What the strategic demise of Sunday Schools teaches us now; Young People and the Church (2018) : A Review

Young People and Church Since 1900: Engagement and Exclusion, by Naomi Thompson


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It is difficult to get past the fact that the most startling thing about this highly intelligent and accessible piece of work, is that is made inaccessible by its price. At just over £100, this is information that needs to be accessible by a wider audience, and not just via university libraries, therefore a paperback version is essential, for what Naomi has discovered and described within her research is valuable for conversations across churches, and affiliations. I am not on commission, but here is a link if you want to purchase this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Young-People-Church-Since-1900/dp/1472489780/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504884321&sr=8-1&keywords=young+people+and+the+church.  At a time when budgets in churches are slashed, and training and reading budgets maybe non existent, buying this book is nothing other than a pipe-dream for most. Hopefully university libraries and diocesan libraries might order copies.

As an overview Thompsons book charts in detail using statistics from the archives on the rise and fall of Sunday Schools since their inception in the late 1700’s through to the 1950’s, including how they became institutionalised, and the often fraught relationship Sunday schools had with the local church. Naomi then brings to this discussion a detailed analysis of Sunday Schools in Birmingham, from the perspective of archives of their union material, newsletters and meetings. Thompson then describes the response the church made to the challenge that older young people were leaving Sunday schools, this included uniformed organisations such as Boys Brigade, but in the main this section charts the beginnings of Christian youth work including the aspects of it that regularly contribute to its discussion, belonging, relationship and education, she follows up this with proposing a model for Christian youth work, based upon 3 domains, Social, Cell and Sunday Service. Her penultimate chapter brings into the conversation research into the development of Sunday Schools and youth Ministry practice in the USA, including contributions from participants, young people and youth workers within practices.

Emerging from her research Thompson identifies a number of themes that have particular relevance for current practices of childrens and youth work currently. Firstly that the way in which churches discuss the decline of children and youth attendance affects how they respond to the challenge, that churches themselves have agency, (capacity and responsibility) for their growth and decline. Thompson highlights the era when Sunday Schools withdrew from being open and available in their communities to being focused on the ‘family who attend church’, which may have been a decision made in individual churches, but also reflected from the Union (at the time) a desire that more young people statistically might join churches from Sunday schools, that the percentage of this occurance increase after this time is reflective of there also being a dramatic reduction in overall attendance of Sunday school. If only ‘church orientated’ families attend Sunday school, then this will put this desire in a better favour. Worryingly it was still less than 5%.

Desiring that attending church is not a new, that Sunday schools were barely successful, or at alternatively ‘church’ had opportunities to make and maintain connections with 95% other young people and did not, might give a clearer indication. Warnings of this ‘drop-off’ and strategic ideas to make significant changes to the Sunday school model are highlighted by Thompson, yet these were met by the then strong-arm of the Sunday school union, and enabling cultural change in established practices became challenging. A significant idea suggested in the 1950’s, that was mothballed, was the suggestion that churches should mentor young people in Sunday school and associated groups, building connections, and that child centered learning became part of practice. Even today, this idea is trialled in some churches, but would appear to be a shift in practice, as top down and leader led resources are youth ministry’s dominant educational approach.  What Thompson highlights is that as the Sunday Schools became locally operated and managed by the church, they at the same time lost their missional edge, it highlights that decisions made by churches sought to benefit the people within their faith community, than outside, ultimately heralding the almost obliteration of Sunday schools altogether.

Her research into the practices of the Sunday School Union in Birmingham (BYSSU) a significant city for the development of Sunday Schools, between 1955 and 1972 provides an illustration into how the ambitions and actions of an insitutiion (the Sunday School Union) become in tension with each local institution (a local Sunday school) and its linked church. The Birmingham Sunday school union had been created by Sunday school leaders in 1814, and via a number of changes was subsumed into Birmingham churches together in 2001, and it remained distinctive and active well into the 1980’s and 1990s. Thompsons research reveals that the principle concerns within the BYSSU were internal concerns, they include institutionalism (a change of BYSSU’s name took four years), Recruitment and Decline (concern over numbers of teachers, leaders and pupils was common), Scripture Exams (and how these were to be implemented), Changing Methods (the most significance was the move to ‘family church’ post 1965), Criticism of teachers and teacher training (this was seen as main culprit for teacher retention) and also the ongoing encouragement of the importance of the union (increasingly as it felt it needed to communicate, be useful and also be needed),  conflict between the church and the BYSSU (which seemed to be focussed on the relationship between the BYSSU and the church/Sunday school secretary ) and finally gender (in which criticism of women working in the 1950-60’s, women also received no recognition for their contribution to Sunday schools, and yet were expected to continue in their role).

A case study of BYSSU reveals the limited level of engagement and acknowledgement of its leaders, but as importantly and notable young people and their families. Strategies for changes in direction (such as the significant shift to ‘family church’) were implemented with limited acknowledgement of this effect, and without consultation. Acting as an affiliate to Sunday school leaders its methods showed a mentality of ‘attack is a best form of defence’ where they acted to defend their own significance and need, over an above the actual needs within each Sunday school.  What the case study of BYSSU indicates is an affiliate institution will ultimately lose its support if it continually attacks its members on their morality, commitment and training. Teachers and the Sunday school secretaries were left demoralised and de-motivated. It looks as if the secretaries may have been protecting Sunday school leaders from their own union. For those who are involved in the institutions of current children and youth ministry practice, and have similar supportive roles in denominations,  the example of BYSSU acts as a harrowing warning of the dangers caused by institutional survival, strategising and significance, over actually supporting, valuing and listening to its practice leaders and young people on the ground.

After a brief interlude into the development of Christian youth work as a response to senior pupil drop off in Sunday school and other principle concerns, Naomi turns her attention to the same Sunday school and youthwork scene in the USA. The principle difference between the UK and USA context was that in the USA there was a stronger competitive playing field that churches were in, young people who had grown up with the notion of choice, could make choices between sites of youth ministry programmes, whereas in the UK, young people were likely to have one experience and leave. The competitive, or open market, of Christian ministry is identified by Thompson who who argues that this profligates a consumerist race to attract young people through bigger, more inventive and exciting ministry programmes, and as a result aspects of formation such as theological understanding are sacrificed. Previous studies such as Christian Smith on MTD (Moral Therapeutic Deism) have highlighted this. Other similar factors were highlighted such as the limited transition from Sunday school to church, institutional barriers, and also the rare but fascinating actions by churches to develop ministries out of social care for their local young people such as the building of a purpose built youth club. The gradual moving away from church by young people is common. Thompson also noted a dichotomy between the literature and lived experience of Religious decline within local contexts, expressed by youth workers. Thompson suggests that there is a fundamental difference in the US and UK context in that choice in the USA means freedom to believe, in the UK it is likelier to mean freedom from belief.

Various other similarities are noted by Thompson, including young people belonging to church, institutional elements of church, developing social activities within the community, transition to adult church and maybe more notably the consumerist element recognised within American youth ministry, and how personal choice for young people is acknowledged, yet their voice can often be lacking in developing and shaping ministry.

Overall Thompson has identified, through research, that churches have to do more to connect with young people in their associated groups, clubs and activities. Young people face the risk of only connected with these activities on a social level, however good this might be, fostering belonging, a continual theme in youth ministry is essential. Thompson argues that her research shows that churches are just not welcoming into their community at all. She argues that churches could be accused of acting as consumers, who provide the economic investment for a youth worker, but offer little in addition to invest themselves in the ministry and practice that might have long term positive effects. This is an additional area where Thompson suggests that churches have choice and agency in their ministry, stemming potential decline through emotional investment in people. Local decline might not be as inevitable or something churches have no control over.

What I find particularly helpful about Thompsons book is that it ultimately offers simple suggestions for churches currently involved in youth ministry practice. It highlights the challenges of institutionalised religion, and also institutionalised affiliations and the effect of this within children and young peoples faith. As a youth worker, there is some reassurance in knowing that the challenge to culturally change how churches connect with young people has not been recent, and churches largely failed in developing from missed opportunities in the past, such as 2,000,000 children attending Sunday schools. Careful digging beneath the surface reveals how churches and Sunday schools contributed to their own demise. In her conclusion, Thompson suggests that churches either have to ignore the narratives around decline, or challenge them, in order that a mindset of defeated-ness and passivity does not inhibit churches in the future. The question is, and this is the important response to this book, do churches, children’s and youth ministry still feel as though they have the agency to contribute to their own revival? If the opportunity of connecting with children and young people presented itself in a local church, would it do all it could to take that opportunity? For these things are only borne out in the local context – each church has an initiative to take.

Unsurprisingly, Naomis book made it into my top ten theology/youthwork reads for 2017, to view the list of others click here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1aL  and view the others and a summary for each.

The White elephants within Youth Ministry. 

This month Youth and Childrens work magazine have produced one of their gems. I caught a copy of it at the Religious resources centre in North Shields yesterday. It is based upon 8 of the serious issues in youth ministry that they suggest that youth leaders and churches are ‘scared to touch’, it felt like a top ten run down of the most embarrassing conversations to have with the parents. So included was gender, sexuality, masturbation for example and a whole host of others.

These white elephants in the room were mostly all ‘ things that we think we need to talk about with young people but dont know how to’ . What instead if there were white elephants in the room about the practice of youth ministry that we might need to consider as practitioners, over and above thinking about what to talk about with young people in our groups, schools and sessions? Or on the streets, where discussion about faith, gender, sexuality, ghosts and relationships seem much more spontaneous and frequent, however.

So: Some of the white Elephants within Youth Ministry: 

The first one is based upon a number of recent blog posts of mine. How might the practice of youth ministry – focussed on teaching, telling, groupwork, events and church based activities have deliberately and implicitly excluded the poorer, working class young people in communities? How might this be addressed? who wants to face this reality? (That previous post is here: Youth Ministry has always abandoned the poor)

The second, Can Youth Ministry be a genuine missional endeavour – if it relies on ‘friendship’ evangelism within young people – that barely works for adults. If groups in churches find difficulty ‘accepting’ the estate kids, or fear them, or ‘call’ them chavs. I have had three conversations in the last week alone in which groups fell apart because of ‘estate’ kids trying to attend the ‘church kids fun night’ – and put those reflections here: ‘What to do when the estate kids turn up: http://wp.me/p2Az40-13t) 

The Third one – How much funding needs to address the north/south divide in youth ministry resources? And are there ways of allocating resources to young people in some areas in the same way parish share/ministry funds do to focus on areas lacking.

The fourth – Has Youth Ministry focussed too heavily on helping young people learn about faith, worship, and find salvation – and less about how young people perform what faith is all about? Again, this is potentially cultural, as sermons are often heavy on content, less on action. Where might churches help young people enact Gods goodness to the world, beyond that God loves them individually.

The fifth. Has youth ministry become too scientific? predictable? If Making disciples has been the intention of youth ministry, has the ready to use material, tools and resources reduced making disciples to methods, programmes and activities. Instead – what of Youth Ministry as a local art form? The youth worker who facilitates an ongoing masterpiece of creativity, of young people participating and contributing?

The sixth. Do only the strong survive in Youth Ministry? The leader material – rather than the quiet one, those who can hack the youth group, those who have the right parents, those who look and act the part. And if so – what might that say about developing a theology of youth ministry that is ‘for the least’, the ill, the lonely even. Those even who stick their necks out and take risks, those who are provocative and challenge. Can youth ministry house and host the rebellious?

The seventh. The church is only working with 5% of the population of young people. And that includes every pay to go to event, camp, festival, club and group. For every 10,000 who attend soul survivor, there are 500,000 young people who watch on from Bristol, Bath, Exeter and Plymouth, within 150 miles up the road and dont give a monkeys.  If there is a north/south split in the youth ministry, then my guess, especially that even in the Durham diocese churches are in contact with 200 young people – then that is less than 2%. It is not a numbers game. Its a reality game that 98% of young peoples contact with faith is a vicar at an assembly. Youth Ministry has to become a whole church response, a whole diocese response, a whole focus response. There is no other way. And in many areas the ways that will happen will not look like the club, group or activity, it is something else. (want to chat about what this might look like – contact me above). It is not posters but persons, it is not programmes, but presence.

The eighth elephant in the room. One year gap year students. Serve only their own purpose to get experience in ministry, and serve a local church. If youth ministry is trying to be about meeting the needs of young people and develop sustainable faith. The persons who are only present for 1 year will not suffice. It is just not good enough. Neither realistically are two year contracts for youthworkers.

The ninth elephant in the room. We need to name the powers. No not greed, or the government. But be honest about where the pinch points are, where the dominant forces lie in youth ministry, and how those influences are shaping practices in too many ways. Does a business and managerial culture affect youth ministry organisations and their desire for growth? or efficiency? or world branding and fame? Do other groups hold the keys to publishing, to conference platforms, to festivals, to resources even?  Who holds keys, and what is that game all about in the coridoors of power in youth ministry? influence? money? profile? survival?

The tenth elephant in the room. If Theological training for ministers has excluded any references to young people as a distinct ministry, or even the process of community work and development and how this would help in a parish – the the same is to be said on the reverse – Youth Ministry training in the next 10 years needs to include community development (and its tenets from youth & community work), emerging church & fresh expressions, digital and media, detached work (in all seriousness, it is still where young people are, on the streets), working with families and helping older congregations get involved in youth ministry, Youth ministry as a whole church enterprise, youth ministry and developing entrepreneurial initiatives for young people & self funding, and developing asset based youth ministry.

The eleventh elephant. Youth ministry has been too slow to deal with racism. Too slow to advocate anti-oppressive practice. Not sure ive heard much from evangelical youth ministry about condemning the actions of terrorists in the USA over the weekend. (Nb I started this post on charlottesville weekend)

The 12th. Are young people leaving youth ministry with any biblical literacy. So they know more than 10 verses out of context that appear on fridge magnets. Do they know how to interpret it, reflect on it and see it in context.?

13th. Church has always been a problem. Kids from Sunday schools didn’t end up in them (only 4%) so youth ministry has an ongoing battle. It can’t be the end game. But this issue has always been the case.

Not sure which of these is the worst, depends on your perspective. But any serious attempt to ensure that youth ministry disciples young people in the UK. Aiming high that they become followers of Christ and perform goodness in their local contexts. It’ll be radical, prophetic and challenging. But being good is risky.