‘Where have the young people gone?’ 5 ways to get the long lost young people back into church

One minute you have them, all neat and tidy in rows upon rows, in small groups of small groups doing sunday school – the next minute theyre all gone! 

And, theyve stayed gone.

Remembering that this situation isnt new (the drop off from the 2 million young people who attended sunday schools at aged 8 verses aged 12 was large, and that was pre 1900)   Image result for sunday school rally day 1900

So you are going to need a very long memory to remember those days.

But maybe you can remember when you were part of a thriving youth ministry scene in the 1960’s?

That thriving youth ministry scene – was also the same time in which according to church statistics, young people were leaving the church at a rate of 300 per week between 1970-1980.

Image result for sunday school rally day 1900

So, its not an ‘all of a sudden thing’ that there are no young people in the church you are sitting in. Theres an element of rugged determination probably on your part that you’re still there. The survivior, the last warrior emblazoned with the leadership and pcc or retired elder badge for long service. Well done good and faithful servant, and I do mean this.

But if we’re only asking now – where are all the young people – we also have to ask – what happened to them in the 70’s and 80’s and to some extent the 1990’s – for as ive said before, even I represent one of only 3 people from a youth group/club in a church of 30 who are still involved in church – and sometimes that is clinging on by the fingernails.

The questions we have to ask about young people and the church have got to have different answers to them that was being given in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s. And I think that might be a different piece. For – though we have to find young people – we also do have to have some idea of what it is we expect, or want them to do, or how they are to experience faith once indeed we might have found them.

How might churches find their long lost young people? especially when theres none at all to start with?

The first things is to begin with reality not assumptions. But churches are full of them. So here is a picture of a warning sign.     Image result for assumptions

‘there are always young people on the streets being a nuisance‘  Find out the facts, how many, is it the same young people, are they from the area, how old are they, are they in the same group, what do you they like doing, what are they interested in, what schools do they go to. Also is it always? or just on a friday night, or just through the summer holidays?

young people are so busy, being taken to after school clubs, having to ride buses, they’re too busy for church’  Is that ‘all’ the young people who are in your community – or just the ones that you have connections with – and might they be too busy with other things, because these other things are seen to be more important & meaningful (maybe thats a challenge, to make the local church a space of meaning and significance) – but legitimately, even in areas where there are high attendance of mostly children going to swim clubs or brownies, there will be many who cannot afford these things, or have transport or parents at home to take them. When we start from a place of 0 young people, creating a place for these few who dont have opportunities – seems not only a good idea, but a godly one too – doesnt it?

‘young people find the building a barrier’ this is an assumption we make – then we need to make the space safer, but then not spend decades improving a building only for there to be now no connection with local people who then have disregarded a building as irrelevant however much of a conference centre it now looks like.

but we have nothing to offer – we’re an ageing congregation, young people are more likely to go to the (insert name of contemporary church) church down the road’ no, only the kids from christian parents who value style and entertainment in worship practices will go there. The young people in your local area who find meaning and connection in the space you offer, will continue to do so. And the person, usually a trendy youth pastor from that trendy contemporary church or youth ministry who suggests the existing church is boring should be shot.

These are all assumptions that at some point of another someone in a local church has made about the reasons why young people are not involved in the faith community, or the advent of sunday trading, sunday football or some other cultural entertainment reason.

So how do churches find the young people – where are they hiding?

  1. Discover the reality of life for young people, spend time in the local areas, communities and be present in the spaces. So, walk the dog around estates, grab a pint of milk at the corner shop, take up running – all with the additional purpose of being around in the public spaces of a local community at times. So, when school buses come back, or after tea, or at the weekends, do young people walk home from school buses, do any of them play football in the park from 7 (and is it the same ones every night) . Just any real picture is helpful.
  2. Schools. Schools are tricky, as they are becoming an even more compressed space of formal learning, and almost sadly just exam factories. School staff also have had good and negative experiences of faith groups either personally or professionally, so all the stuff about building trust slowly applies, or trying to connect in a way that helps the schools out, such as offering lessons on challenging topics like relationships, drugs and alcohol – or help in some way like mentoring some of the young people who are struggling. Or chapliancy for the whole school (especially in the peak stressful times in a school, ie between the inservice day in september and the end of term in july 😉 ) The days of ‘just doing assemblies’ because this topped up what the kids were learning in sunday schools or was a way of attracting them to the church’s activities are over. As i said here, To disciple young people, we need to quit assemblies.  though it might still be a start – there are other ways of being meaningful and connecting. But the school is just the school, its a place socially constructed in a way, and where young people perform in a way to thrive or survive, and/or be popular or to be invisible. And thats not rocket science, just one reality of the context of trying to be present in, its an already established culture and community in which you might be trying to find some kind of acceptance and respect in.
  3. The public spaces of the town and village centre. This wont be all the young people – no where has ‘all the young people anyway’ – but are there places and times when young people do congregate – is it the town centre on a saturday, the bus shelter on a friday, the village green on a tuesday  – if these are places young people choose to be in (as opposed to school where they dont choose) – then this, with the right approach and training, can be a way of making connections in places where young people have already considered safe.  Or it might be that this is the time to have the church open for hot chocolate, or take some out with you to the bus stop and spend time just chatting with young people there. If you’ve got a dog collar on, honestly its far easier to do this that try and be some kind of youthworker doing it. Not easy, takes bravery and vulnerability – but much of that is because weve made too many assumptions about young people that make us feel scared of them. Oh and by the way, any abuse from a distance when they see you coming, take that as the ‘mating call of the needy young person’ …. 😉
  4. What if young people are in their homes, doing their homework, playing on computer games, on social media? And for many this is the new normal, the new reality and the new majority. Maybe for this family, it is not about trying to connect with the young people at all, it is about trying to connect and become meaningful with the whole family. Also the young person is not in their room all day every day. But – What might mission to middle class families look like? And that is not my specialist subject…  – churches should be able to offer an alternative to the depression of eastenders or the business of commuter life – a place of hope, quietness, community?
  5. Attracting families to church with children has been easy, from sunday schools, messy church and every thing else inbetween, and at the moment summer holiday clubs are on, but they are plummeting in terms of numbers, and delivery. But that doesnt mean that in your local area, in your local space an after school group, messy church, themed club (movie/craft/sports) might be just the thing for families to be involved in that you as a local church can do. Forget any national picture or statistic – yes i mean forget it – if a small group of families want to set up a kids club (that you though was old fashioned at what you were doing in the 80’s) then let them. If its what is most meaningful and causes the church to be a space of community and conversation then make it happen. Family work with children isnt necessarily going to bring the young people back. But it at least could cause the church to be looked on favourably locally.  At least with 8 year olds coming to a craft afternoon, there is at least the possibility of some group work with them, and having conversations with them and creating a longer term space for their community and conversation to continue.  We may need to invest in the potential group work of the 8 year olds and believe in it as a long term process. Telling them theres ‘nothing’ after messy church when they get to 10, is only because we have wasted 2 years in not talking to them about what they might like to do next or continue to participate in.

These all feel like whats been tried for the last 30 years. And yes, thats probably true.

I kind of wish that there was some magic answer. Some new answer. And in my last post I did put forward a few new ideas (see previous post)

The reality is that though it is easier to say why churches should involve themselves in working with young people for social and definitely spiritual reasons, actually doing it is going to be quite hard work, and a mixture of looking for opportunities, and also making the most of opportunities that may already be happening, or being in a place where opportunities may emerge (such as the bus stop over a mug of hot chocolate) . Its going to take vulnerability and spirit of collective pioneering and action, and thats not easy. The responses to the question of how to get the young people back into church doesnt need some kind of magic dynamic answer, and not from me anyway, the answer to that question will only be found in your local area, through making spaces to connect, through being present, and through listening to whats already happening, and trying to find a way of being meaningful to all, especially those for whom the normal way of life is leaving them behind, making them stressful, pressured and pained.  Churches that want young people for their own survival, might be better placed to think about how other people are trying to do survival and get alongside them. I dunno, seems like Jesus met people in the margins, in the borders and healed those who needed to be lifted up – guess that could be the heart of the gospel, and the heart of Gods mission for young people and their families, its just a hunch. There isnt a new answer to that question, its the same old answer, the story of faith that we’re participating in in our local contexts, and asking how might we present Jesus with young people and in our communities?

Maybe like God himself, we interrupt the norm, with a conversation of love that brings meaning and hope. Bringing young people back to church? a challenging task, especially if we cant find them or have lost them over the years.

God hasnt lost them. God doesnt need to find them either, he knows where they are.

And on many occasions she already hears their cries of help, anguish and pain. They might be closer to God than we already think. We as churches might be closer to being able to offer something, a God to believe in, than we think. Hiding faith behind the package has been one of the approaches, because God has been deemed boring, irrelevant or old fashioned. The mysterious thing is is that God might already be meeting young people where theyre at, the Spirit might be already moving in our towns and villages. And if young people need a story to believe in and participate in when the story of materialism, consumerism or achievement isnt giving hope, connection, autonomy or wholeness, then the story of Gods redemption for the world that we present offers a genuine alternative. Young people rebelling against consumerism by going to church and taking up a simple life… will it happen? If it did would churches know that this might be the authentic narrow way of the gospel that was possibly what was intended..?

Try all the magic methods in the world. Its be difficult to keep young people if theyre done without the mystery of faith and presenting a way of the gospel that is rude, provocative and dangerous, and discipleship as an ongoing active working relationship with Jesus to be experienced.

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