The original title of this piece was going to be ‘The Future of youth ministry..who decides?’ because it was what I was thinking about as I was reflecting on a number of conversations, conferences and meetings that I have been involved in the lot few months. They all seem to go like this:
We need to decide on our Aims and objectives and go from there
Young people aren’t attending churches, we need to ensure that there’s more faith taught at home
its great to gather a whole load of professionals into a room to decide how we might reach _______ people
Maybe our next step is to raise some funding for a role
We need to get back to the gospel
And however, worthy these conversations are, and they are many. Far too often, far too regular, the decisions about the future of any faith based ministry are conducted by the gatekeepers of the faith, rather than the participants and receivers of the provision themselves. The future of youth ministry is in the hands of those who benefit from it, survived it, became leaders within it, and are now invested in it maybe financially, or those who represent the agencies of faith – the church.
This occurs in the local and national levels. A charitable organisation, that delivered detached Youthwork in the north east of England only governed by church volunteers/clergy (organisation now closed btw) , a charity deciding on its future direction has only clergy making decisions, all influenced by other factors, and not the 1000’s of young people whom it has met with in the last 20 years. By the way, this isn’t new.
As Naomi Thompson illustrated in her expensive book, Young People and the church since 1900, churches made decisions on the future of Sunday schools based on a number of factors, but not one, was on the effect on the local community, or the long term of legacy of closing the door on swaths of the local community. Largely it was based on a retention statistic. If only 2% of attendees of Sunday school kept going to church, then Sunday school itself needed to be adapted. And, individual churches made a change. That statistic increased to 4% over the course of 30 years. Why? because Sunday schools stopped being available to everyone on a Sunday afternoon, and moved to Sunday mornings to be ‘creche’ for the church going families. Churches didn’t change and adapt to accommodate the 2 million chidden in Sunday schools in 1900, Sunday schools changed to try and improve a statistic. And largely, this was achieved successfully, 🤔;
If an element of disharmony did exist between churches and Sunday schools, then the move to the ‘family church’ model provided a way for then church to seize power or even to sabotage or bury their affiliated Sunday schools. Cliff emphasises that Hamiltons observation that 80% of Sunday school members were from non church background were reversed when Hamilton died in 1977 to 80% from church backgrounds. This was not due to any growth and thus highlights the failure of there strategy to retain non-church young people. Cliff attributes this to the failure of the church members to become mentors (to non church families/young people) that Hamilton proposed. A church of England report (1991) report acknowledged, if viewed as an evangelistic tool, ‘family church’ was unsuccessful. However it argues that it helped to retain young people in churches longer (7 1/2 yrs from 6) and doubling the % of those children becoming church members 2.3% to 4.8%. Arguably these changes in figures were more likely due to the decline in numbers of non church scholars in Sunday schools, than any growth in actual numbers of young people attending church. (Thompson, N, 2018, p49)
A few things to note here. Family church was a reaction to a statistic and was catastrophic in changing the dynamic of Sunday schools, it was also strategically implemented by the church with no consultation to the Sunday school and… damningly, done to bury Sunday schools which churches wanted rid of. The Statistic was improved, but at what cost…. and did it focus the church on spending more time with the most likely young people… ? Though if in 1977 young people spend 7 years in Sunday schools… I wonder how long this is 43 years later…
The example is particularly telling in that for Sunday schools we could replace this with ‘faith based youth work activities’ that exist today. The gravitational pull can be exactly the same ; ‘how many of the 1000’s of young people do you see in school, ever come to church’ and if there are decisions to made about funding – what part might the same statistics play. Recent church attendance statistics have formed the basis of many a blog post and discussion recently.
Who decided the future of youth ministry /faith based youthwork in the UK? – the reality is that the same culture of statistics and church attendance affects the decision making today – still 50 years or more on. The thing that has barely changed is the church. (there were guitars in churches 50 years ago- as if that makes a difference)
So – might we ask a different question – from who decides on the future of youth ministry – and leaders within holding the proverbial keys – might there be bravery and ask instead:
Young people ; what would you like the church to do for you?
For- the future of UK youth ministry is barely going to reside in the organisations and colleges, neither is on twitter on blog post clicks. If the church is actually serious about young people – it will bend over backwards to not only hear their voice but also make changes and receive young people as contributors. Maybe also the future of youth ministry is less about service to the organisation and its numbers – members – but about young people.
Its also the Jesus question. If the begging man, bartimaus is on his knees, and Jesus asks him this question out of respect – then maybe surely , if young people are cast at the powerless party in their provision- then maybe this is a better question, that trying to do something, and keeping doing the same something, or doing the same something but trying to be bigger than last weeks something. Without actually giving young people the same dignity and respect that Jesus actually would. Come to me he said.
What might young people want the church to do for them?
And if they say to **** off, then fine. But why might they say that – what’s the hurt?
And if they say – we want a safe space… then… create it with them?
And if they say – we want you to help us with changing the world – then develop this together
And if they say- can we just sit and chat – then bring out load of activities, games, talks and ……. no just sit and chat….
But what’s the point you say? will it preach the gospel? will it bring young people into church?
Im just not sure numbers and statistics and strategy have the greatest of track records in their influence of youth ministry, and neither church as the destination or presiding decision maker in the process. Maybe those that hold power need to give it away…
Dear Young people – there’s a few thousand empty church buildings in the UK, and a group of people in churches who have no idea that you even exist at times, and presume a whole load of things about you. But they do often mean well, and would love to begin listening, and have a building, and sometimes a heart and time – what would you like us to do for you? Could you tell us what we could do, with you, to help your life be better, to develop your passions and gifts, to build a community where you and we feel safer, to respond to the things that you’re struggling with?
We might be small – but could you trust us with your answer and be part of making it happen together?