Have churches embraced youthfulness – but given up on young people?

This is one of the key premises of Andrew Roots book, Faith Formation in a secular age in which he suggests that one of the key reasons that churches, from an american protestant perspective (and he makes this point clear), are obsessed with involving young people is that a youthful church, is also, in an age of authenticity, an authentic church. Root makes a coherent argument, on the basis of his own reading of Charles Taylor, that as youthfuless, (staying youthful) is deemed as authenticity, then for a church to be deemed authentic it must embrace the trappings of youth. Relevancy is youthfulness, youthfulness is authenticity.

As a result in an ‘age of authenticity’ an authentic church is one that embraces and includes the trappings of youth.

The question that I hear often, and Root builds up in his introduction is ‘How might young people become part of church?’ Especially if theres continued considerable research distributed about the whos left and the who’s not in church. In thinking about the question, there is another question to be asked, like ”why young people?’

A few years ago I was asked by a church to do some research into young people and their activities in a local area, what they wanted, what they did and other community activities. The church were focussed on the young people. What the church was wanting to do was work with young people, as there were none in the church – but there were also no 30 yr olds, 40 yr olds or 50 yr olds either – and this group of people made up more of the population in the parish. yet the focus was on ‘young people’ .

It goes back to the why – why is the church obsessed about children and young people? and why not the 30-50 age group (parents of children/young people) and may be more pertinently – has the church in the UK given up on its obsession with young people anyway?

However, the church has embraced trying to be youthful.

This is evident by changing its very public face, programmes and styles to embrace the latest thing – so websites, twitter feeds, guitars, lights, coffee in services, ‘cafe church’ – all of these are positive in one way – but also symptomatic of the wider culture of trying to be authentically youthful. And what then tends to happen is that people are disappointed that ‘youthful’ doesnt work. Its often because it lacks actual authenticity. Root is right, youthfulness drives authenticity, but there is a clamour for real authenticity too, and young people can smell a rat, or people trying too hard, or that they are the target or pawn of a church’s strategy.

At the same time churches have taken up youthfulness – but given up on young people.

I would like to say that there are still some positive signs that this is not the case.

But it is very difficult looking out from the north east of england to make a case otherwise. There have been far too many redundancies, ends of contracts, and ended ‘ministries’ in the last 10 years not to think this. Now it could be that a particular way of working with young people has reached an end point in the north east, and it was a way of working that involved large gatherings, ‘christian rock’ concerts/events, festivals and youth worship services, the scene of worship gatherings in an evangelical sense may be at the low point of a cycle, yet it was deemed the dawning of many a changing generation at the time. There may be other ways of exploring worship with young people in local contexts, but the big gathering time could have had its day…

The down side is that this created an element of enthusiasm for developing working with young people in areas, and taking them to a ‘thing’ could be a huge event or marker point. And large numbers, gatherings and events imply success. What these events, styles and formats did was to imply to those who participated in them that this was the ‘way to go’ – and similar forms of embedded youthfulness continue, and can be seen in the rock concert warehouse churches. And, as Pete Ward talks about in ‘Selling Worship’ songs and the ministry and industry of them have shaped the church, shaped it, Root might argue around maintaining youthfulness.

And that’s before a discussion about the cutting of strategic youth posts across nearly all affiliations and shrinking of denomination posts. Youthfulness has value. Valuing the practices of working with young people….. a different story.

Youthfulness is rife in the church, at the same time, there are few young people. Maybe that is a good thing, as they might be scared by the youthfulness on offer. But ‘be youthful’ attract young people has been the mantra. Be youthful – attract young people- create authentic church might have also been the intention. Though I imagine that in the UK the drive to attract young people has less to do with authenticity, and more to do with survival.

If the church is to be obsessed about young people again, and not just youthfulness, then there might be some re-thinking needed about how a church might re-connect and review on what it does and is for and with young people in every local setting in the UK. As, even in areas of high youthworker population (not the north) – may churches still do not have young people, children, or the under 45’s. So there is much to be thought through and reflected on. If the church became obsessed by young poeple (and their families) again – what might this look like? What might it look like in your parish, your church, your community?

What if everything that a local church did, every decision it made was for the good, or with families and young people in mind? What would change? In what way would a church be both practically for, with and loving young people and families – and prophetic viewing young people/families within a wider context, as ‘victims’ of society, or as important within the faith community (despite what others may say). Most of the time, churches connect with many children and families – but are not able to build on the opportunities – so toddler groups, confirmation classes, school assemblies, and other activities. Building from those already being sent might be a first step. Trying to attract through youthfulness… hmm..

Making the church and faith authentic in an age of authenticity? Well that’s not about trying to be youthful – its about being faithful to being practical and prophetic in the world. Do this, and young people might find distinction and hope in a church, a challenge that causes them to dismay at the authenticity of every lie about them in technological media, and, like i said in my previous post, give them real quality time.


Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 2017

Ward, Pete, Selling worship, 2005

This is my third post arising from Andrew Roots book, the second ‘Where does God act in Youth Ministry is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1bR

The first is here : Does it matter what Age we are living in for youth ministry anyway? 

I am sure there might be more, I reviewed two of Roots previous books in my ‘Best of Youthwork reads for 2017’ post.

5 thoughts on “Have churches embraced youthfulness – but given up on young people?

  1. I just finished reading Part 1 last night, which is a little further on in the book than this. But I think it’s chapter five or six where he outlines the history of youth ministry and connects it to the rise of this ‘youthfulness = authenticity’ formula. It’s revealing and fascinating. In particular, Root talks about the rise of the single youth pastor/worker who is solely employed for the one church community. In areas like you’ve mentioned above I wonder whether we’ll see a pendulum swing back and have a pastor for youth and young adults that covers a region, or a multitude of churches. I think this would be an interesting experiment for local churches to grapple with. This would provide someone with full employment, paid through two or more churches, while giving broader scope for the churches than their own little patch. Some would call it Kingdom thinking I suppose.

    More to the point you are making above, I think your key line here is:

    “Though I imagine that in the UK the drive to attract young people has less to do with authenticity, and more to do with survival.”

    Isn’t that one of the main issues? If we’re in survival mode and solely looking to ‘attract young people’ for that reason then we’ve lost the plot.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are so cool! I don’t believe I have read through anything like that before. So good to find another person with some unique thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This website is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with a little originality!|


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