Where have all the young people gone? is the headline of an article in Premier’s Christianity magazine. (Emma Fowle, p 28, June 2021) But perhaps the question isn’t so much where they’ve gone, but why? Especially in a year when churches went online, why have the ‘Wi-Fi-in-your-pocket’ generation fallen away in droves? It’s so severe that Rachel Gardner, director of Youthscape, an organisation dedicated to engaging youth in church posted a tweet warning ‘a bunch of amazing ordinands’ that they’re going to either preside over the death or the resurrection of youth ministry. ‘How do we sow seeds of hope while also expressing the seriousness of investment in youth ministry NOW?’ she asks. But is it more youth ministries that we need? Is the answer blindingly obvious, hidden in plain sight?
When churches responded to lockdown by putting services online they attracted thousands more viewers of all ages than those who normally attend church. More than 3.7 million viewed the Church of England national online services, and use of its prayer and discipleship apps (through which people can join in morning and evening prayer from wherever they are) went up 50% on the previous year. Yet, despite being the generation best suited to embrace It, there has been a steady decline in online engagement among young people.
Tim Alford, director of Limitless, the national youth arm of Elim thought the technology meant that youth ministries would be fine. He thought that young people would take to it ‘like ducks to water. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.’ He believes the decline is due to a lack of Christian parents with faith robust enough to encourage or nag their children to church. ‘That tells us something really important,’ he adds, ‘Young people need spiritual parents more than spiritual programmes.’ He believes it is a mandate on everyone, not just youth workers – to concentrate on ‘raising up spiritual parents with an intense commitment to passing on the gospel to the next generation.’
Rachel Turner, director of Parenting for Faith and author of ‘It Takes a Village Church to Raise a Child Parent’ (BRF) speaks of the role that whole church communities play in passing on faith. ‘All adults …including grandparents and those without children – come alongside families and commit to loving, supporting and sharing their lives, not just the gospel … in their church family.’
Well hello! Isn’t this exactly what the Scripture teaches? That we are to be family in Christ, with older members sharing their wisdom and love in encouraging the younger? In an extraordinary prescient editorial (young) Sam Hailes describes the reasons he stayed in church – one being the encouragement of those who were older. He writes, ‘These spiritual uncles and aunties, parents and grandparents played a vital role…very few were officially ‘youth leaders’, and fewer still took on formal discipleship roles. But their influence on me was huge. These ‘normal’ Christian people loved me, cared about me and prayed for me. Such actions are so simple, yet they made all the difference.’ He remembers that one of the best things his church’s youth leaders did was make the younger hang out with the over 70s – and they loved it! Something similar happened in a friend’s church in Yorkshire, though in City Church, Cambridge, the generations come together in special interest groups and more. In Evington, Leicester, a pastor’s wife told me that it happens naturally in their church because it’s small enough (under 100) to be like family. ‘You don’t need a degree in youth ministry,’ says Sam, ‘Just being an older, wiser friend to one or two teenagers in your church could be more powerful than you’ll ever know.’