The beginning of December 2016 saw the launch of not one, not two, but three research reports – all, in some way, about children’s and youth ministry.  First up, was “Passing On Faith” published by Theos; followed by “Rooted in the Church” from the Church of England; followed by “Losing Heart“, published by Youthscape.

Lets have a look at the headline summary stuff for each, how they might link together if looked at as whole (I love a bit of serendipitous synergy) and some questions for reflection .  If you want to explore them in greater depth, download them and give them a read.

First up then :

Passing On Faith.  Wow.  This is a piece of work!  Not a report on a specific research project but an an extensive study of  existing literature on the subject of faith transmission.  “Passing On Faith” reinforces that which has been asserted by people in children’s ministry for years namely :

  • 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.

This is not some piecemeal snatch and grab at some vague statistics – a whopping 54 studies have been examined and assimilated in to this report!  A few of the highlighted stats from the various pieces of research show the stark challenges we face as a church,

Almost a third (30%) of Christian parents say that they never read Bible stories to their children.

Never.  Good grief.

It was also interesting to read the following in light of the bullet points above,

The lack of child churchgoing is problematic because if a religious identity is to develop into something personal and meaningful beyond socially ascribed affiliations, young people need to engage with a worshipping community.

And,

It appears that parents were successful in transmitting a sense of the significance and authenticity of their religious tradition, but were less so in communicating the precise meaning of its various core doctrines and practices.

Put those two statements together.  Parents can’t do it alone and the worshipping community can’t enable effective faith transmission in some kind of vacuum packed bubble of activity at church services.

I also don’t see how it is possible for parents to transmit “authenticity” without practice . . . what gives authenticity to something for young people is the lived reality of the thing.  Seeing it worked out, there – right in front of them.  This is about the importance of modelling what we want to see.  A question for me is “do our young people need to know the meaning of a core doctrine in order to faithfully practice well, you know, their faith”?  It seems to me, reading the book of Acts particularly, that some of the apostles had some gaps in their grasp of who God was and what He was doing – but, it didn’t prevent them from healing the sick and planting churches.

It will take you some time, but it is well worth reading through the report as it distills so much useful (mostly recent) rigorous study in to a manageable (when you consider how much has been squeezed in) 80 pages.

Next we have :

Rooted in the Church.  This report is based on research carried out across the Church of England to look at the relationship young people had with church and what helped them to stay rooted in their faith and church lives.

I won’t highlight all the key findings, I just want to nudge two out there (as they relate to both the “Passing On Faith” report and “Losing Heart”, the research report from Youthscape.  The two key findings for me were ::

  • Youth workers are the ideal “bridge people”, and yet their work is often not sufficiently resourced or supported. Greater vision training and funding needs to be in place to ensure that youth workers are sufficiently resourced and supported. A culture of youth work is heavily reliant on the efforts of individual churches and dioceses. Many respondents feel that they do not have a strong overall sense of the national Church’s vision for youth work and young people.
  • The importance placed by young people on inclusion within “the whole church family” is reflected in their preferred style of worship: while they value age-specific leadership and activities, they do not want to always be artificially separated from the main church.

Just take that first finding.  There has long been a glaring gap in value, appreciation, profile and i’ll say it again, value.  What is disheartening is to reflect back to 1996 when “Youth Apart” was first produced (still an excellent read) and discover that we face – 20 years later – much the same challenges as we did then.  This is the blurb that went with the book,

What are the main issues facing young people today? What will the Church be like in the year 2020? How can the Church and young people work in partnership?

Youth A Part looks at how young people relate to the Church of England, exploring:

Youth culture
A theology of youth work
Youth spirituality and worship
Building relationships
How youth workers can be best recruited, supported and trained
Examples of good practice and new ideas to challenge all those who see that work with 11-25s is vital to the Church’s future

If you look at what I have highlighted in the findings I mention, then see what I have highlighted from “Youth Apart” . . . well, you get my drift.  And, that last statement from “Youth Apart“, “vital to the Church’s future“.  Ok, maybe we would say that slightly differently today.

Vital to the Church’s NOW.

There has been a significant shift towards a more holistic and intergenerational model (although I still meet youth specialists and children’s work practitioners who seem resistant to this out of a fear that their work and ministry will be devalued further and diluted by this trend) .  There is also a desire to recognise that young people should and can be participating in the life of whole church – not in a youth or children’s ministry silo.  A big up to Messy Church for helping us see what is possible – not just for children, but increasingly for young people.

After the findings in the “Rooted in the Church” report come the “conclusions” (I wish this was a bit firmer, something like “required action”) ::

  • Churches should aim to build a culture of intergenerational relationships
  • Churches should be inclusive of all ages in both leadership and worship
  • Churches should recognise young people and young adults as equal members of the Body of Christ
  • Churches should be encouraged to explore the possibility of admitting baptised children to Communion before Confirmation
  • Churches should become unconditionally welcoming places for young people
  • Churches need to do more to support their youth workers and leaders

The communion / confirmation question aside (a particularly anglican tension) again, this report draws conclusions that won’t be a surprise to practitioners.  It might be disappointing that it still needs to be said that young people and young adults are equal members of the Body of Christ – but, we are where we are.  Check out the whole report to see how the conclusions have been arrived at.

Finally :

Losing Heart : How churches have lost confidence in their work with children and young people.  This report, from the team at Youthscape, contains the findings from a survey of 2054 churches from across Scotland, England and Wales.  I’m going to launch straight in with the key findings ::

  • Churches, especially smaller churches, do more children’s work than youth work.
  • Churches are failing to talk about the topics young people want to discuss.
  • Churches know that they are struggling with their youth and children’s work but don’t know how to fix it.

If you think about it for a minute.  That third finding is perhaps the reason for the other two.  What I found interesting – as much as some of the content – was the starting point, or place of assumption about what constitutes working with children and young people.

There is an extensive list of activities.  17 different kinds of activities churches were asked about.

Messy Church aside, ALL of the activities were age specific.  So, a question out of the gate is, “Why is it that all age gathered worship is not seen as something churches offer to children or young people?”  All Age Worship, Family Worship, Gathered Church Together – it doesn’t feature.  The only expectation of the worshipping community seems to be that “we provide age specific activities for children and young people.”  This isn’t semantics, it’s about the philosophy of youth work that drives the questions and the way they are phrased.  Asking about “activities” that are generally age specific also misses out the vitally important engagement of the whole church and the home, as highlighted in “Passing it On” and “Rooted in the Church“.

Something else that doesn’t feature here (which again, might be based on the starting assumption – children’s and youth ministry in the church consists of providing activities for them in age specific groups), is anything about the engagement with families and – in particular the home and parents – the only reference really is as a “topic” – i.e. whether parents and home life is something that young people want to talk about or not – this is a far cry from recognising the importance of partnership with the home if faith formation and discipleship is the aim of Christian youth ministry (That, perhaps is the question!).  “Home and parents / whole intergenerational worshipping community” might not be an activity for the children or young people to attend – but is most definitely the mark of whether a children’s or youth ministry is effective or not.

Which presents a challenge when it isn’t included as an option – are these churches engaging with the home or not? Do they see their work with children and young people – especially in regard to spiritual formation – as being in partnership with parents or not?

I think that I might also feel a bit disheartened if I was presented with a list of 17 things and found that my church was only doing 7.

Only doing 7.  Wow, SEVEN is absolutely unbelievable if your children’s and youth work is staffed by volunteers!  I can’t see in the report a narrative that might have accompanied the survey – but, if not given some caveats like, “hey, we are not expecting any church to be offering all 17 of these activities – if you are offering 4 or 5 on a regular basis that sounds pretty cool to us.” that might explain their perception of their effectiveness.

So, the churches were asked to rate how effective they believed their children’s and youth work to be.  There was no qualification of what “effective” might mean – this was an intentionally subjective question, exploring how people felt about their work.  You can see all the stats if you download the PDF – but, just 29% of smaller churches believed their youth work to be effective.

Here for me though is the kicker (and taking in to account that some of the practices being undertaken – like home visits, evenings for parents, resources supporting faith in the home aren’t part of what was asked).

What is it these churches think their youth or children’s work is for?  Is the purpose of youth ministry to make disciples of young people?  So, I would go back to these churches and ask, “What is your youth work for?” . . . then ask whether it was effective at doing “that”, whatever that was . . .

I’m asking that because, if we ask churches whether what they do is effective . . . they need to be thinking about something against which they are measuring it – that doesn’t need to have been defined by the survey, but could be an additional question that simply asks them, “What is it you are trying to achieve with your children’s and youth work?”  Now, if the answer was “Make disciples” it then gives a bit of context for their feelings about effectiveness (and, out of those 17 activities . . . which might most help them make disciples?  What additional engagement – e.g. with the home, would also contribute to making disciples?)

Now – this next bit, I’m not aiming at being contentious but . . . (I know, this sounds like I’m saying, “Can I just let you know . . In love . .  that . . . “) if we aren’t talking about the issues young people want to talk about it is because we don’t have a participative church.

By that, I mean, we generally don’t have the adult congregations in our churches determining what the sermon series is going to explore or invite discussion and dialogue in the middle of a preach . . . however, for many of us doing youth work this is our approach to ministry with young people.  There is a huge disconnect in approach.

So, why aren’t the youth leaders talking about the stuff young people want to explore (see key finding 2)?  Because as adults we don’t talk about these things.

I’ve been doing youth work for ages.  The issues manifesting among young people (and the greatest need is around mental health and well being) are not new issues!  We have better stats, we have a growing awareness and access to harmful and damaging material and content has never been easier with the constant connection to the internet via smart phones.  However, take just the issue of self harm – when I was hosting “Thirst”, the New Wine youth work programme 15 years ago (I know, where has time gone?) a huge number of young people coming forward were asking for prayer around anxiety, depression and self harm.

Those young people are now adults in their 30s.

The issues we aren’t talking about are not young people’s issues!  Our adults may not be being discipled in a holistic way – the challenge many face in discussing these topics with young people (see the report for a list) – is maybe that they haven’t talked about them or had teaching and input that addresses their self worth, their value.  There are adults leading our youth and children’s ministries who may not have felt the church is a safe place for them to talk about the topics that matter – never mind discussing them in the youth group.  Are issues like anxiety, depression, self harm, eating disorders, sexuality and addictions only issues facing young people? (er, nope!)

In the midst of this we have amazing volunteers and salaried workers – getting stuck in and making a difference.  I’m supporting a church at the moment who don’t think they are doing a great job . . . but, I’ve visited – had a look at what they are doing – they are doing AMAZING.  With limited resources and team they are making a difference in the lives of young people but think they aren’t doing it well enough.

This is not about looking up the road and seeing a “better” youth work happening.  In their context they are doing more youth work than any of the other local churches . . . so why the doubt?  Why the lack of confidence?

I think youth workers – especially volunteers – are presented with so much information, policy stuff, requirements, expectations (much of which we put on ourselves) and – often left to get on with it.

We need to tell our youth workers :: You are loved, you are incredible, you are brilliant – we love what you do for our young people, thank you so much for pouring your lives out.  We (the church) are sorry if we have not stood with you, sorry if we have not given you the tools you need, the space you require for the youth work to flourish.  We (the church) are sorry if we have not explored together the issues and topics of life that impact us all – our fears and the challenges of living life in this ever connected online world – we (the church) feel lost and alone and confused, we haven’t been honest about that.  We (the church) are sorry that we have not encouraged faith in the home, we have not taught about spiritual formation and the impact parents have – we have not equipped you, our youth workers, to journey with children and young people in a connected way with home, school and worshipping community – all having their part to play.  If you feel you don’t know what to do and need help it is because we (the church) need help.  We (the church) don’t know how to disciple adults, we need to rediscover what is to be followers of Jesus, with all of us on this shared journey.  Let’s not lose heart, let’s recommit ourselves – all of us, together – to reach, nurture and equip this generation of precious children and young people.

There is more to be unpacked from each of these reports, but can I encourage you to engage with them.  Think about your practice.  What could you be doing differently?  How joined up are your different ministry streams?  Are you expecting your youth workers to tackle topics you haven’t talked about with the adults in your church?  Where can you go for help and support?  Who could you connect with who could journey with your church and explore fresh ways of doing things?  Who can train and equip your youth workers?

Please, drop me an email.  I can help with the above and signpost you to others who can too.