I agonise over blog titles. Does my title reflect the content? Am I luring people to the blog post with a sensationalist headline? Does the title genuinely reflect what I am trying to articulate? It can be a bit like wrestling with a tweet . . . (argh! I’ve run our of characters, or you get one letter wrong in your haste to post). I messed about with two titles for this post :
“the key to church growth” (Which I have gone for)
“the reason our young people leave” (Which I decided against)
Let me explain my choice, then we will get in to the post proper.
I have blogged and tweeted many times about the reasons young people leave the church. I know others who have too. There are the anecdotal stories and the evidence – overwhelming evidence of what might make a difference. Yet, the church continues to be stuck in what my old degree mentor terms, “Theological Dissonance” – that is, the disconnect between what we know and believe to be true and our actual practice.
We know, if we could but be honest with ourselves, what the key to church growth is (and what might stem the tide of young people leaving the church) – they are one and the same – our issue is actually doing it.
We neither put adequate resources towards this one thing, nor do we discuss it properly, nor do we train our church leaders to consider it above all over things we might train them in when we consider spiritual formation and discipleship.
So, having repeatedly bleated on about the reasons young people leave (and seeing a great many articles by others receive a brief bit of notice and then fall by the wayside), I’m going with “church growth”. The two are obviously connected . . . and, just taking a snapshot of the Church of England illustrates why.
Read this statement :
Then read this one :
Now. Put these two statements together.
That second one. It isn’t just true in the Church of England. I’ve run training and events for other denominations and free evangelical churches . . . I ask the question, “How many of you were in the Church as children?” 90% of the hands go up . . . WHEREVER I have asked this question (I’ve asked it a lot).
So – it should be clear then.
What we MUST do? What we are failing to do?
Pass on faith to the next generation.
This is the single most effective thing we can do to grow the Church. It will make more difference than evangelism, running courses, seeker friendly services, investing in Alpha, Christianity Explored, Back to Church Sunday, Christian Conferences and the latest fad or trend.
Every single piece of research that has been done in the last five years exploring how children and young people come to faith has highlighted as crucial the role that parents play.
It is almost as if the stats and the numbers and the evidence was trying to tell us something! What saddens and alarms me is the misdirection, wrong focus and blindness to this truth when these same pieces of research are trumpeted and findings announced . . . yes, you can find the evidence for the vital role that parents play . . . if you dig about a bit. It is rarely the “headline” news. Why is this?
We refuse to think holistically about the Church.
I don’t say that lightly. However, we continue – for the most part – to compartmentalise age groups, we hive off the kids and the youth so the real business of “church” can happen. We have lopped off (or hidden away in a portacabin) the arms and legs or – in many churches – the beating life and heart of the church and then talk to the adults as if they, and they alone are the body of Christ!
You don’t do that?
Ok, a sermon series is beginning in your church. As a church leader you announce, “This term, as a church, we will be exploring the book of Galatians.” Except you aren’t. The adults are. The young people are doing something else, the children are doing something else. The church is divided and separated as it comes to God’s word. You might then say, “Oh no, but we follow the lectionary, so we all do the same thing!” (But, in church the adults main teaching comes from the Letters, the young people are hanging out in the Gospel because it is “all about Jesus init”?; the children are writing a psalm about God’s love – whilst avoiding the tricky bits).
We are about as “together” as when we all sit in our own homes in the same room even – as the rest of our family, having “family time”, but on our different devices and not making eye contact or talking . . .
I got a bit carried away to make that point.
What I’m trying to say is that often, what we find modelled at Church – the gathered “Household of Faith” is what me might mimic in our homes, those smaller “Households of Faith”. Some churches develop home groups, but they aren’t. They are “age appropriate groups that might meet in a home.” What if, instead of resources being pumped in to small group notes that are aimed at adults in “home groups.” We had the same commitment to providing “home group notes” for all those who live in a home together, every generation, to do some praying, bible study and worship that encouraged them to talk about life and faith together? This kind of shift might give confidence to parents to talk to their own kids about faith.
Why does that matter?
Children’s and Youth Ministry done in a vacuum is not effective for passing on faith to the next generation.
A few years ago, Charisma Magazine in America ran an article that suggested youth groups were the cause of young people leaving the Church (at least, their provocative title suggested as much) – you can read the article [here]. Back in 2012, Krish Kandia wrote a piece for Youth Work Magazine in the UK, entitled, “It takes a church to raise a child” – you can read that article [here].
In Krish’s article he says,
I praise God whenever I hear stories of successful youth work, because the sad reality is that for most young people, youth ministry is failing them.
He goes on to share a frightening and sobering statistic, that sits alongside the ones I referred to above – THIS should be spurring us to action,
of every class of 50 nought-nine-year olds in Sunday school in 1985, only 15 will still be going to church in their 20s: we lose 70% of our children.
70%. Maybe it is no wonder we have such a focus on evangelism – we need to win back those we used to have – as well as those who have never heard the gospel!
This is not the fault of youth workers or children’s workers. This is the fault of the Church. Collectively we all must take responsibility.
Yes, it does take a “whole village to raise a child”, in the context of church it needs everyone on board with passing faith on to the next generation. However – and it might be because Krish’s article is aimed primarily at youth workers . . . this does not take us to the nub of the problem.
The problem and the solution is parents.
I am a youth worker – and have been for 29 years. I think, in that time, I have seen many exciting things happen in the lives of young people. I’m not so self depreciating that I can’t see – occasionally, I might have had a part to play in a young persons faith coming alive or a fresh commitment to Christ – but, as I consider now those young adults I know (hmm, many in their 30s now . . . ) who I worked with as young people who are STILL, years later going on with God and – in turn – seeking to pass on faith to their own children – I can think of only one or two out of DOZENS who did not have committed Christian parents.
Just a couple of years ago a HUGE study was undertaken under the title “Church Growth Research Programme” [visit the dedicated website] although this was specifically looking at the Church of England, I think what was discovered applies across the board for most churches . . . What was especially helpful was the endorsement of youth workers! Not through anecdote, but off the back of such vast research . . . what we have always known, “youth workers make a difference” was now evidenced.
So much so that the summary report produced went as far as saying,
I was pretty thrilled to read that!
But, I can’t get away from additional stats . . . as I have said, often hidden, that highlight the vital role that parents play. These are not headlines, so hard to track down. I don’t believe there is a conspiracy to not talk about it – I do however think it is very odd that what will help grow the church um, probably the MOST – is not even highlighted as a key finding of this extremely detailed research programme. But, ho hum.
So, whilst some of the traits identified allude to the importance of parents . . . they don’t make it in to the key traits for Church Growth by themselves. This is a mistake. The Church is great at taking headline stats that are encouraging or we can grasp easily – whilst ignoring or missing or avoiding the more challenging aspects of what might need to change if we are to make a difference and begin to see the Church grow again. By far the most important piece of research, related to the Church Growth Research Programme was that conducted by David Voas, it has the exciting title of, “Numerical change in church attendance : National, local and individual factors.”
I know. It doesn’t trip off the tongue.
However, it is incendiary. The report should have sent shock waves through the Church . . . except it didn’t.
Because of what it says about parents.
Here we go then. Prepare yourselves . . .
Get that? HALF the children of churchgoing parents do not attend when they reach adulthood. HALF.
Further on in the report Voas draws on the European Values Study and here we see what is crippling the Church and our ability to pass on faith to the next generation,
Ok, yes – it does say people who call themselves Anglican. Yet, transmitting faith in the home is crucial for children and young people to then carry that on into adult life. Regardless of Church. The decline and drop off of young people being involved in the life of the Church is not simply an Anglican issue. A less steep decline is still a decline.
Voas goes on to report that,
I find this shocking. I can’t look at this and think, “Oh well.” The point of writing this blog is that . . . well, this just isn’t good enough! Church wake up!!
Kenda Creasy-Dean, in “Almost Christian” (A book everyone interested in doing something about this should read) says,
If we want young people to take their faith more seriously, we need their parents to take their faith more seriously.
So, I read articles that highlight the challenges and the joys of working with young people. I continue to love it – I have a different perspective now, as a parent and a youth worker. I know though, that whilst you and I as youth workers might have an impact – we must, to make a lasting difference – help parents re-discover their God given call (see Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 78:5-8).
If we don’t – then, however much good we might do as youth workers, children’s and families workers, church leaders – the Church – in terms of growth and a future is stuffed.