Research in youth Ministry over the last few months is painting a varied picture. Many Youth organisations are saying that less than 5% of young people are in regular contact with a church, fewer than that might be regular ‘church goers’,, this is Scripture Unions thing at the moment , but others have aluded to similar. These surveys are great as they play into the mindset and myth that youth ministry organisations can perpetuate being ‘ the only christian influence’ on young people. Then a survey is produced that says that larger numbers of young people show signs of faith, through buildings, cermonies and rituals. And, given that There are more links between churches and primary schools, there are prayer spaces, messy churches and also cermoines like weddings, baptisms and sadly funerals (which all seem more accessible to teenagers than they were 20 years ago, ie they may see their parents marry, or young step siblings be baptised, or early deaths in families). A link to this report is here: https://www.christiantoday.com/article/new.stats.say.1.in.5.teens.are.active.christians.but.do.they.really.add.up/110054.htm
Today the church times published this piece which brought together a number of responses to that original research: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/23-june/news/uk/survey-results-cause-disbelief-among-researchers,
It concluded this from Ali Campbell: “We’ve got to stop doing research projects,” Mr Campbell concluded. “We are doing that instead of working with young people. . . My question is: how is this supporting a volunteer in a parish church in the middle of nowhere, working with young people in their community? There is too much research being done when we could be focusing on equipping people locally to get on with it. I don’t think it is rocket science.”
The Barna institute recently published a report that suggested that attendance with church, a morally ‘right; faith and conformity to social norms were some of the key motivations for Parents as to why they wanted their children and young people to attend to church, this differed from even the youthworker or minister in a church, who cited discipleship, learning and participation in the life of the church. A copy of this is here: https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-parents-differ-youth-ministry-goals/
And even a much quoted piece of research (on these pages) by the fuller institute did a survey on 1400 churches in the USA that young people attended and were regular church goers, they concluded that ‘a healthy space’ and ‘meaningful challenges’ were key contributers. The point being made was that an ‘easy’ faith wasnt worth bothering with, and it needed to be practices of challenge and depth and educated in a healthy place.
However, for me the question that arises, aside from issues about sample size for these pieces of research, and so, are not about their validity or their reliability. It is whats behind them. Implicit to them is the thought that ‘attending church’ is the measure of christian adherance, of faith and of discipleship. Church attendance might be the simplest way of measuring this, just count the people inside the building and guess the number of people under the age of 18.
Could it be argued that research is now becoming influential in the objectives of the discipleship of young people in the UK ? And not only that, are gatherings the place to really discover that youth ministry is ‘working’? For – ultimately how does a young person get to church – via their parents, or school, it is rarely ‘choice’ . So, in most cases, youth ministry might be less effective that parents anyway, its parents that should get the credit.
Fundamentally, the question asked, is What is the point of forming young people into disciples? if the only measure, or scale of success is in their capacity to attend a service, then youth ministry is serving young people short. These pieces of research get the headlines, and attendance in church has become the political end game. But why not measure other aspects of discipleship for young people and these then become part of the discourse of youth discipleship, such as
- Young people who participated in leading others in groups
- Young people who developed a social enterprise to help others in their community
- Young people who wrote their own worship song
- Young people who stood up against oppression in their school
- Young people who became part of the church governance
- Young people who volunteer in a local social action project
And i am sure there might be other indicators. Whether we should be so transfixed with research and the counter arguments about research into youth work and ministry is Ali’s very valid point. But research might be dictating the terms more than it should. It is also researching whether young people have a conforming faith ( which is legitimate) because people develop faith within the structures of the status quo, and not those for whom discipleship occurs outside of the structures, in faith organisations, or young people for whom changing and transforming the world is their act of worship and their call to follow God to do.