of rebirth identifies Christians primarily as part of God’s spiritual family. Jesus describes the Church as a family bond that overrides genetic allegiances. He also presents the Church as the surrogate family for those who have lost earthly relatives. The language of the Church as a family is used consistently throughout the New Testament: God is the father; we are all his adopted children, and we are to think of each other as brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and children. Although we often try to impose business models on the Church or attempt to event manage it, according to the Bible the less like a family the church feels, the less of a church it is.
As family in Christ, we are all, married or single, old or young, parents or childless, like it or not, uncles and aunts to the children in our churches. In fact, we declare this collective responsibility regularly and powerfully. Every time there is an infant baptism or a child dedication in our services, we make solemn promises to help our younger people grasp the gospel through our words and example, and we commit to praying for that child and partnering with the parents so that one day he or she would come to know, love and follow Jesus for themselves. And then there are the children who come to church without their biological parents – how much more important is it for us to spiritually adopt them and make them feel part of our family?
Following through on our promises and reaching out to spiritual orphans is a job not just for the paid staff of the church. The pastor can’t make the church a family and the youth worker can’t fix the relationships – only you and I can do that. I believe that by prioritising our relationships in church we have a chance of retaining our young people. It’s easy to walk away from a company or an event, but it’s hard to walk away from family.
Five Simple First Steps
- Find out what life is like for the young people in your church – ask them about school, sports and social life.
- Talk about your faith with the young people regularly.
- Interview ordinary people in services and meetings before the youth leave for their programmes.
- Use social media to share how you work out your faith.
- Let young people see you at work.
Key Three: Responsibilities
If relationships and role models from the whole church community are key areas we need to address as we seek to stem the outgoing tide of young people, then aren’t we making our youth workers redundant?
According to the godfather of British evangelical statistics, Peter Brierley, youth work does work. The huge increase in the numbers of paid youth workers after the 1990s has meant fewer young people have left the Church than would have done if youth workers had not been doing their job. But merely slowing down the losses feels like a shallow victory: if I took ten young people bowling for the evening and only came back with three, would the waiting parents be reassured by my excitement at having been able to round up more than two? Would any youth worker feel a sense of achievement if, at their leaving ceremony, the pastor thanked God that all their efforts had resulted in the church losing less children than it would have done otherwise? We are still facing catastrophic losses in our youth ministries. According to Brierley’s analysis, if you took ten average Sunday school children under the age of nine in 1985 and went looking for them in a local church 20 years later, only three of them would be left. That’s 70% losses – a worse survival rate than the Titanic’s fatal maiden voyage.
The problem is that no matter how well trained, skilled, holy, Spirit-filled and creative our youth workers are, they are seriously outnumbered. Andy Murray’s powerful right hand, lightning fast reflexes and athletic physique would never be enough to defend against the 11 men of Manchester United on the football field. Youth work is not supposed to be a solo sport.
In the same way, although my wife and I have the scripturally mandated primary responsibility for the spiritual development of our children, I am not alone in my responsibility to pass on the faith. As a church leader, I am not solely responsible for the prodigals, however guilty I feel when a young person turns their back on the Church. Parents, youth workers and pastors, alongside the members of the wider Church, should take up this corporate responsibility for the spiritual training of our young people.
Key Four: Reintegration
Sacking our youth workers is no more profitable to youth ministry than divorcing our children from their parents or firing our ministers. It takes a whole church to raise a child and help faith formation in our young people. So what does this look like in practice?
First of all, there are things that we must watch out for, and here it is time for some confessions. As a youth worker, I revelled in finding creative ways to show my young people how faith was relevant. I was certainly down with the kids, but I also looked down on the parents as out of touch. I reinforced the generation gap, and undermined any spiritual training that was happening at home.
As a parent, I find it all too easy to outsource my children’s spiritual life to the youth workers in the same way I send them to coaching sessions to learn sport or to music teachers to learn an instrument. Youth work and Sunday school provision, and even regular church meetings, serve, in my mind, to release me from the guilt of not living up to my responsibility as spiritual head of the home, and to free me to worship in the ways I prefer in my middle age. I contribute to the sky-high expectations of our youth workers as the fail-safe mechanism to a future-proofed, funky and full church, and can be the first to criticise when they fail to entertain my children, or pay undue heed to their risk assessments.
In order for the whole church to raise a child, the shortfalls need to be acknowledged, the barriers need to come down and the weapons need to be put away as we begin some negotiation.
Five Simple First Steps
- Invite your youth worker into the leadership team/elders’ meetings.
- Encourage your youth as they role model to the younger children.
- Pray for and offer practical help to your youth worker – invitations for a meal are usually well received.
- Include young people in other ministries and give them real responsibilities in the church.
- Include parents and young people when planning the programme.
Now is not the time to close down the Sunday school or sack the youth worker. We need more people involved in the spiritual formation of our young people, not less. At a time when the government seems more open for the Church to step up and play its part in reconstructing families, and a national parenting initiative is being launched by a consortium including Holy Trinity Brompton and Care for the Family, it is worth us rethinking our own strategies when it comes to our own churched children. In a country that often equates teenagers with ASBOs, gangs, crime, riots and bullying, the Church has a unique opportunity to show that we don’t do labels or wash our hands of the ‘problem’, but we step up to the mark, cooperate across the generations, and provide a place – a family – where children are valued and young people are drawn in, encouraged and loved.