How do we reach the under 40s?

millennialsHere in the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham, we are just completing our diocesan conference at Swanwick, and it has been focussed on issues around our aspirations for growth under the heading ‘wider, younger, deeper.’ This includes seeing, by 2023:

  • 7,000 new disciples in the Church of England in this diocese;
  • 1,000 new young leaders;
  • a ‘college’ offering discipleship and leadership training to young people;
  • 100 younger ordinands;
  • 75 church plants or grafts;
  • 25 ‘resource’ churches which can support these;
  • a major church plant in Nottingham city centre, supported by HTB in London, geared towards young people, and another in a rural area somewhere central in the diocese.

Already the college has a principal and administrator, and is running an intern programme, and the diocese has bought a landmark building in Nottingham city centre to be site of Trinity Church which will be reaching young people in the city—all supported by money from the Church Commissioners mission funding.

To help resource our thinking about all this, we had a impressive slate of speakers. Mark Tanner, Warden of Cranmer Hall and soon to be Bishop of Berwick (the first since 1572—he hopes to avoid being compared with his predecessor!), gave us Bible readings on ‘A long obedience in the same direction’. Ric Thorpe, Bishop of Islington responsible for overseeing church planting in London Diocese and a former marketing manager at Unilever, talked about issues in church planting, why it matters and how to go about it. Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, gave a wonderfully passionate appeal for us to engage in renewing the church in outer estates. All very stimulating stuff.

But the most moving and inspiring moments came in two addresses by Amy Orr-Ewing, European Director of the RZIM Ministries which is focussed on evangelism, and a course director on the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA). As a student at Oxford, she and then-fiance Francis ‘Frog’ Orr-Ewing spent Easter taking Bibles to Afghanistan as it was falling to the Taliban—so it is no surprise that she has a stock of remarkable stories of what she has seen God doing in various places. Having spent some years leading a church in Peckham, a deprived area of south London, they are now leading Latimer Minster, a fresh expression based on a farm near Beaconsfield, in Oxford Diocese.

Amy began by offering a generally apologetic for apologetics—people are people, and people have questions to which they seek answers. She recalled a gang member in London who was exploring faith, but had questions about Christianity and science, and whether it was permissible to ask had questions. He was leaving one authoritarian system and did not want to end up swapping it for another one. (We have experienced something similar; a few weeks ago someone staggering out of a club at 4 am in the morning had questions about whether the God of the OT is the same as the God of the NT.)

But her main focus was on the two generations that the church is missing under 40—the millennials (or ‘Generation Y’), born between 1975 and 1997, and those following after them, often called ‘Generation Z’. (I wonder who will come after them?) The first thing worth noting is that there is a difference between these generations, and that is a symptom of our rapidly changing culture. It is not clear how or whether this will continue, or whether (as often happens) a period of rapid change plateaus out into a period of stability. A good number of these changes relate to the rise of the internet—and I suspect the internet is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

6a00d8347d063969e2019aff2c058d970d-800wiMillennials strongly value friendships and are technologically advanced. They are very aware of poverty and justice issues and statistically have the highest levels of volunteering of any age group. But they are also heavily indebted. They were told that they can fulfil their dreams (think X Factor and so on), and that anything is possible, and as a result are marked by a sense of entitlement—but they have discovered that many normal life expectations (around stable family, affordable home, and secure job) are out of their reach. As a result this group are often characterised by FOMO—the fear of missing out. (For more on this, see Amy and Frog’s book on the millennials.)

Generation Z (or iGen) have some quite distinct characteristics. They have not yet reached the age of having home, career and family, so have a different focus in life. They are internet experts (having never known a time of life without the internet) and typically use multiple platforms simultaneously so that their lives are marked by constant communication. The big challenge for them to put their phone down even for part of the day (or night!). Rather would rather talk by messaging than talk to a person face to face, and as a result have strong written skills. They idolise YouTubers and other internet stars. The events of 9/11 form a big part of their youth and they experience the wider world as a frightening place in which the threat of terrorism dominates the news. They are very selective and are painstaking about researching what they buy.

Although these two groups are in many ways distinct, there are (said Amy) five challenges in reaching these two groups together for the church.

1. The church is almost nowhere on their radar.

This is in part because so few go to church, so this is a reinforcing tendency within the group. Fewer that than 1% of young adults are in church in any given week; Amy has noticed that her children are the only churchgoers in their year. In 2014, the Bible Society produced the Pass it On report, and it includes some alarming statistics about Bible knowledge. Fewer than 23% children heard of Noah’s Ark—rather striking when we assume more or less universal knowledge of key biblical narratives as part of our national understanding. Many larger, city centre churches have thriving student ministries—but these often gather together those who grew up in church, which means they are not always effective at reaching others.

How do we get on their radar? Amy highlighted the importance of having an attractive physical space for our church meetings, which is accessible and welcoming. She also highlighted the importance of being church when not gathered—the vital understanding of ‘every member ministry’ applying to all church members in their daily occupations. But she also highlighted the importance of our online spaces. Many young people won’t go somewhere without checking that place’s web presence and reading reviews. Our church websites need to be clear, up to date, and welcoming. And we need to be on Facebook because this is now the number 1 source that is driving people to web sites, having this year overtaken the use of Google searches.

(I would add here two further things: Messy Church; and the Church of England’s work in schools. These statistics show how important schools work is—but also raises questions about how effective this work has been so far.)

2. The material struggle to make ends meet is a huge crushing reality.

Amy told stories about the real-life situations of people with demanding lives and massive debt—and that as a result, many of this generation do not have the leisure time that was forecast. They will not easily come to church unless there is a clear benefit to them to do so. They have a sense of trying to rebuild the social structures which baby boomers tore up.

And that means that they won’t come unless we offer things that are going to materially help—enrichment in their lives, relationships, a sense of family, a place that they can call home, and a sense of security and belonging.

3. Anxiety

Amy talked about the epic proportions of fear that mark these generations as they grow up. In 2013, there were 82 million cases of anxiety recorded—and we have a National Health Service which is struggling to cope with the dramatic rise in cases of mental health issues.. Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety, and there is a noticeable increase in self harm amongst women. As is often the case, it is the poor and disadvantaged disproportionately affected because they have fewer resources to draw on which enable them to cope. The perennial question is: Is there more to life?

There is also an increase in suicide amongst men in Britain. Amy told the story of a policewoman in London, who said that of last seven deaths she had been called to, every single one was a suicide.

This means that we must have empathy as a primary quality, and find creative ways in the church to work with those who are struggling. It occurred to me in listening to all this that, contrary to the story we are often presented with, this generation aren’t staying away because they are happy and have everything that life could offer—quite the opposite.

4. Intellectual challenge

These generations have been fed a constant media diet that belief in God is unwarranted and that the evidence isn’t there. Religion or Christianity is for weak people and church is controlling and manipulative. Church is at best a club getting on with its own agenda, and at worst a place of child abuse and power abuse. So Amy issued the challenge: Can we be present in their space with interesting and throught-provoking pieces which challenge that narrative?

This is a whole area of exploration in its own right, and Amy pointed us to the youth apologetics site Reboot. We need to be equipping our congregations to think about their faith.

5. Challenge of the closed loop of church.

Many of our church communities are socially closed, with people meeting who know each other, share a subculture, and know what to expect when they come—they understand all the unwritten rules and liturgies that we make use of from week to week. It is hard to overestimate how massive a step it is for most people to come into church where people are very different. This is the social equivalent of the ‘echo chamber’ effect of the internet; when we mostly associate with people who agree with us, it is a shock when we discover that other people think quite differently—which is why so many Remain voters were amazed at the Brexit vote.

Again, we need here to recapture the connective power of the laity. Where we go the church goes. And we need to build a church family which is really representative of our locality—and then the church will often be the only place in the community where all the different people meet together.’

So there are the challenges, and there are some answers. I was very conscious that this kind of exploration can be empowering and enabling for those who like these big pictures—but can also be daunting and disabling for those who lack resources and cannot see the way forward, and discussion afterwards on our table highlighted these different reactions. It is also possible that dramatic stories of what God has done can build faith—but can also function to establish a large gulf between what God appears to do elsewhere and what I see him do in my life, in my church, in my community. It was to Amy’s immense credit that people generally responded in the first way and not the second, and found her immensely engaging and building of faith.

maxresdefaultBut the main thing I was left with was Amy’s sense of passion about seeing God at work, and her confidence both in what God can do and the credibility of Christian faith. We were left in no doubt that her observations were not techniques or strategies that could be employed on their own, but were answers to the challenges facing us once we were committed and determined to share good news, and once we had immersed ourselves and our situation in prayer as we desired to see God at work in power. If we are to reach these generations, it is the passion and faith that we are going to need as much as any technique or strategy. It is here that we really need renewal and reform.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

12 thoughts on “How do we reach the under 40s?”

  1. Much of this is familiar (or should be) to those engaged in youth work . . . what i find fascinating about organisations is how they can be quite detailed about their “strategy” in advance of hearing things like this. I’d be interested to know whether the “way” Southwell and Nottingham seek to achieve their aims as you outline will be actually shaped by this kind of material and thinking . . . or not.

    Also, nothing being presented about reaching people groups (it used to be “we need to reach the under 25s” which has now stretched to “under 40s”) illustrates, with concrete evidence how the church will keep them once it’s got them. Let’s not forget, we don’t just have a missing generation or two because we haven’t reached most of them . . . we have missing generations because we had some of them – and then lost many of those we did have. Better strategies for engaging, understanding and meeting young adults where they are is vital work – but, until we are better at making disciples – what is the point?

  2. I empathise with much of this and as a ‘Millennial’ myself (1988) who was formerly a Youth and Children’s Worker (Local Govt) in Nottingham City but who now works for a church in Leicestershire, I can understand clearly where Amy is coming from.

    The critical issues for me, and the ones I think go the furthest in reaching people are points 2 and 4. Address those and the others follow. In brief, 5 and 1 are symptoms of a failure to address 4 properly, and 3 is in many ways a symptom of 2.

    Church is irrelevant because most of the time it has nothing to say worth hearing (it is unfaithful to it’s message) and people are anxious and afraid because the narrative of the world/society they hear instead crushes them under a weight of false hope and unrealistic expectation. In short: the church does not proclaim “good news”, instead it offers some “good advice” and a form of friendly escapism.

    A fuller response to this would take more time and space than works practically in the comments section Ian, but what turned it around for me, and the reason why I am in ministry now and looking at pursuing pastoral/accredited ministry in the future is because the Cross, and the Cross alone has convinced me of the necessity of Jesus.

    That is where we must start.

    • Dear Mat,

      I am older than you and cannot even remember the social acronym used for people like me who brought up a family and who pay for both their parents and their children simultaneously leaving little or nothing for themselves. I don’t know how to respond to the idea that allegedly that we are the generation that have money …. no we don’t … but we were brought up with a sense of responsibility for those around us. I do however recognise the concept of millenials having a bizarre sense of entitlement to things of which they are clearly not entitled at all. We watch as they spend their money on exotic holidays and meals out, expensive TV, hifi and computers, and then complain at home that they need to borrow money to survive and/or buy their house!

      (I am aware, by the way, of all the adverts showing a happy retirement in which parents spend their money – but like almost everyone – I know that they are just adverts and total tripe really!).

      Can we use the senses of volunteering and charity amongst the younger generation to rebuild and grow a sense of caring for each other and mutuality?

      • “Can we use the senses of volunteering and charity amongst the younger generation to rebuild and grow a sense of caring for each other and mutuality?”

        I’m pleased to say that the churches that are growing and have a high profile in the community are usually the ones that are doing exactly that Clive.

        As for the sense of entitlement, I couldn’t agree with you more.

  3. This all sounds good. I’m glad you added about schools work – that had stood out for me as well.

    I don’t think we should beat ourselves up as a church about being ineffective so far – taking a wider view it is helpful to remember the wider social and cultural trends which have been hammering and alienating Christianity and its teaching since at least the end of the 19th century. The building hostility to Christian faith and the church amongst wider culture has made reaching the younger generations increasingly difficult.

    One thing that stood out to me recently was the ban on evangelism in schools, including church schools. This seemed an oddly illiberal way of neutering the church in its capacity to reach the younger generation. If as a society we see religion, even Anglican Christianity, as something which young people need protecting from, is it any wonder that they avoid it? It feels increasingly like our society, including the religious bits like church schools, has lost its sense that religion, and the Christian faith in particular, is a valued part of our culture, and that the Gospel is good news that we want to be shared with every young person (even as they are free to reject it). What we really need is a reversal of this shift against the Gospel in public culture, so that young people receive from their cultural milieu a sense again that God is there and is interested in their lives. Think Churchill and how he called on the nation to pray for the war effort, and then later attributed success to those prayers – how quickly our culture has changed. How we achieve that reversal is a huge and challenging question (if it is even possible), but I do wonder if a sense of this public dimension and public task was lacking from Amy’s analysis and suggestions.

    • Will,

      whilst I would agree that beating ourselves up isn’t necessarily productive, you talk about wider social and cultural trends as if they are something that just happens to us. Surely if we, as a church, had done a better job of engaging and keeping young people over the last 50 years, then that would have shaped our culture. It is because we have failed to influence and shape our society that voices which see religion as a danger rather than a benefit have been able to dominate the collective perception.

      Having heard Amy speak before and having benefited from other RZIM training in the past, there is a definite strand to their work which deals with the influence of the wider culture, and how we equip people to engage with it and hopefully influence it.

      • Thanks Jonathan. That’s reassuring about RZIM.

        I disagree that the church needs to bear very much responsibility for the wider cultural trends. They are deep and strong and hit the church like a perfect storm. Perhaps the church could have responded a bit better in some ways, but not in any way that would have made much difference. The casting off of Christian assumptions and beliefs in the early 20th century amongst culture and the elite was broad, deep and devastating. We are still working out the consequences of that massive cultural shift. I don’t think we should just throw in the towel and concede the public space to the enemies of the faith, but neither do I think that just being a bit more pro-youth in the 1960s would have made much difference (in fact the churches were generally pro-youth throughout the period, and it didn’t make much difference).

  4. Thanks Ian, loads to reflect on here no surprise from a church school lens for me….pleased it was such an encouraging event. Heidi

  5. For clarity, I am a male Millennial (born in 1991), who handles social media & a few other things for my (traditional Anglo-Catholic) London church.

    This is all good stuff – especially the discussion of the importance of intellectual challenge – but if anything it understates the challenge. How do you reach people who are ignorant as to the most elementary basics of the faith? In my experience, this is true whether or not they went to a church school, so whatever happens there clearly is failing massively. Church schools seem to be successful at getting parents to be bums-on-pews, but as a way of ensuring the survival of the faith in this country, not so much….

    The ignorance is all-pervasive, as to both doctrine and liturgy. In my age group and demographic bracket, the UK is not rightly described as a post-Christian society. It is no longer a place where most people do not go to church regularly but do so at Christmas and Easter, have their kids baptized, get married in church, and try to maintain some semblance of traditional Christian morality and teaching in their daily lives. It is simply pagan, where apathy towards the church is total, ignorance of her teaching and prayer life complete, and any adherence to her code coincidental.

    My own church is doing fine, growing nicely, buoyed by the usual London combination of immigrants, students, and tourists. We are also blessed with a truly exceptional priest. But these factors are clearly not replicable across the country. I do not believe the CoE will survive the next 30 years in anything remotely like its current shape. Growing cathedral attendance is just another sign of the approaching armageddon. It’s a result of the compounding generational flight from anything that resembles restriction on personal autonomy, broad community, and an obligation to mingle with those are not almost identical to oneself. Cathedrals offer up experiences for the individual (such as Evensong, where attendance has grown the most), not community for all.

    HTB is, in a way, another indicator of the problem; every HTB plant I’ve ever been to has been remorselessly white (even when located in very ethnically diverse areas) and very middle-class, with a narrow age range. Some resemble social clubs more than churches, where liturgy has been abandoned entirely and where doctrine is not taught, and that which is taught us flatly wrong, owing more to Norman Vincent Peel than anything remotely Christian (though I must stress this is not universally the case, and I have been to HTB plants that do a fine job in this area). It is perhaps not a coincidence that “atheist church” (Sunday Assembly) was, I think, co-founded by an ex-HTBer. But I don’t want to single out HTB unfairly here; “moralistic therapeutic deism”, as the sociologists call it, has reached epidemic levels in the wider church, but never seems to be discussed.

    I have faith that something will survive, but it will not be the church as we know it. One of the great holy men I know is a Welshman who converted to Orthodoxy in his 20s and has been a priest and abbot of a one-man monastery in rural North Wales for the last 30 years. He took over an abandoned Anglican church 20 years ago and has slowly patched it up as a place of worship for Orthodox services (conducted in a mixture of English, Welsh, and Old Church Slavonic). He’s super-involved in the community & taught RE for years in the local schools. It’s a bit of a hermit-in-a-cave lifestyle, and he ploughs a lonely furrow in the utter spiritual wasteland that is Wales in the era after the collapse of Nonconformism (we think things are bad in England; they are far worse in Wales). But he’s an incredible, inspirational man, a great advert for the faith in spite of – because of – his lack of resources. We’re all going to have to learn to live like him, I think.

  6. A small comment: cathedrals do not just offer experiences for individuals. They are very much communities, and offer engagement at all kinds of levels. I think any serious look at what most of them do would also reveal that they are intentional missionary communities at that.

    Don’t diss them. Their effectiveness should invite reflection on how people find their way in.

  7. I began taking primary school assemblies in 2002 and sensed that as a church we were within a closing window. Christianity is now under intense attack within our society and church representatives going into schools are looked upon with distaste by many. Even in Church of England schools you have to ensure you are aware of limitations. There are many calls for church schools to be disestablished, but as they are very popular with parents, it is difficult for the secularists to gain ground on this.
    Biblical illiteracy is a major problem for us to overcome, together with media antagonism. Christianity is mocked and denigrated relentlessly, but Islam gets a free ride because of cowardice and fear of hate speech.
    The Bible Society/Open the Book have devised a wonderful programme for taking the bible stories into primary schools. There are now 20,000 schools involved in this country on the scheme. I have just started a team in the area I moved to 2 years ago. The children are excited and involved in the stories and they remember them. We have just done Noah. We need more people willing to take the bible to where the children are and not wait for them to come into church. Ofsted approves the scheme and it forms part of the Christian education required under statute . I would encourage anyone who feels called to this ministry to go for it.


Leave a comment