Is it inevitable that teenagers become disengaged and leave church as they start to think for themselves? Not necessarily. This is the inspirational story of how one pastor in Bridgend transformed his church’s youth work – just by learning to listen. 

The story of young people and the church in the UK is a little like the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Once upon a time our churches were full of children and young people. But for the past ten, maybe 20 years, we’ve been waking up and realising that, all of a sudden, they’ve gone. How it happened and how we stop it from continuing is hotly debated. 

In the meantime, mirroring the growing concern over the loss of young people from our churches, is a growing demand for hired youth workers. But demand far outstrips supply, so what do you do if you’re losing people in their teens and twenties from your church and have no youth leader to take on the role? 

This was the situation in which Alex Ashton, minister of the Vine Christian Centre in Bridgend, Wales, found himself seven years ago. Taking on the leadership of a church that was, in his own words, ‘discouraged and disheartened’, he decided that his priority was to recover a sense of family. 

‘The young people we had were disenfranchised and didn’t feel they were valued,’ he says. ‘Although some of them had a faith, we were losing them from our church around the ages of 13 or 14.’ When one of his committed members told him she was thinking of worshipping at another church where there was more provision for her children he realised he had to do something for the young people. ‘If your committed people are leaving,’ he observes, ‘then you know you’ve got trouble.’ 

Initially a Norwegian couple ran the church’s youth work, but when they returned home he was faced with a dilemma: would he let it fizzle out and watch the young people go elsewhere, or would he take action himself? 

‘There was no one else to do the youth work so I thought “I’ll have to do it”.’ It was a bold and unusual step but Ashton explains, ‘I reasoned that if we can’t win our own then we can’t win our community.’ 

It wasn’t without some trepidation that he took the role on – having never done any youth work before. ‘I knew I couldn’t be a ‘cool vicar’ so I didn’t try,’ he says. ‘But I have got a passion for these young people and I wanted to envision them and to develop a positive peer pressure so they would encourage each other in the things of God.’ 

Implementing this new vision was not without its problems. Ashton had a letter from one member of the congregation expressing how great it was he was working with the teenagers but reminding him not to do it at the expense of the older church members. But he kept patiently and clearly explaining how his actions were good for the church as a whole. ‘I painteda picture of our future to communicate the value of the youth for the whole church. Young people are not just an asset, they are our future leaders and they are part of the church now. They are our hope. So I told them, “We’re not here to entertain your kids, we are raising disciples”.’ 

Far from keeping some form of youth group ticking over until he could find someone else to take it on, Ashton threw his energies into developing their faith. They started taking the group away on camps. ‘We have a policy that “family doesn’t get left behind”. So if someone couldn’t join us for financial reasons, we would offer to pay for them. We wanted everyone to be able to join in.’ These trips gave him the germ of an idea. He saw the impact of the young people’s relationships with each other and with God and decided on an audacious plan to inspire them even further. ‘Bridgend is an area withlow income, low horizons, low expectations. We wanted to raise our young people’s aspirations and encourage them to think about how they could change our world,’ he explains. 

He started to encourage every young person to think about where they could go to serve God on a gap year project. With it came a promise – the church would fund each of them to go wherever they wanted, for a year, as long as it was an act of Christian service. ‘I went to the church and said: “This is what we are going to do and we are going to pay for it.” Of course they laughed, but in the end, we did pay for it,’ he recalls. ‘I have a photograph of one of the girls sitting outside the Taj Mahal. She’d only been outside of Wales once before, and we sent her to India. That really excites me.’ 

When the project started there were 25 people aged between 11 and 18 in the church. Ashton estimated it would cost £5,000 for each young person to have a gap year – a total of £100,000. ‘I did worry about how we would find the money for each young person. But I thought about the miracle of the loaves and fishes – if you use what God has given you, he will multiply it. The church has bankrolled every single young person, to the extent that my treasurer told me we had to write to people and tell them to stop giving because we had too much money!’ 

The evidence of the team’s efforts is clear to see – on the day I visit the church the worship team are rehearsing in the main hall. It’s fully cross-generational including teenagers and people in their fifties and sixties and every age in between. In the past seven years, only two teenagers have left the church. 

‘We’re not there yet,’ Ashton admits, ‘But the young people know they’re valued, important and that we would do anything for them. I’d like to see the younger members of our congregation involved much more, in every part of the fabric of our church.’ 

Raising the perceived value of young people in a church is the key element in the Bridgend story, according to Nigel Argall, director of youth and community work at Moorlands College and chair of the board of directors for Amaze. ‘This church clearly took young people seriously and invested (in every sense) in them – it’s not surprising this has been attractive to the young people.’ Principal of Oasis College, Paul Fenton, agrees: ‘Young people, too frequently, struggle to find a place they can invest their energy, vision and enthusiasm in church. They are often relegated to Sunday School or age specific activities that remove them from opportunities to integrate, contribute and even shape church. So they leave. This story reminds us that young people are already part of the church and, with investment, can make a difference to the life of the whole church.’

Ashton is now considering hiring a youth worker but he is keen to stress that this isn’t a change in priority for the church. ‘When churches hire a youth leader it seems to usually be to fix a problem. But I’d argue that if you’re going to hire someone you have to give them the best resources, to pay them well and allow them to suggest change for the church, so that the church grows alongside the young people. It should never be a case of passing the problem on. In my case, we had no youth worker so the best we could offer the young people was my time, as the minister of the church. But the best for another church might be to hire a youth worker, or to create a dedicated team of enthusiastic volunteers.’ 

It’s a sentiment echoed by Fenton: ‘Sometimes investing in young people will be through a paid youth worker who has the vision and experience to make this happen. Sometimes it will be through a paid church leader, like Alex, who also shares this vision. In most churches, it will happen through committed volunteers who value what young people have to offer.’ 

‘There is a tendency for churches which perceive a crisis in their youth work to ‘throw money’ at the problem by hiring a youth worker,’ adds Argall. ‘Alongside this, however, needs to be a commitment to fully involve the young people in the life of the church. If that doesn’t happen, at worst the youth worker will leave frustrated, and at best they will produce a parallel ‘youth church’ that may flourish on its own but doesn’t really model intergenerational relationships. The pastor doesn’t have to do it, but real integration is vital.’ 

The moral of the story is not that all church ministers should give up their Friday nights and become hands on youth workers in order to retain a younger element in their congregations. ‘It’s an inspiring and fascinating story, and it’s wonderful that Alex got directly involved as the pastor, but it’s not necessarily a ‘model’ of ministry that I’d want to promote even though it is creative and bold,’ says Argall. 

On the contrary, the lesson seems to be that if you acknowledge and communicate the value of young people in a church, with resources, time, action and words, they’ll stick around. As Ashton comments, ‘Churches often seem to give their young people the crumbs when really we should give everyone, including them, nothing but our best.’ 

‘God was just something we knew about. But now he’s someone we know’ 

‘My parents split up seven years ago when I was about 13 or 14. My mum wouldn’t come to church and my dad stopped coming too. I had to make a choice and I decided I would do the 40-minute walk to church every week. I decided to make that effort and to believe in God under my own steam, not just because my parents believed in him. We had never had a proper youth leader, but when Alex stepped in it became a lot more focused. He got to know us, found out what we were like and then encouraged us to move into different parts of the church. I like music and got involved in the band. When it came to my gap year Alex asked me, ‘Where do you want to go?’ Knowing I could go anywhere made it quite hard to choose! I knew I was called to leading worship so I went to South Africa and spent time as a general dogsbody for worship leader, Trevor Samson. He was moving his recording studio to a township and I helped with the move. 

In South Africa, no one knew me – I was no one. You learn a lot about yourself when you are nothing. I learned so much more about myself and God than I ever imagined. I went away to find out who I was in God, and found myself as a worshipper. While I was out there God spoke to me – I had felt his presence but I’d never heard him before. Before Alex got involved with the youth work, God was just something we knew about. But now he’s someone we know. We weren’t focused on him before but now we have grown up in him, we have our own relationship and we are growing closer to him every day.’

Tim is 21 years old and has been a member of the Vine Christian Centre in Bridgend since childhood. 

Young people in Bridgend 

• Bridgend, or Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr in Welsh, is a historic town 22 miles west of Cardiff, sitting on the edge of the Welsh valleys. 

• In 2008 Bridgend county gained notoriety in the press after a spate of suicides. An estimated 25 people connected to the area aged under 24 hanged themselves between 2007 and 2008. 

• The closure of the coal mines in the 1980s affected employment in the town. In 2008 11.7% of the population of Bridgend county were out of work and claiming benefits.

• In the academic year 2008/2009, 14.8% of secondary school aged children were able to claim free school meals, often used as a marker of deprivation. 

Struggling with young people in your church? 

Youth worker or no youth worker, there are things you can do to turn your youth work around: 

1. Be clear about your goals. Pray and ask God to give you a vision for young people in your church. Remember that seeing young people come to faith doesn’t mean necessarily seeing them seamlessly sliding into the church models you’ve already got in place. Ask God to show you how your church could play a part in reaching out to and discipling young people. 

2. Talk about it. Whether you’re a church leader, a churchgoer, a parent or a young person, begin to talk about young people and your church. Host a morning for anyone in the area, with no expectation of future commitment, to discuss what God’s heart is for young people. What issues do your young people face? Don’t feel you have to come up with a solution or even a way forward at this stage, just get a few people’s perspectives, and begin to build on the passion, interest or concern that is already there. 

3. Identify the needs. Do a bit of research into your local area. What sort of youth provision, both secular and Christian, is out there already? Where are the gaps in provision? Where are the points of access to young people? Don’t start a Bible study on a Sunday morning if there are loads of kids hanging around on the streets and actually what they would like is a football club. Assess whether there would ever be the possibility of partnering with another church in the area to employ someone to head up the youth work. 

4. Start with what you’ve got. If there are young people already linked to your church, begin to connect with them. They will always be the best missionaries to their own peers and age group. Find out what they would want to bring their friends to – it could be as simple as a film or pizza night – and then find willing volunteers to host it. If there are currently no teenagers linked with the church, begin to invest and watch out for the 8, 9 and 10-year-olds, who’ll be ‘youth’ in two years time. 

5. Develop a support system. Ask the older members of your congregation to think of two or three young people they know, and encourage them to find ways of investing in and praying for them. It could be as simple as inviting them for a coffee/ sports match from time to time, sending them a card over exam periods, or being willing to chat through issues in their faith. Assure your congregation that anyone can do this. Don’t be put off from getting involved just because you’ve had no youth work experience or you feel too old and out of touch. The most important thing is a desire to connect and a willingness to listen and to care. 

6. Make room for young people. Designating a space in church – which can be as simple as a room with a few beanbags – is a good indicator that they are welcome and you would like them to be at home in your building. Give them a space which they can have ownership over, and most importantly where they will be welcome. Ground rules are important, but try and keep tutting and grumbling about mess and noise to a minimum. 

7. Involve them in the life of the church. Young people have a wealth of skills, talents, ideas and insights which could enrich everybody’s walk with God. They are often great musicians, technicians or website developers, but don’t limit them to that. Involve them in the service – ask them to preach, lead prayers, do the reading, run a service, run a mission project in the area. To allow for this, begin developing a culture in your church where mistakes are acceptable, because young people may make a few. The church needs to value their involvement in church life more highly than always having slick and polished services. 

Sarah Wynter is deputy editor of Youthwork magazine and co-leader of Onelife – an organisation committed to raising up transformational leaders in the UK.