Are we on Red, Amber or Yellow warnings for the end of Youth Ministry in the UK?

If we’re involved in the business of youth ministry we need to ask ourselves this very difficult question. Are we the last generation of youth ministers, and are the current young people involved in youth ministry the last generation of young people who are?

This might seem a world away to you.

You might be reading this in a large city or mega church with 100 young people – so it cant be an issue here

You might be reading this in a movement of youth ministry that attracts 10,000 young people to a summer festival – so it cant be a relevant question

You might be reading this question as a leader of a large youth ministry organisation – that connects with 100’s of young people a week – so why ask this kind of question to prick an otherwise flying bubble? 

It is a question that needs asking, because it is a question that might be true. Of course, we dont know if its going to be true, we dont in youth ministry know what is going to happen in a year, (even if we have signed up to the national youth ministry weekend!) , so – most of the time we dont spend any time thinking about 3 years ahead, let alone whether 15 or 20 years ahead what the state of UK youth ministry might be like.

For a moment, lets look at some evidence.

The Peter Brierley Consultancy – ‘Have Youthworkers worked’ said this :

“If one assumed that the overall trend of losses experienced in the 1980s had continued in the 1990s, then the actual count shows that many more children left than expected and also adults aged 30 to 44 and 45 to 64, many of whom were probably the parents of the children who left.
The number of teenagers who left was less than half what might have been expected, and the number in their 20s leaving was also less (some of whom would have been in their teens in 1989).Youth workers by definition work with “youth”, not always interpreted identically, but usually meaning those 15 and over in many churches. The number of youth who left the church in the 1990s was far fewer than would have been expected from the 1980s data, suggesting that youth workers,who largely began working in churches in the 1990s, were making a real impact in their churches and enabling more young people to stay on in church life than might have been the case.
If the constraining mechanism used in Table 14.5.3 is ignored, and one just looks at the actual full results given in , it may be seen that the actual number of teenagers who left in the 1990s was still much less than would have been
anticipated from, the 1980s data.Youth Workers work!
The conclusion is that the employment of youth workers was successful, if “success” means young people staying on in a church fellowship. That this was also the result on the ground is evidenced by the fact that many churches seeing this success, but also observing in experience the appalling loss of children under 15 in the 1990s started to appoint Children’s Workers as well as Youth Workers in the hope that they too would see similar success. Some churches have gone further and appointed Family Workers to take account of the loss of parents as well as children.”

You can read the full report here: ‘Have youthworkers worked’  at http://www.brierleyconsultancy.com/where-is-the-church-going

The conclusion that Peter Brierley arrives at is that Youth workers work!  The same conclusion is reached in the Fresh Expressions, church growth data, or at least, what it suggested was that a Youth worker based in a church is likely, or a cause, of a church being able to grow numerically.

However, Peter Brierely is quick to say that no attempt was made in 1989 to forecast the numbers of young people attending church into the future – ie the then next 10 years. Since 2005 ( the last set of figures)-then- what are the current projections for 2015, 2025 or 2035?

The university of Wales suggested that, using similar data, that each generation of young people 1/3 is lost, many young people leave the church, and never to return. For some, the best that can be hoped is that when they have their own children they will want to bring them back. And there is a little evidence to suggest this happens. But what if even this reduces by 1/3 each generation.

The other issue to contend with here, is the decline in FT or Paid youthworkers in churches. And at the same time, the decline in church based youth groups, ministries and house groups across the UK. With less resources, and less investment in young people (because less are visible on sundays) then whole swaithes of opportunities to develop working with ‘unknown’ young people is lost. If its likely that when FT youthworkers are in churches, the church and its youth ministry is likely to grow – what happens when there isnt a FT youth worker? its children ministry with volunteers, and then ‘the kids all leave by 11’- the common complaint…

Without an investment in training for youth ministry from central sources, there might be no qualified theological youth ministers in the UK within 20 years. The rate of closure of courses, colleges, the shrinking of year groups, and value placed on youth ministry as a vocational career is tangible. For those who qualified in the last 15 years, it can feel as though we (and i mean we) were sold a promise, and ended up with a dud. There are less courses, less opportunities and less investment in working with young people, and ultimately then less youthworkers, and if youthworkers did work on a national basis – then will youth ministry in one generation die out?

From where I sit right now, there are almost 0, Full time youth ministers based in churches north of York. It is not quite 0, but as a % it would be less than 0.5% of all the churches in the North have a full time youth minister just for their church. I dread to think how many youth clubs, groups, and ministries have closed in the last 5 years in the North east. And, Im not saying a FT worker is the answer to everything, but without time for young people outside of ‘the youth group’ it becomes difficult to do anything other than ‘invite your friends’ type events, without being present in schools, on the streets or developing vision, and investing in young people sun-sat.

So, what if the reality, is that the North East will be first to predict that on current estimates, due to resources, investment in young people, that any young people currently involved in the traditional youth groups type ministry, will be the last – what plan, strategy, process and approaches (not to mention theology) might be needed for the future? Not to plug the gap – but to start again. Sadly the plague of absent young people & youthworkers in 15 years time, might catch on elsewhere. What could be ascertained in the demise of Sunday schools was the rate of closure as there was recorded data. Without any mechanisms, we have no idea the rate of closure of groups, clubs and ministries with young people in churches across the UK. There may be headline figures, like less young people attending festivals, or less young people in churches on sundays – but theres nothing on youth ministry itself. Yet, other signs of closure are occuring, such as YFC centres (that start to receive less an less ‘church’ funding).

So, might in youth ministry is it the right time to ask the difficult question – has youth ministry only got one generation left?  I dont think im going early on this. There will not always be young people in churches. There may always be young people and their families living in the vicinity of churches, but young people in churches at all? What if there are no youthworkers based in churches in 10 or 15 years time either?

Maybe in the North- we’re ahead of the game, this question is a current reality and there;s something new to be developed- and it isnt whats happening in the south (we dont have the resources).

In the South- some areas of it- and university cities and city churches – be blessed by a continual incoming group of young people via education, and do what you can with them, because more and more of them will have had less and less connections with churches, outside of an assembly or attendance at a messy church up until the age of 9. In the South it might not be time to ask the difficult question. But if nothing else, someone involved in youth ministry needs to be thinking 15 years ahead. If this was about to be true – what difference would it make? Would there be more investment in working with young people?  Would there be a national conversation within church affiliations about training for youth ministry? a joined up approach perhaps? or something else…

Youth Ministry in our time, might be the Sunday School in our parents time. Theres Red, Amber and Yellow warnings around the country, the question is, is it like for like replacement, or is something more pioneering required to as a replacement, where youth ministry has failed and about to be extinct… There might be a chance to do something about it before things get to that stage….

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