I have now submitted a paper to Bishops Council reflecting the startegic musing that many of you have been helping with. The council have not yet seen the work so I’m only posting the outline of the situation so far, but will abridge you of the steps I am proposing soon. In case you are interested, here’s the first half of the paper (the bulk of it is available by clicking “continue reading”!:
A proposed Youth Ministry Strategy
Diocese of Oxford
We have a Problem
We have an Opportunity
59% of UK Churches have no contact with 15-19 year olds
49% of UK Churches have no contact with 11- 14 year olds*
“Numbers of children and young people gathering with the church for worship continue to fall” **
This paper aims to outline the huge gap between our aspirations in terms of young people and faith, and the reality. It aims to lay out a strategic response which will frame the job of the Youth Adviser over the next five years and to request some additional funding to both reduce the disengagement from church, and to promote and enable a re-engagement
It’s not all bad news
Where Youth Ministry is intentionally happening there is much to rejoice in. Projects such as St Laurence at Reading or the ecumenical T.R.A.I.N project at Didcot demonstrate that relationship, making a difference and a living faith can be explored among young people. Further to this there are approximately forty five employed youth workers across the Diocese delivering active hubs of Christian youth work. There are also good examples of small volunteer led ministries.
These very real successes mask a large scale disengagement from work with adolescents over the last couple of decades. Churches which typically had a ‘youth group’ and were involved in a faith exploration with young people have increasingly lost contact with teenagers. Furthermore this is not just an issue related to teenagers, many young people aged between seven and eleven are also leaving the church***
I am working mainly from national statistics (as well as conversations at parish level) because there is a shortage of specific age related data in possession of the Diocese. We do have a small amount of information from ‘Mission Returns’ but this includes all ages of children ( we have seen less of a decline in children) and doesn’t offer any specific data on young people aged 11 and above.
National statistics reveal that between 1979 and 2005 the number of 15-19 year olds connected to the UK church fell from 489,700 to 153,300, a reduction of 68 %)
We do as a Diocese though have aged related Confirmation data which, percentage wise, is not enormously dissimilar to the picture painted above*
In 1982 we Confirmed 2081 young people aged 12-15 whilst in 2009 this figure was 676
In 1982 we Confirmed 424 young people aged 16-19 whilst in 2009 this figure was 138
There are a many issues which have led to this decline in engagement with young people. They include:
• Cultural shifts which have made Sunday a problematic day for engaging with young people.
• Reliance on an attractional model, assuming that if we put something on, young people will come …. and bring friends. This has not and is not working.
• A difficulty in taking young people seriously as co-learners and co-journeyers in faith, rather than ’empty vessels’ to be filled. As a result young people haven’t had a chance to wrestle with the reality of what faith might mean, or to have the space and opportunity to encounter God.
• Failing to model and live a transformative faith and spirituality in a way which young people can see, experience, question and be part of. ****
• A church wedded to Modernity (a hierarchy, an emphasis on teaching and experts, an unwillingness to question), all alien culture and off-putting to post-modern young people.
• A fear of young people and a lack of confidence in what they have to offer.
• A failure to celebrate, encourage and resource ministry among young people, giving the impression that it just needs someone or anyone to volunteer and somehow muddle through.
• A tendency to shy away from faith or instead to limit it to facts or ‘God slots’
• The way in which churches have treated volunteers in the past.
• A smaller pool of 21-35 year olds in church who typically led the youth work/ministry
This has meant that churches which have traditionally had vibrant youth groups have often seen them dwindle away to the point where they just fail to run anymore, and even where there is contact with young people it sometimes avoids any sort of Christian practice or discussion.
“we don’t do anything religious with them as we don’t want to put them off”
A Strategic response
I believe we need a creative and strategic response to halt the decline and to find ways of helping/enabling churches to re-engage with young people.
Furthermore I believe, this is not a problem with young people. It’s our problem.
(There is good evidence to suggest that young people are not anti faith , and that they welcome a chance to explore issues of life, faith, death, meaning etc )
In broad terms we need to:
• Recognise, emphasise and appropriately support ministry among young people
• Challenge ourselves and our churches to be good news for young people
• Explore new ways of engaging with young people where they are
• Help churches to understand, welcome and listen to young people.
• Champion teenagers in a society which rejects or scapegoats them.
* Brierley, “Pulling out of the Nose Dive” 2005 Churches Survey
** Going for Growth’ Strategy document Archbishops Council, education division 2010
*** Reaching and Keeping Tweenagers. Peter Brierley
**** Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli explores that young people were only growing spiritually where the adult leaders were too.