The General Synod of the Church of England meets this week (It began yesterday, 10th February 2020). A paper is being presented and debated on Children and Youth Ministry (GS 2161) which you can read in full [here].
Having read it through, I wanted to share some reflections and – I’m sorry – but this might end up being a lengthy blog post!
There is a lot to digest, not just the figures which – on the face of it – are grave indeed, but the suggested response which I believe to be just a bit flawed! I’ll break the paper down by it’s sections as each needs to be taken note of. Let’s kick off then . . .
Right at the start of the 48 page paper is a summary which gives some background on the work that has gone in to producing this paper, and mentions the paper before it (GS 2124A) which focused on Youth Evangelism . . . this was a Private Motion from Mark Russell. However, the paper that this piece of work really follows on from is GS 2124B. In that paper we hear about the “Youth Vanguard” and we get more of that in GS 2161. I’ll tell you why I think this is a mistake later . . . (I did write about it last year which you can read here).
First though, after the summary, we get to the motion being put forward :
The motion : That this Synod recognises our commitment as a church to the growth of faith in children & young people and the decline in numbers of under 16s connecting with Church.
Ok, stop right there. “Connecting with Church”? No, that is not what these 48 pages are about. This document only uses data that shows our numbers of children and young people are declining in relation to Sunday attendance – the emphasis throughout is on Sundays. This motion should be amended to reflect that.
Further, we have this,
Encourage dioceses to act urgently and consider practical ways they can support and resource those churches with significant numbers of under 16s.
Give more support and resource to those who are doing well? I am really surprised to see this – not just explicitly within the motion, but then emphasised as a strategy. I’ve worked for a Diocese. I’ve been a Youth and Children’s Adviser. In my experience, it is true that some diocese go to the larger ministries with children and young people but more often than not asking them for help and support – not offering it! The work (at least what I think it is for) of a diocese in supporting ministry with children and young people across churches is to go where the work isn’t. To connect with churches that think they don’t need children and young people; to connect with those places tucked away with just a few people, but on the edge of a housing estate or right next to a school; to engage – regardless of churchmanship – with every parish. Is this time consuming work – absolutely! Is it work that is appreciated – sometimes not! Is it important – absolutely!
There is too much of a focus in this paper on hanging out in the places where we have significant children’s and youth work and not enough on going to, spending time with, and journeying with those who have only a few or none. I don’t get it as a strategy. I’ll come back to it in a bit . . .
Right, we are in to the meat of the report. On the face of it the stats presented are alarming, the decline in Sunday attendance should cause us to pause and ask some key questions about our practice. Yet, when the figures are presented the author of the paper keeps leaving out that these stats are about Sundays – for example,
The statistics show that under 16s 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.
The statistics don’t show this. They only show what we count on a Sunday – so saying 44% of all 0-16s “are to be found” in 6.4% of churches and parishes just isn’t accurate. “We don’t know” would be more accurate.
The Wider National Context.
It is also disappointing that, whilst a few things are vaguely mentioned – like toddler groups – well researched papers and reports on these activities and a report with the voices of young people themselves – aren’t mentioned. A recent report could have (should have?) been highlighted or added as an appendix – “Toddler Groups and Mission“; and – more importantly – there is no mention of “Rooted in the Church“, the quality report from Church of England Education Office.
Rooted in the Church was a piece of work that really should have had more traction – just a few of the findings could have informed this paper on Children’s and Youth Work. Give the “Rooted in the Church” video a watch and see what I mean,
Unfortunately, this gives the paper – and the statistical data shared – a skewed perspective and a poorly crafted narrative that misses some vital components of what actually makes faith stick for children and young people – so well articulated in “Rooted in the Church.”
To be fair, “Growing Faith” (GS 2121) does get a whole paragraph – but, when this is absolutely vital to the stated aims of this paper, it is very weird that it just gets a nod. “Growing Faith” should be embedded in any paper being presented to Synod about children and young people – a solitary paragraph just isn’t sufficient. I won’t go in to all of that here – but “Growing Faith” present a holistic picture with children and young people at the centre and an aim to bring together the different spheres in which they live – Church / Home / School. However, the Household – of pivotal importance – gets barely a mention here.
Then we have an absolute WINNER in “Messy Church”, which puts some of the Sunday stats in a bit of perspective.
A big headline for the stats being shared in this paper is that Sunday attendance for 0-16s has dropped below 100,000 for the first time ever. Yet, if the Church Army estimates are accurate then up to 50,000 people attend 1427 Messy Churches in Church of England churches who don’t normally go to church – AND – more than 50% of those attending Messy Church are under 18.
So, whilst the Sunday figures on their own don’t look great, just Messy Church engagement adds 25,000+ children and young people (and this doesn’t take in to account all the children and young people in mid week clubs and children’s and youth activities).
The Narrative about “Youth Ministry”
The Youth Vanguard, first mooted last year, seems to have become a reality, Jimmy Dale (National Youth Evangelism Officer), taking the lead on this,
He has gathered together a group of the 50 key youth workers from those churches working with the largest numbers of under 16s across the Church of England. Through meeting together in ‘The Vanguard’, the intention is that this group will become the innovation hub out of which new resources, ideas and support are established, developed and replicated for other churches.
This, for me, is one of the problems – both in terms of narrative and strategy.
First, the narrative – “largest numbers” suggests that size = health and because something is big it is worth replicating – everything within me cries “NO!” I remember the 80s – I was a young person in the mid 80s, large ministries (by the Church of England’s standards) were quite widespread – yet, so many of my peers – people in their late 40s and early 50s are no longer with us. I don’t know how else to say this – (I’m going to use capitals!), but –
A BIG YOUTH MINISTRY NOW, DOES NOT GUARANTEE ADULT DISCIPLES IN THE FUTURE.
Part of this narrative implies that if you are not among these big ministries you need help and this “innovation” hub will produce stuff that can be replicated . . . I worry about the homogenisation of youth work, we actually aren’t stronger when we take this approach – it limits creativity, imagination, the prophetic – which is so often from the “outliers” – and what God is doing in so many places with just a few people . . . (I’ve also written about that . . . here).
Second, the strategy – “youth workers”.
Look, I am a youth worker, I love being one – but I am also a parent and a children’s worker. The strategy, from the outset, is flawed if the only people gathered together to form any kind of hub are the “youth workers”.
I’d love to be wrong on this, but that is the phrase used. 0-16s work includes families ministry, children’s ministry, schools work, chaplaincy (and, crucially, parents and the home) . . . there needs to be a holistic vision for children and young people that includes in ANY strategy and narrative justification (if we need a hub at all) all those who work with 0-16s.
A gaping hole in our understanding of what is happening with our work with 0-16s is “who are we talking about”? We don’t know because we put babies and young people doing their GCSEs in to the same age bracket when we count them.
So, we might have less than 100,000 on a Sunday – but that could be 50,000 under 5s; 30,000 5-8s; 10,000 9-11s; 7,000 11-14s and just 3,000 14-16s . . . we’ve no idea.
I would suggest that this kind of sliding scale downwards as we go up the ages is likely because, in my experience, we are poor at helping children and young people navigate transitions.
THAT should be a strategic priority somewhere in here . . . it is one of the main reasons we are seeing them leave (on a Sunday at least). It seems daft to me that we just don’t know and explore what these figures are really telling us.
Linked with the “Vanguard” are the general priorities of the Youth Evangelism Task Group, which are mentioned in the report,
Aspire to have a church with an engaging youth ministry within reach of every young person?
Equipping the most effective evangelists and pastors among young people
Strategically investing in a ‘next generation’ of youth evangelists and pastors, with excellence in training and authorising ministry
?Encourage every church to be confident in what they can do in reaching young people
Draw on the best practice in youth ministry to forge new partnerships, especially between schools and church-based youth ministries
Motivating a million people to pray for a young person
Unlike work with children AND families, there seems to be a disconnect about youth work AND families. It doesn’t seem to make any difference how many reports, research projects, good data and evidence is produced about the significance of the home when it comes to faith formation whenever we start talking about youth work it gets barely a mention. It comes with the territory if you are doing children’s work that you will engage with the home – not so (at least in the narrative here) for youth work.
In this report, that is 48 pages long, parents are mentioned just the once.
Not one of the aims or priorities of the youth evangelism task group seems to be about engaging with the home environment of young people and – in so doing – engaging with the parents and significant adults they live with.
To further underline this point, you just need to take a look at the ComRes report from a couple of years ago. They interviewed 2000 young people and found that,
of the young people who identified as Christians, 45% said growing up in a Christian family was a primary reason for their religious affiliation. This was by far the top of the list. Attending a religious school came in at 17% and Sunday school 15%. – See [this post] on Reaction Life website for more.
45%! Meanwhile, the focus of this paper is “what about Sundays?!” Surely, if we want to see change and growth the focus needs to be on the areas that are making the most difference in the lives of children and young people?
It is a youth ministry blindspot that just isn’t being addressed – certainly not in this paper.
At this point in the paper there is a “conclusion” which sums up what has been said already, but we have another 41 pages to go in this report! The rest of what follows is an exploration of the data gathered and what it might be telling us.
I say “might” be telling us, because there are some quite serious problems with it.
Exploring the Data.
I’ve not looked at everything in this section, I’d be writing for weeks if I did that . . . but I want to highlight a couple of areas ::
Mapping Employment of Children’s, Youth or Families Workers.
There is quite a bit in the “data” section of this report that talks about salaried workers.
What is disappointing is the lack of reference to the piece of work commissioned by the Bishop of Leicester, Martyn Snow. You can read a summary of the report [here] – disclaimer, I carried out this piece of work 🙂
It isn’t adequate to simply say,
ways in which we can usefully intervene. For instance:
Employed youth, children and families workers – we could release resource to help fund new roles in churches without employed worker.
As the report for Bishop Martyn Snow highlighted, there is a very real crisis n relation to the employment of children’s, youth and families workers.
While some are supported well, many are not – whether that is line management and supervision, mentoring, continual professional development or pay. The Church of England has to address this if we are going to be saying we need to support the employment of more workers. Let’s get much better at valuing and championing the ones we already have!
A note on this within this report would have helped.
Ok – my final reflections (phew you must be thinking)!
Analysis of those that Employ a youth, children’s or families worker.
What I don’t think is helpful in a report like this (which, lets face it is going to get a national profile) is the speculative wondering that takes place amid the limited data available. I’m going to mention a couple of these,
603 churches and parishes employ a youth, children’s or families worker but have fewer than 25 under 16s.
This is unlikely to be true. Why? Because, yet again we have the lazy shorthand about the numbers when the only numbers being counted are Sunday attendance. The best we can say is that “we don’t know.” Then we have this,
While there will no doubt be justification of vibrant work outside the church and in the community, this could indicate a culture where youth, children and families ministry is separated and outsourced from the church when a worker is employed.
This is an incredibly unhelpful statement. “This could indicate” is another way of saying, “I’ve no idea”. Honestly, if something is happening with children and young people not on a Sunday – it is as much a ministry of the Church as being in a building on a Sunday. I’m involved in this kind of work, it isn’t “outsourced”, it’s part of the whole – whether that is a mid week kids club with 25 – 30 children every week or the Sunday night younger youth (which also isn’t counted, because it isn’t a “worship service”). Mostly though, this statement is unhelpful because of what it communicates about children’s and youth work to those who aren’t doing it.
In my experience – from salaried worker to adviser to volunteer – everything that can be done to integrate and connect ministry activity is being done. It constantly needs tweaking and reflection and change – it’s part and parcel of being involved week in week out with children’s and youth work. It’s not separate, it’s not outsourced.
I guess you could outsource the work – if you rely on a para church organisation like Youth for Christ or Urban Saints or Scripture Union to just “run it” for you. In my experience this is rare (maybe I don’t hang out with the 903) but in many churches children’s and youth work is happening and – if there is a youth worker – they are only able to do what they do because of the dedication and tireless love and engagement of volunteers who are part of the church.
Shortly after, we have another statement,
While this can lead to growing youth and children’s ministry, these figures suggest that the link between outreach and discipleship is not alway as effective as it could be.
The figures don’t suggest this at all. Unless the author believes that the only place that discipleship can happen is a Sunday. Again, in my experience, this is so often not where faith formation and disciple making is taking place.
If anything, it is a bit archaic to suggest that “discipleship” happens here and “outreach” happens over here . . . take Messy Church for example – it might still be true that people say (wrongly), “when are they going to come to real church?” when the Messy Church gathering IS church. For young people, their church might be the mid week cell group, the Sunday afternoon football, the fortnightly games night, the CU at school.
Finally, on employing I want to mention this,
However there is much debate as to whether the presence of an employed youth, children’s or families worker is the cause of growth or a response to growth.
Actually, we now have a well researched piece of work that does tell us employing makes a difference! Do go and have a read of the abstract for this piece of work (by the wonderful David Howell and Phoebe Thompson, among others). Read it [here]. What this states is that,
The data demonstrated that on average the presence of a paid children, youth, or family worker added seven young people between the ages of 5 and 18 years to the total weekly Sunday attendance, after controlling for the weekly adult attendance figures.
It is so important to accurately cross-reference and highlight other material in work like this. There is a complex picture out there – all available data needs to be used to shape what is written and then presented at something like General Synod.
The data for this seems to be dodgy at best, have a look at how this was gathered,
Tradition is not something that has been mapped before in the Church of England but for the benefit of addressing the anecdotal evidence that evangelical churches are those with lots of young people, it was helpful to analyse this.
We have broken tradition into the following categories using existing networks and associations
This is those who:
– identify on their website as conservative evangelical
– are members of the conservative evangelical Gospel Partnerships (held regionally)
– are members of Reform or Church Society
– Are listed as having alternative episcopal oversight (AEO) from the Bishop of Maidstone – are engaged in the Growing Young Disciples Network
New Wine Network
This is those who either:
– identify on their website as a New Wine church
– are listed as members of the New Wine network on the New Wine website
This is those who either:
– identify on their website as being part of the HTB/ focus network
– HTB/ Focus leadership have identified as belonging to their network
This is those who either:
– identify on their website as Evangelical – are members of the Evangelical Alliance
This is those who either:
– identify on their website as “central tradition” or “middle church”
– parishes which are doing traditional parish ministry, operating in inherited mode
This is those who:
– identify on their website as Liberal Catholic
– Clergy are members of Society Catholic Priests – Associated with Affirming Catholism
This is those who:
– identify on their website as Traditional Catholic
– are members of The Society / are listed as having alternative Episcopal oversight
While not a tradition, there is a recognition the unique style and position that cathedrals hold
I think churchmanship has never been mapped for a very good reason – what does it actually mean?
I’ve worked with Anglican churches for 20 years – I’ve been to a couple in that time out of hundreds who “maybe” had a majority of people happily within one of these streams of churchmanship. More often that not, whisper it – the church is an eclectic mix!
It also doesn’t tell you how they engage with young people. There is also a massive problem with doing this for 903 churches / parishes and not doing it for the 16,000 in the whole Church of England!
Basically, we’ve no idea what percentage of these different streams there are to start with – so playing about with percentages to then illustrate “who” is working with the “largest numbers” becomes an exercise in “what if” . . . with no basis in fact.
How so? Well look at this,
As headline figures, of the 903 parishes with 25 or more under 16s, 55% are evangelical, 29% are central tradition, 12% are Anglo Catholic and 4% are cathedrals.
There are 42 cathedrals (about the only number “in total” we can be sure of from the above). Now look at this,
Wow. 42 Cathedrals (in total) and of those 32 are among the 903. That might be 4% of 903 but it is 76% of all Cathedrals.
That is immense – if only we had more Cathedrals, we would have so many children and young people!
What I’m trying to say here is that these percentages don’t reflect a figure we can apply anything to without knowing the total number. I could join in with a what if . . . WHAT IF we had, for arguments sake, 1000 Conservative Evangelical churches across the Church of England (I’ve no idea, am I estimating too many or two few?) 129 of those with more than 25 children or young people is just 13% . . . hmm. That’s not as good as a Cathedral is it?
I’m playing around with the numbers – but, I’m afraid so is this report.
Not just playing around with numbers but making unsubstantiated statements about practice, drawing conclusions from poor data that doesn’t reflect the reality of ministry with children and young people and making recommendations that – sadly – while with the best intentions, could actually damage our work with children, young people and families.
I hope there is a robust debate about the challenges the church faces – they are very real – but this paper does not present those challenges accurately, nor holistically and – consequently – is not the way forward.