Last week I was reading Naomi Thompsons excellent new book,. Young People and Church Since 1900. A review of the book is on this site (see recent posts or link to it is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-15v). If you didnt see the review, then one of the activities of the church that Thompson brings conclusions from is that of the Sunday schools, and christian youth work. But this post neednt be just Sunday School or Youth work.
One of the things that is frequently said of any church activity is – how does the activity encourage people to ‘come on a Sunday’? Often it is the church whom make this statement, in order to justify or validate an activity. It also seems to be the most prevalent national conversation in regard to ‘church growth’ ‘attendance’ and the secularisation debate, and there was statistics produced last week which were widely shared in the national media. However, the church can be its own worst enemy.
I used to have a pair of socks which said : ‘Alcohol: The Cause and Solution to most of the worlds problems’ – As Said by the great philosopher Homer Simpson. In regard to church growth, it might read: ‘Church; The Cause and Solution to doing Gods mission in the world’. For on one hand the church has been at the forefront of developing approaches to connecting with people outside the church, and they can be listed off, from toddler groups, youth groups, sunday schools, lunch clubs and there are many others.
In the midst of all the ‘doing’ there can be an unspoken expectation that this activity will help people ‘find faith’ , or ‘give them an opportunity’ or be a ‘stepping stone for persons coming to church’ – even if something might be for good in itself, an implicit finding faith is often apparent.
In the process of developing all of these activities, tons, tons, of resources are produced. People are trained, ministries have professionalised, universalised, and become ministries that those involved in them might be protective of.
However, it is not better training for youthworkers, sunday school leaders, or toddler group leaders that is needed. The issue in the church is not the quality of the materials, the issue is the quality of the relationships. In particular how the whole church becomes involved in the specific ministry, or the specific activity. Think of it this way, in 1870 2,000,000 children in the UK attended sunday schools. But only 2% of those children attended church as a result. Why? – because they had Christian parents, or could be linked into the services. is that not something of a tragedy – of missed opportunity?
In 1960’s, when Sunday schools were on the wane. Ideas were hatched, that did not become mainstays to encourage The Whole Church to be more integrated in the life of the attenders of Sunday school, what happened instead was that sunday schools moved to ‘church time’ and 80% young people left as a result. (though the ‘church success rate only increased to 5%). But even in the 1960s, there was a recognition that activities that occured at a different time to sunday church, needed more involvement in them by church people, as any ministry needed relationships to form. Or, that people in churches needed to be more active in the ministry in some way.
Fast forward 50 years. What has happened since the 1960’s?
Youth work is done by the select few, by the trained, – but how are ‘whole churches’ involved?
Initiatives like ‘Alpha’ create tons of interest in the late 1990’s – but if church wanted this to be the silver bullet for attendance – how successful was it?
Then theres all the toddler groups, Messy church families, and every other week day activity.
Churches might want these activities to lead to ‘church attendance’ but how is the whole church active in the whole activity? What is the church doing about it? Opening up and ‘using the building’ isnt enough.
The direction of responsibility for ‘getting people into church’ has felt as though this has been the ministry leaders, so- for example – it is the sunday school or youth leaders – but shouldnt that be ‘two-way’? So – Youth leaders have had more training, more resources, more professionalism, more books, articles, learning, methods, approaches.
Yet – how much time has been spent educating the whole congregation that they have responsibility to the task of connecting with and developing links with children, young people and their families?
So, not only have churches stood accused of strategising ministries that have led to the abandonment of children and young people in communities, but – even when churches have got the opportunities to make positive social and relationship connections with people involved in ministries already going on- this has been lacking.
It might take a whole village to raise a child. It’ll take a whole church to respond to the churches need to deepen connections with people. If churches expect ‘sunday attendance’ without being part of the solution (not just creating opportunity) then it is expecting only a few to make that possible. The whole church has to be involved in messy church, in youth ministry – and it is that direction that change is needed.
The condition of the church is such at the moment, that it has got no choice but to do everything possible to make positive, purposeful connections with those it has created welcoming spaces for. It is relationships with the whole church that the whole church will benefit.
A few ideas to start off – how does the whole church get involved in (for example) Youth Ministry? (toddlers or other activities might engender different ideas)
a) confidentially – voice the needs of young people in prayer times
b) Develop mentoring/adoption schemes between young people/families- a few are happening, but only a few..
c) Have ‘open nights’ at the youth group – where parents, and church people can come and visit and see what happens ( church people use this opportunity)
d) Church people need to go to events/fundraisers that the young people put on
e) restrict the moaning about chairs, tidiness, all of that. it All adds unnecessary tension.
f) Are there ‘good things’ the church congregation can do for the youth groups? thinking of you cards during exam time, or other equivalents.
These are only a few suggestions, but….
Regardless, none of these should be seen as strategic, or certainties, but if a congregation does nothing but moan about young people, and expect just a few committed people to ‘look after the young people’ then is this fostering community- a healthy community that a young person might want to be part of. They’ll spot tension and disingenuity a mile off.
Ok, so if ‘getting young people to attend church’ isnt the main thing – then great – but when it is, church as a whole has to do more. Just funding a youth worker, or giving the young people a budget to do activities says something about how much it values them, and values their own process of being involved in it. Of course, the other thing is that discipleship and faith might need to bypass sunday church altogether, if it is such an unwelcoming place. Yet faith is being cultivated via conversations in midweek ministries. Then theres a different form of pioneering to be done… If the whole church isnt involved in the people of the ministries, then it might be a better option. Prepare people for confirmations and baptisms during mums and toddlers anyone?
It isnt Youthworkers that need more training to push young people into church – it is the church that needs to be educated in making the most of the opportunities already being presented to it, and create a culture where the whole church is responsible for everyone who is being connected with through its activities. Yes it requires work, but the church has agency and responsibility in making changes to cause this to happen. But who said the activities of faith, and discipleship were easy anyway….