The October 2017 issue of Youth and Children’s Work Magazine, the cover title of which is “Back to the drawing board” had two articles about how we might rethink our work with children and young people.  Despite the “and” in the title of the magazine, these articles are entirely separate and also significantly different in what they suggest the “rethinking” should involve.

In the rethinking children’s work article Sam Donoghue recognises a significant shift in thinking since a previous article he wrote, in 2014, that must now be considered as we seek to minister to children,

It seems especially strange now, since I wrote, the pendulum has swung across to where we are now, with most of the new thinking in our field being around family ministry . . .

Family Ministry. Yes!  This pendulum swing has – at least among many para-church organisations – become more than a nod to the latest trend, but a strategic response to the wealth of evidence from recent research that tells us of the importance of the home in general and parents in particular when it comes to faith formation.

Here are just some of the key national agencies who are shifting their ethos and intent to make a difference for this generation of children and young people ::

Care for the Family – Following their own significant research, Care for the Family have developed their “Faith in the Family” initiative; New Wine – Have developed a roadshow, travelling the UK next year called, “Where the Adventure Begins” – exploring faith and family life, alongside this is a book that has gathered stories, wisdom and inspiration for families called, “Faith in the Family“; BRF – Bible Reading Fellowship have established a dedicated team to resource churches in equipping parents for passing on faith called, “Parenting for Faith” headed up by Rachel Turner; Children Matter – In 2016 Children Matter launched the “Faithfull Generation” and, more recently established a “Let’s Talk Family” group on Facebook.

It would be remiss not to mention Victoria Beech of GodVenture and Adam and Becky May of The Treasure Box People – trail blazers who have been passionate about putting resources for faith, worship and bible teaching in the home for a number of years . . .

All this great work is backed up by some serious research and some serious thinking which should – if read by those in children’s and youth ministry – pack a punch ::

Just to set the tone for the more recent reports, lets go back 500 years,

If ever the church is to flourish again one must begin by instructing the young

Martin Luther

Luther even had a crack at getting families to do this, realising how vital the home environment was for faith formation he produced a catechism for the home.  Luther being Luther though had no patience with the project and gave up – thinking parents couldn’t do it, discipleship of the young came back “in house” to the clergy and the church.  Argh! If only he had stuck with it we might be in a different place today . . .

More recently then, “Almost Christian“, by Kenda Creasy Dean in 2010 states this,

Research is nearly unanimous in this : parents matter most in shaping the religious life of their children. The best way for young people to become more serious about their faith is for their parents to become more serious about their faith

Creasy Dean, Almost Christian (2010)

And, from David Sawler in 2011,

Many Christian parents are not involved in the spiritual upbringing of their children at all

David Sawler, Before They Say Goodbye (2011)

And, Kara Powell, in “Sticky Faith” (2011) quotes an extensive US based survey, involving 3000 teens, their parents and 267 in depth interviews,

Most teenagers and their parents may not realise it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping youth people’s religious lives is the religious life modelled and taught to them by their parents

Dr Christian Smith, quoted in Sticky Faith (2011)

These books, all based on research, are further compounded by UK based studies of how faith is transmitted and children and young people grow in to adult disciples.

First up, from Theos is “Passing On Faith” (published in 2016) And 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!

Then we have “Rooted in the Church” also published in 2016, a report 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.  A key finding of that report was this,

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

Rooted in the Church Report, 2016

There are aspects of the report that comment on the home, but that wasn’t the focus of the research – however, this emphasis on the “family of God”, coming together as the whole Household of Faith, has been one of the driving factors behind the phenomenal growth of Messy Church, as Lucy Moore highlights in her speech to the Church of England General Synod in February 2016,

Recent research points clearly to the uncomfortable yet delightful truth that if we really want our children and young people to stick with faith and church, the best place for this to happen is in a church of all ages together. I’ll say that again, despite the shortness of time, because it is absolutely vital. If we really want our children and young people to stick with faith and church, the best place for this to happen is in a church of all ages together

Lucy Moore, General Synod, February 2016

There is more.  A report released in 2017, from Youth for Christ, highlights again the impact and influence of family.

When asked who or what influences the way you think about faith / religion 73% of young people who believed in a God said their family.  Just 9% said youth workers.

Generation Z Report, Youth for Christ

OK, so – it’s kind of beyond doubt.  The home environment matters; family matters; the faith community as a whole – matters for the nurture, faith development and discipleship of our young people.

So, why the resistance among some youth workers to recognise this and incorporate family ministry in to their practice and see faith nurture in the home as critical – a partnership with parents as a vital building block for effective youth ministry today?

I don’t know, but I’m puzzled by the complete absence of family or home or the wider worshiping community in the “Rethinking Youth Work” article in the magazine.  There is a reflection on where we have come from and some acknowledgement that recent research tells us that what we have been doing isn’t working,

Youth work in UK churches is in decline.  David Voas’ groundbreaking research in 2009 and the Losing Heart report published by Youthscape’s Centre for Research last year tell us what we already knew but found hard to admit. : our models aren’t working anymore.  The number of young people in the church is halving every generation.  By 2017, we find that three-quarters of churches don’t have any youth work at all.  Finding ways to connect with teenagers in the community and grow the faith of those within the church feels increasingly difficult.  Ways of doing youth ministry that seemed so effective in the 90s and 2000s no longer fit our culture or the needs of young people.  It’s time to stop building the same old models and start building something new

Chris Curtis, Rethinking Youth Work, CYW Magazine, October 2017

What the article doesn’t do is acknowledge the biggest “why it isn’t working” – where are the parents, family, the home and the wider worshipping community in the rethinking of youth work?

The article mentions David Voas, so lets look at some of his most recent work for the Church of England – by far the most important piece of research is related to the Church Growth Research Programme that he conducted, it had 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, it should have sent shock waves through the youth ministry world.

Except it didn’t.

So, here we go then,

The reason for decline in affiliation and attendance is the failure to replace older generations of churchgoers.  The problem is not adults leaving the Church : it is that half of the children of churchgoing parents do not attend when they reach adulthood.

David Voas, Report for Church Growth Programme, 2014

Half.  Oh, and that’s half of WHO WE ALREADY HAVE.  Also the way that we ran groups and did youth ministry back in the 90s might have looked effective at the time, but during that decade – the Church of England lost 500,000 children and young people.  Yep, that’s right.  In the late 80s we were loosing 300 a week, we managed to accelerate that to 1000 a week in what the Church of England called, “the Decade of Evangelism.”

Our models didn’t work then, never mind now.  That is why we bang on about the missing generation being those who used to be in our youth groups . . . the 25 – 40s.  Why did our models not work – I think because we were missing something, there was a part of the church we weren’t investing in, weren’t encouraging (other than to bring their children and young people to our activities) – namely, parents – and, to compound that as youth work grew as a profession we increasingly compartmentalised our ministry to them.

The LESS time young people hung out with others in the church, the more “effective” or “successful” your youth ministry was perceived to be – young people needed nothing else but what the “hang out with your peers only” youth ministry provided.

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,

The European Values Study allows us to investigate this issue.  There is a battery of items introduced as follows: “Here is a list of qualities that children can be encouraged to learn at home.  Which, if any, do you consider to be especially important?  Please choose up to five.”  Eleven qualities are listed: good manners; independence; hard work; feeling of responsibility; imagination; tolerance and respect for other people; thrive, saving money and things’ determination; perseverance; religious faith; unselfishness; obedience.

The sample included 505 respondents who identified themselves as Anglicans.  Religious faith was by a considerable margin the quality that was mentioned least by this group as something that children should acquire.  It was included as a priority by only 11%, as compared to good manners by 94%, tolerance and respect by 83%, independence by 47%, or even imagination (the second-least popular) by 27%.  On average, people who call themselves Anglican seem unconcerned about transmitting religion to the next generation.

11% – that is pretty shocking.

Why am I talking about this as I reflect on the article about “Rethinking Youth Work”?  Because I thought – given all this evidence about the home, parents and intergenerational ministry – that rethinking what we are doing (and seeking to invest in the home and give parents greater confidence in sharing their faith – GIVEN their hugely significant role) might feature.

To my surprise it doesn’t at all.

We have instead a parable about lego.  There is nothing wrong with that – except an assumption is made that we have the right “youth work pieces” we just need to re-arrange them for our contemporary culture,

The models may need to be different, but you already have the right building blocks.  Like Lego they remain the same whatever the different trends and changing culture.  Time, love, listening, respect, your own growing faith . . . and of course the power of the gospel.  This is what connects young people to God.  It’s time to use them to build something different.

Chris Curtis, Rethinking Youth Work, CYW Magazine, October 2017

But, what if there is piece of youth ministry lego thats been stuck down the back of the sofa for 40 years?

The rest of the article talks – not so much about a fresh model – but about “innovating” through creating fresh activities based on young people’s needs having been listened to and reflected on their needs, working towards a programme that meets them where they are at.  There is nothing wrong with this – and it isn’t new (Richard Passmore was writing about this 15 years ago – have a look at his book “Meet Them Where They’re At).   Connecting with young people, building relationships of acceptance and love – exploring ways that this connectivity might lead to fruitful growth for the young people, has always been at the heart of youth work.  In Christian ministry however, it has always been about more than this.  Christ is present and we long for His Spirit to bring transformation.  Yet, this article continues to talk about “youth work projects” – as if, this has the potential to solve our discipleship making problem.

Maybe this is it.

Are our projects with young people built around their “felt needs” right now (which, lets be honest – might well change in 6 months so you have to innovate and start a fresh project) or based around the enteral reality of what they actually need – a life transforming encounter with Jesus Christ?

EVEN IF that is our focus – if they have parents of faith, not living out that faith in front of their children because they lack confidence and aren’t sure what to say / do that models Christ . . . WE, the youth workers need to be alongside.  We need to shift our mentality from a one dimensional “we work with young people” to a more holistic approach – why don’t we have “Youth and Family Workers”, after all – we have “Children’s and Family Workers”?

In fact, if we are working with young people and their parents have no faith at all . . . it is even more imperative that we work with the home – the chances of children and young people with parents of no faith actually coming to faith themselves is virtually nil (again, according to the research by Voas).

Having a new idea, putting it in to practice and evaluating it isn’t doing the kind of rethinking that youth ministry needs.

We need to have a model of youth ministry that has the home and working with parents, AND connectivity with the whole Household of Faith as an integral part of what we are doing – otherwise, worthy though it might be – we are doomed to repeat the errors of the last 40 years.