Amongst the rather depressing statistics about decline in attendance at Church of England services, one that stands out is the plummeting of engagement with young people. Jimmy Dale is the Church of England’s National Youth Evangelism Officer, and I had the chance to ask him about the current situation—how we got here, and whether anything might change in the future.
IP: How did you come to faith? And how did you end up working in the area of youth evangelism?
JD: I was brought up in a Christian household (my dad was a strict Baptist minister), but like many clergy children, I fought against my parent’s faith, until upon moving out from home at 18, I had what I’d call a conversion moment at an interview for Carroty Wood Adventure Centre. From there, I worked in adventure sports until sensing God was calling me into something else, which eventually resulted in me taking a job with an Anglican Church in East London, where I served as a youth worker for five years.
After that, I set up a local Youth For Christ centre in Newham, East London, with a strong sense that we needed to do more to equip the local church to do sustainable and effective youth ministry. For the next five years, the team and I worked with over 90 churches to help set up, establish and grow youth ministry around Newham. From this role, I was encouraged to apply for the new Youth Evangelism post with the Church of England, which I stated in 2017.
IP: A generation ago, there appeared to be a wide variety of ways that churches were working effectively with young people. What has changed—is there a single major reason why the situation has changed so much, or are there multiple factors?
JD: This is a really challenging question, and there are lots of factors at play. I think in the last ten years, youth culture has changed, with the pressure around exams is so much greater than it has ever been before. A decade ago, parents looked for things to keep their children safe, so organised activities were invaluable. Now we’ve moved on from that, with young people who are time-poor and parents looking for what Andrew Root calls activities with ‘the greatest good’ for their children—the activities that will give them the best advantage in life.
Our response as the church has often been to drop our USP of introducing young people to Jesus and see them discipled in favour of fun and group activity. The track record, unfortunately, shows that this hasn’t had the desired effect, with the number of churches engaging in growing youth and children’s ministry in steep decline.
IP: We discovered in General Synod that there are some churches which are working with significant numbers of young people. Do we have anything particular to learn from them?
JD: I think we often operate out of a self-written narrative, and one which is prevalent in youth and children’s ministry is that of “the big church”. As you note, a small group of churches (6.4%) represent a considerable amount of the children and young people we see on a Sunday (44%). There will be a whole host of reasons for this, be it a by-product of being a large church, historically having run a robust youth and children’s ministry or great leaders (be they employed or lay leaders). The struggle is how we view them, either with resignation (we don’t need to do anything because they will) or contempt (they’re stealing all the young people).
I think excellent youth ministry is built around two things: people with a heart for those they serve; and churches with a culture to resource and prioritise that ministry. I think some of those churches with lots of children and young people have found great ways to grow both of these things, and I’m excited to see how this can be used to resource the wider church.
IP: For the average local church with an ageing congregation, is there a feasible way back to engaging with young people? Or does something different need to happen?
JD: I think it starts with a church’s heart. The phrase “a church exists for the benefit of its non-members” is really important (and very rarely true). The danger is making—and we often do make—decisions based on what benefits our existing congregation most and what will rock the boat least. The church you describe needs to decide to see youth and children’s ministry as a priority rather than just another possible thing on a list.
An analogy I often use is when I completed an Ironman race (if you’re not sure what that is, it’s a triathlon with a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile cycle and then a 26.2 miles run). There was an enormous level of training to compete in the race—4 am cycle rides in the rain, every weekend and evening were given over to sessions, I was doing over 30 hours of training a week! There’s a joke in the Ironman community that if you get to the start line and you’re still married, you haven’t trained hard enough! I did all this because I wanted to do an Ironman race; it was on my bucket list.
I also say that I want to learn French, that’s also on my bucket list, but I’m not committing 30 seconds, let alone 30 hours a week, to learning French! If I devoted 30 hours a week, I could speak French. But although I can logically conclude this means I don’t really want to learn French, I still believe I do. The conclusion I’ve come to is that I want to have the ability to speak French—as long as I don’t have to do anything, change anything, and it doesn’t cost me anything. If I can click my fingers and be fluent in French, that’s on my bucket list. The struggle is that despite realising this, I will continue to communicate that “I’d love to learn how to speak French; it’s on my bucket list”. We have lots of churches that want to have children and young people. My challenge is whether this area of ministry is Ironman or French? What are they willing to do, to give up, to commit to seeing it happen?
But it’s not easy. Thinking practically of the church you describe, I’d suggest starting by running a weekly prayer meeting to pray for the young people and children of the parish, the young people and children they know. This will begin to build the culture that is so key. It also helps develop the hearts of your parishioners. More importantly, it tells you if this is ‘French’ or ‘Ironman’! It’s that culture that’s so key—people who are committed to seeing children and young people in the kingdom of God regardless of what it costs.
And for those who have discounted themselves because they are old—I would take an 80-year-old who passionately loves young people any day over a 24-year-old who’s there to tick a box or because their friends are involved! Young people want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be unconditionally loved. That’s something anyone can do—but you need to choose to do it, and it won’t happen by accident.
IP: What are the major questions for young people about faith? What issues do we need to engage with them?
JD: I think there are many questions young people are asking but three rise to the top: who am I? where do I fit? and what difference can I make? Young people are desperately grappling with the questions of identity, affinity, impact and power that these questions encapsulate.
Alongside the issue of which questions are being asked, I think we also need to consider our models for engaging with these questions. The student movement Fusion created a handy model called Mission Styles, which I find really helpful when thinking about this. They say there are four Mission Styles, modelled by Jesus in the gospels as ways of sharing faith with people. They are:
- Convince me (likes to weigh stuff up before coming to conclusions);
- Let me experience (just goes ahead and tries stuff);
- Talk with me (is looking to connect through conversation); and
- Show me (Wants to see the practical outworking of faith).
I think we have a tendency to gravitate to whichever missional style we like to engage with. For many, that’s ‘convince me’ and looks like apologetics, but it’s so vital that this does not become the only way we engage with young people’s questions. Mentoring (Talk with me), worship and service (Let me experience) and social justice (show me) are as relevant in helping young people answer these big questions and see the difference that following Jesus can make.
IP: How do you see your role as National Youth Evangelism Officer? How can we make best use of you?
JD: As the National Youth Evangelism Officer, my role is to promote and resource youth evangelism across the Church of England. I see that as doing a few things.
First, it’s about trying to hold a national picture of what’s happening, not just within every level of the Church of England but more broadly in youth culture and society.
Thirdly, it’s about helping churches and dioceses think more creatively about their youth ministry, and more specifically evangelism, as an absolute priority.
Finally it’s about creating (and pioneering) more significant systemic ideas and initiatives that help open up new opportunities for youth ministry to flourish in the Church of England.
IP: Is there hope for the Church of England in its work with young people?
JD: The Church of England has just announced its vision and strategy for the next ten years, a Jesus-centred church which is simpler, humbler and bolder with three strategic priorities:
- (To become) a church of missionary disciples;
- (To become) a church where mixed ecology is the norm;
- (To become) a younger and more diverse church.
At the recent Synod debate on the Vision and Strategy, one of the bold outcomes mentioned in relation to the final strategic priority was Doubling the number of children and young, active disciples in the Church of England by 2030. While this might seem an ambitious target, especially given that we are currently in decline, this target excites me for two reasons.
First, it specifically calls for growth in young active disciples. This means this isn’t just a numbers game—finding clever new ways to count bums on seats—but instead points to the core aim of seeing children and young people’s lives transformed.
Secondly, though, it excites me because it’s an all-in or all-out target. You’re not going to achieve this with some new resources and a bit or good comms. This is a call for an ‘Ironman, not French’ approach to tackling the area of youth and children’s ministry in the church. Without a total commitment to a culture change at every level, be that parish level, within the diocese or from the national church, we run the risk of not doing anything, either through fear of not knowing what to do or just doing too little.
This target doesn’t give us the option to sit back, hoping someone else will do the work for us; it calls for all of us, at every level, to engage with how we can share a new the good news of Jesus with this young generation.
IP: Thanks for your time—and thank you so much for engaging in this exciting and vital ministry. We pray that God will bless and sustain your ministry, and make it a very fruitful partnership with churches and dioceses.
Jimmy Dale is the National Youth Evangelism Officer for the Church of England, responsible for promoting and resourcing youth evangelism across the country. Jimmy is based in London and is married to Sarah and has a 1 year old daughter called Elsie. As well as being passionate about youth ministry and evangelism, he is a keen Spurs fan, a running enthusiast, and a passionate advocate of Apple products (Ed: he must be a good thing then!).