‘Its not you – its us’; How the church abandoned young people  

In no particular order here is a list, can you work out what links them all? 

Sunday Trading, Materialism, The entertainment industry, Sport, Increased spending power, a culture of choice, post-modernism, broken families, lack of discipline, feminism and the pill, The Sunday papers, lie ins, women, free love and the 60’s, the motor car, Millenials, increased working hours, Men, The education system, fear, the welfare state, post-Christendom, secularisation, commercialism. 

Any guesses? Ok it is an easy one… 

The answer is that these are the reasons given, and said in churches, in organisations, as to why there are considerably fewer children and young people connected to church activities than there used to be. And when i say used to be i mean, when Sunday schools had 2,000,000 attendees (1901) , a number that had already fallen by 500,000 in the 1960’s.

What is the problem with this list? 

All of these things place the blame of the church losing young people, at external factors. And put the church as somehow scot free from blame, or passively resigned to being a victim in all of this. The problem is that it is not. 

Most of those factors are universalisms, the cumulative effects of lots of individual churches and themes in churches starting making decisions that have a bigger effect overall. Blame the whole generation, or a system or structure – its not a local issue at all is it? 

In a post I wrote a few years ago, I suggested that the church had some apologising to do when it comes to young people: If you didnt read it the first time it is here: Dear Young People, we messed up . As a representative of the church in the UK, there needs to be greater acknowledgement of its own actions that have caused the 1,000’s of young people to leave it.

Before heading into that list, it is worth saying that there has barely been a magic answer to ‘getting young people into church’ even Sunday schools at their most numerical couldnt do this, and when they focussed on church kids, well the results havent been that great either. This is less about how the church turned young people away from sunday church, but more how it turned young people away from the church as a community in whatever form, such as the sunday school, youth club or other activity.

I grew up in a church, that met in a school, and had a large sunday school, lots of classes, groups, and many young people from the estate attended. So even back in the early 80’s I have a recollection of a significant connection made between church and community in the form of sunday school. And this was replicated across the country.

But it wasnt ‘post-modernism’ that caused Sunday schools to have to react to less leaders, or move sunday school to the ‘same time as services’ – a shift that excluded many, and enforced its provision as for ‘church attending kids’ . 

It wasnt the sports and entertainment industry, that excluded young people from weeknight youth clubs because churches were too protectionist over their buildings

It wasnt sunday trading that in a similar way churches focussed on their own young people, via discipleship rather than meeting the needs of young people locally

Neither was it The sunday papers that enforced a view that moral and good behaviour was the deemed norm for young people being involved in churches (although moral panics about young people might have stemmed from the papers!) 

It isnt post-christendom that causes churches to implicitly deny young people a voice, representation, consultation over how they participate in the life of church, and their own programmes

It isnt the fault of the welfare state that a church might decorate itself like a prison to stop young people attacking it, vandal paint and barbed wire adorned. 

Its not because of the motor car – that the church has got too hot under the collar over sex, and less under the radar is oppression, poverty. 

No, because, these are all decisions that churches make from the inside out. It is churches that change sunday school times, paint walls, have a change in focus (from mission to ‘keeping everyone safe inside’) and a whole host of other changes. And if each church makes these sorts of decisions, then the cumulative effect is that one.by.one children and young people, citizens of the parish, no less, are gradually being abandoned. And its too late.

But as long as from the inside out, whilst theres something else to blame….

And in the meantime we keep looking to the issues outside the church for reasons why young people dont connect, and surprised that issues inside are contributing factors. There may be a healthy balance between the two. But acting as if young people have abandoned the church and its activities when the relationship status should read ‘its complicated’. Being self critical, yes… but how to change things…. – thats another story, and the subject of my previous piece…

Now it has so few connections, it cant afford not to involve young people in practices, give young people responsibility, shape groups around needs, develop gifts and possibilities and dreams. And practice pastoral care with every young person.

There may have been a good old days, but theres been a catalogue of decisions made by churches since then that have caused those good old days to be a remote memory.

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