A few years ago, Mark Griffiths wrote, “One Generation from Extinction” (published by Monarch, 2009). Although addressing a slightly different question to Nick Shepherd – at it’s heart the book tackles the same theme.

Faith generation and transmission. How on earth do we pass on faith? How do we ensure it continues to be passed on that we might, once again, see the Church grow?  Here we are seven years later and I am wondering if we have learnt anything, applied anything, or changed the way we operate as the church to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

So, as I begin this review of Nick’s book I want to make a plea.

Please don’t just get this book as it is the “latest thing” on this vital topic. Nick’s book makes a hugely important contribution to the current debate – to such an extent that it should move the church beyond debate and discussion and us in to action.  Also note that this is not an “easy read” with trite and cliche answers – the first five chapter give a precis of where we have come from over the last 20 or so years in youth ministry in the UK with academic terms thrown around with abandon, but persevere – I don’t think it is enough to gloss over the research and reflections in the opening section of this book, it is the umpteenth time I think I have seen the “case made” for doing things differently in the last five years – so maybe people just aren’t reading this stuff or paying attention?

Don’t be one of those people. Read it.

There are also some helpful back to basics kind of questions asked in this opening section, like :

Does youth ministry actually help young people trying to be Christian – and if so, how?

Seriously. Read that again and consider your practice, does it make a difference – and if so, what is it making a difference to? If youth ministry is about making disciples and seeing faith formed in young people, does what we do create an environment where faith might flourish?

The Church is experiencing a “general failure in passing on faith from one generation to the next

Not enough attention is being paid to this reality. Beyond the hyperbole around some of our missional endeavours (e.g. the growth in Cathedral worship, the development of fresh expressions towards mainstream practice in many Diocese’, the increase in pioneer ministry and the planting of HTB “plants” across the country . . ) the fact is that much of the church continues to be in decline and we cannot continue to “big up” some positive aspects whilst neglecting some hard truths.

Nick’s book creates the space and the opportunity for the Church to have an honest conversation about this.

At various points in the book, Nick suggests that the faith of young people might look different to what we experience (or know) of the faith of adults, in reflecting on young people exploring spirituality and discovering their identity he says,

 . . . but we are not accustomed to recognising it because it looks different from the discipleship of adult believers

This is a fairly critical reflection! Much of what has been spoken about and discussed around discipleship and faith formation in the last decade has revolved around the idea that we are actually good at passing on what we believe (and with that, our practices) but the critique has been we are reaping what we have sown – i.e. adults believers don’t take their faith seriously, so neither do young people.

What if this is too simplistic and, actually – wrong? What if young people are developing faith and growing in God – we just don’t recognise it as such.

What is the greatest challenge to ministry with children and young people being given the priority it deserves? Church leadership and the way it is understood.

Nick references “Anecdote to Evidence” report which gives children’s and youth leaders everywhere encouragement that their work makes a difference – however, when the report focuses on what factors might be important for church growth,

What is perhaps surprising, and a little disappointing, is a general lack of response to one particular key finding from this research, namely that there is a clear association between children and youth ministry and growth

I’ve got to say, it is frustrating and more than disappointing – but not a surprise. Those leading the church at Diocesan level and nationally are not children’s and youth workers, they are clergy.

There are not children’s and youth ministry specialists in positions of power to bring about change in the mindset, culture and practice of the church. Until there is greater parity and equal value placed on different roles within church leadership and governance, the church will struggle to make the paradigm shift required to see wholesale change in the value of and approach to children’s and youth ministry.

I’m just calling it as I see it – it is a special kind of leader who values what others are rightly passionate about as much as his or her own interests and calling. There are not some areas “best left to priests”, nor are there some areas “best left to youth workers”.  For transformation to happen, we need to see churches and organisations developing communities of practice – where EVERY person involved in the lives of children and young people (including children and young people) can participate together, listen and learn.

Nick lays out some of the challenges facing faith generation, there are three things as he sees it – choice, sense and use.

In choice there is the decline in religious participation and the number of other worldview options.  In sense there is the challenge of making sense of formative or transformative spiritualities in a context where the dominant frame is a here-and-now happy midi-narrative.  In use the challenge is one of how young people respond to making faith a transformative part of their lives – not by co-opting God into the end goal of happiness alone.

There is, reading these challenges, a tension and a paradox that runs through Nick’s book.  On the one hand, the value of the community and the way that shapes the environment that either enables the flourishing of faith or it doesn’t and, the individualistic nature of the culture and society that young people are immersed in.  Perhaps this is best explored with a further question (of which there are many in the book!)

What is the balance between inheriting and evolving faith?

The church, as Nick acknowledges, has found it increasingly difficult to see faith transmitted to the next generation, we have maybe spent too long critiquing the “inherited faith” model and need to look more closely at what faith is becoming for those young people who continue in the church.

Nick then makes an assertion that I have some trouble with – not because it isn’t right – but because I’m pretty sure there is a dissonance between what we believe and what we practice.  This is his contention,

that the task of being Christian is an active one and that “church” is the place and people where this task is primarily located.

My head says, yes I agree with that – but my gut and my heart say NO.  Unfortunately, regardless of Nick’s intent or what he goes on to say, the “church” for many is the gathered people of God and / or those smaller gatherings where we find ourselves in age appropriate groups for teaching and social activities.  What is missing, mostly, apart from passing references is the home as a household of faith or a key place in faith generation.  It is rare, in any church, that the home is seen as a primarily place of spiritual discovery – yet the home, and parents in particular play a huge role in faith transmission – I would like to have seen more of this mentioned, and how it connects with youth ministry and the wider faith community.

However, as the next few chapters unpack the challenges Nick has identified, choice, sense and use . . . each of these through the lens of a church based community – i.e. the youth group – this is extremely useful stuff and should give any youth worker encouragement and will help underpin the value of their work with young people – if they are in any doubt about its worth and value!

Nick is loving his threes, and as we hit chapter 6, building on the evidence that Nick has explored, the rubber hits the road – in the light of this, what should we be doing?  What approach is needed?

First, there is the need to adopt an approach to young people’s faith formation that understands this is a process of generation, not development.  Second, identity is the vital focus attention for youth ministry, in particular, enabling young people to form a sense of self as Christian – a well defined faith identity. Third, faith generation for young people is best undertaken through participation in an intentional community specifically formed for this task.

This is a hugely important chapter, especially, I think, on faith development . . . young people don’t develop through neat stages we can tick off as they grow.  Nick quotes Schweitzer who summarizes the challenge we now face,

how [do we] come to terms with a life cycle that presents itself like a permanent construction site, with an overabundance of competing construction plans and with no clear criteria for choosing among them?

We continue to struggle with seeing young people grow in to adult faith because we have continued to rely on an old model with clear and defined stages of development.  We need to jettison this and pay more attention to the story young people are living and the story we tell and inhabit that invites them to participate with us in the story of God.

Nick articulates well the disruptive influence of young people when they are discovering faith and growing, learning, reaching out with their potential.  In many places I have worked, young people have often been a catalyst for renewal and growth for the whole church – but this needs the whole faith community to be active and intentional.

Faith generation cannot be left to chance – and Nick’s book offers some useful reflection and important ideas that the church must pay attention to if we are to see a generation of young people discover and grow in faith.