One of the most important debates in General Synod last week was on children and young people in the Church of England—or rather, why they aren’t. The paper we were offered summarised the analysis of where young people are in the Church based on church attendance returns, and built on a question asked at a previous Synod by Charlie Skrine who is on the staff of St Helen’s Bishopsgate. The paper and its accompanying research can be read here online, and it is very sobering reading; it should be read by anyone in church leadership who is at all concerned with mission. Some of the headlines were summarised as follows:
- We have many opportunities as a Church to engage with children and young people through schools, Messy Church, Toddler Groups and midweek youth and children’s ministry. These activities often happen outside Sunday services and are picked up in Statistics for Mission in Worshipping Community Statistics and October count mid-week attendance. We have more limited information about activities that are not acts of worship or fresh expressions of church.
- But we also need to recognise that in 2018 we reached a new stage where nationally Sunday attendance for 0-16’s dropped below 100,000 for the first time ever.
- According to the single church returns, 38% of these churches have no 0-16’s and 68% of them have 5 or fewer 0-16’s.
- The statistics show that under 16’s are not distributed evenly across our Church. In the 2018 Statistics for Mission, 903 returns reported having 25 or more 0-16’s which equates to 41,540 under 16s. This means that 44% of all of 0-16’s are to be found in 6.4% of churches and parishes.
- Decline among under 16’s is much faster than decline among all other generations. The number of under 16’s reported in Average Child Sunday attendance has decreased by 20% over the last five years compared to a 12% decline in average adult Sunday attendance.
- There is no room for complacency as even amongst those churches and parishes with 25 or more 0-16’s, there is still a pattern of decline. Of the 903 returns with 25 or more 0-16’s in 2018, only 394 (44%) had experienced growth in the last 5 years compared to 461 (51%) who had experienced decline.
- We need to remember that there is no one simple solution which will solve all the issues we face. There are some common themes which emerge such as engaging with Youth & Children’s ministry organisations such as Messy Church or Open the Book or developing relationships with Church of England schools but there is clearly no single way to do children and youth ministry. (Of the 903 parishes with 25 or more 0-16’s 359 (40%) had a strong link to an affiliated Church of England School.)
As I have been reflecting on the reality here, two issues have surfaced for me. The first is the question of where all this began to go so badly wrong—when did we see this dramatic failure to engage with young people, where previously this had been an area of strength for the Church? The main group that is missing in church attendance, and which shapes our demographic more than any other, is those in their 30s and 40s, that is, half a generation younger than me. These are people who were teenagers and young people in the 1990s, during the massive cultural shift effected by Thatcherism and our embrace of neoliberalism and individualism as a society. I wonder if, in these changes, we sought too much to be moving with culture, in the name of being ‘relevant’; it is striking now that those churches which are reaching young people are more counter-cultural, offering contrasting values to the mainstream of society in many ways. And it is this group’s children who are now, mostly, not coming to church, demonstrating the importance of parental influence. On both of these questions, see further below.
Secondly, what is the value of the Church of England’s involvement in Education? How come we have so much contact with young people—and how come it is, by and large, having so little effect? It is worth noting the comment above, that some of the churches which are doing well have a strong link to a Church school, but links with schools are possible in other contexts, and it is striking that the Church school on its own, without the ministry of the local church, appears to have little or no impact.
The research appendix attached to the paper adds more detail, and includes some strong conclusions which many will have found uncomfortable.
2.2 Parishes with large congregations are more likely to have children and young people than parishes with small congregations
2.3 Parishes with 25 or more under 16s are likely to either employ a youth, children or families worker or have a strong link to an affiliated Church of England School
2.6 Parishes in an urban setting are more likely to have children and young people that parishes in a rural setting
2.8 Parishes with 25 or more under 16s are likely to have big ministry budgets
All these basically point to the dynamic that young people like to be in larger groups, where there is a more exciting and positive peer dynamic, and that larger churches offer the economies of scale which allow the creation of a specialist youth focus to ministry. (My own anecdotal research suggests that, overall, larger churches don’t have general economies of scale, in the the ratio of paid ministry staff to church attendance is more or less the same, regardless of size of church. But in a large church, ministry staff can specialise.)
2.5 A majority of the churches and parishes with a large number of children and young people are in the evangelical tradition
The bottom line here is that churches that reach children and young people are those who really believe that faith is important and makes a difference, and so is worth the effort.
2.9 Resource churches feature heavily within the list of returns with 25 or more under 16s
This is an important observation. Although a number of resource churches have grown large in a short space of time, and many will be in the evangelical tradition, this nevertheless offers further confirmation of the value of resource churches and the church-planting strategy which is being supported by the Strategic Development Funding.
The paper offered to Synod a fairly straightforward motion, but this was subject to a quite large number of quite detailed amendments, which you can read here. This meant that the debate was less focussed that it might have been; someone commented to me that it was marked by ‘defensiveness and exceptionalism coupled with spreading the diminishing quantities of jam ever thinner and avoiding tough choices.’ Ali Campbell, who has worked in youth ministry for many years, and now acts as a consultant in this area, offered a critical analysis of the paper before the debate, and reflections afterwards. I reproduce what I think are his most helpful observations here with permission. For me, the most crucial point is about the importance of parents and the home.
Debating Amendments. I get there is a process with motions being presented in papers and, if amendments are put forward, they need to be discussed and voted on . . . but, this gives very little space for serious consideration about what is contained in the paper! I listened in and watched via Youtube – it was something approaching 90 minutes before we got through the amendments and then – finally – Synod could consider the paper as a whole – for all of 15 minutes! There has to be a better process for something so crucial!
- Either a paper like this needs a whole day of discussion and consideration or amendments tabled need to fast tracked through by those presenting the paper (i.e. if, on reading the suggested amendments, it is acknowledged there might have been an oversight or something should have been included in the motion, say so at the outset. A few amendments seemed obvious additions – e.g. Growing Faith being integral, which was brought by Bishop Paul Butler – did it need a short talk about why? Just lob it in so we can crack on with an actual debate!)
DYOs and CWAs. What are those I hear you cry? Well, in some Diocese’ there are youth officers and children’s advisers (or youth advisers and children’s officers, take your pick). There is a cursory mention of them in the acknowledgements and thanks at the end of GS 2161. In the debate (what there was of one) I didn’t hear them mentioned. What I did hear mentioned, more than once, is how limited the resources are “at the centre” and this was used it seemed to me, to justify the – misguided – plan to invest resources in places that are already well resourced…
- There needs to be a re-imagining of these roles nationally and every Diocese needs be encouraged to invest in the provision of this kind of support. Within each Diocese where these posts do exist, these servants of the church need the tools, resourcing, budget and profile that befits their vital role.
Theological Reflection. Dry bones anyone? I start with asking that question, a touch facetiously, because theological reflection seemed to be entirely absent from the GS 2161. You might remember the passage in Ezekiel 37, “Can these bones live . . . ” . . . “Oh Sovereign Lord, only you know.” Then comes the instruction,
Prophesy to these bones and say to them, “Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”
What is dead can come to life! We need to rediscover our prophetic imagination. The desolate places need water, where the land is dry and parched of the laughter, the joy and the presence of children . . . we need to be there as the church, we need to be resourcing and investing in those places as a church. DYOs and CWAs can help – and do – resourcing from the centre is not what we need to make this happen! The initiative, “Every Day Faith” is not limiting it’s effort to those places that “get it”. Scripture is littered with the least and the last being called and equipped by God not the biggest, best and the greatest in number! You might recall the army that was reduced in size (Gideon commanding, you know – one of the least and the last) 32,000 down to 300 so God would get the glory.
The approach being adopted to invest in the places that already have does not, in my view, represent the values of the Kingdom.
- A theological narrative needs to develop that brings inspiration and hope – we will see life come from nothing! The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is in us (Romans 8:11). We can, with the Spirit’s help, do this. We also need to consider again what we mean by “ecclesia” – “Church” was repeatedly mentioned in the context of attendance on Sunday morning, but this is just one facet of the community of the called out ones.
Parents and the Home. I think I mentioned this in my blog post of Tuesday, but in the 48 pages presented to Synod, parents were mentioned just the once. [IP: actually families were mentioned many more times…] I’ve written about this, talked about it, taught about – others have to – yet somehow the story doesn’t change.
Youth Groups / Youth Workers / Children’s Workers . . . compartmentalised groups for children and young people will NOT solve our challenges. I’m afraid it is the pursuit of these things that have helped create the environment we are in. Not because they are not valuable – these roles are vital – but we continue to fail in our assessment of what makes the difference.
Headlines from the Church of England and Hope research a few years ago, “Talking Jesus” focused on just how open young people were to hearing about God (which is fantastic) but in the key things mentioned when the research was released not much was made of some of the starkest statistics – despite the way our culture has changed. Namely, the impact of parents and the home environment on faith formation.
Of the top six influences for people becoming followers of Jesus, for both adults and young people – growing up in a Christian family was top. Top I tell you, TOP.
That is just one report, one piece of research – but the impact of parents and their role in formation is key. For a wide ranging summary of 54 (yes, 54 research projects and surveys and reports) then it is worth looking at the key findings from the Theos report, Passing on Faith
By means of an extensive study of the existing literature on this subject, Passing on Faith reinforces that which has been advanced for years by those involved in children’s ministry within the Christian tradition. The assimilation of research studies in this report confirms that:
foundations for faith are laid in childhood;
the role and responsibility of the family is central in faith transmission (a theological assertion as well as an observation of child development theory);
enduring adolescent and adult believers are largely the product of caring, supportive, stable homes, where faith is seen, heard and experienced;
modelling is key: parents need to ‘be’ and ‘do’ what they want their child to become.
It continues to stagger me that mission to and in and with the home is not front and centre for the NCIs (National Church Institutions), every Diocese and every parish. So, it was super frustrating to see just a small reference in GS 2161.
- The Household of Faith needs to be a priority for mission – to give confidence to parents as they seek to share their faith and live it out in front of their children, to encourage church communities to connect with the diversity of family life in our society today, to build connections with homes where there is limited engagement with the church.
Growing Faith and Joined Up Thinking. This connects with the previous point about parents and the home. The Growing Faith initiative is the most exciting thing I’ve seen the Church invest in – probably within the last 20 years. Bringing together as it does the need to be holistic in mission to children and young people (hooray!) with Church / Home and School all featuring. I’m grateful to Bishop Paul Butler for ensuring this was mentioned in the motion through his amendment.
The fact that this had to be added is troubling. There needs to be far greater joined up thinking if the NCI (National Church Institutions) are going to bring forward initiatives and projects they have to form part of a cohesive narrative. I have no idea to what extent the Department for Education were involved in putting together GS 2161 – if anything, the youth evangelism role (and the task group focused on youth evangelism) needs to sit within and work within the parameters of Growing Faith.
There is something holistic about Growing Faith that is drawing strands together that have previously been running in separate silos – the last thing we need, with Growing Faith having only been launched last year – is to have break away initiatives that dilute the progress and bring confusing mixed messages about national priorities.
- Everything related to investing in ministry with children, young people and families should sit within the Growing Faith initiative.
I think Ali’s observations add important depth to an important report, and I hope that both will be carried forward as a priority in the Church’s national strategy on reaching children and young people—as well as shaping the approach of local churches in this area too. All these things have application at a local, as well as diocesan and national level.
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