Before I begin, I want you to stop and think about the children and young people you know. Call to mind those in your family, be they children, grandchildren, nephews/nieces; or children of friends and neighbours or those in your church, or school. What do you know about them? What’s life like for them, what are the things they love doing, what are the difficulties they face (or their parents face?). how do you relate to them?
As we go through today, those are the people we’re discussing, so jot down their names or draw them or somehow leave a reminder to keep them in mind as we go through today.
It’s hard to talk about children and young people in the church without the observation that they aren’t actually in church. The decline in numbers of people attending church has been more pronounced among children and young people. We are starting to see that trend change in mid-week worship in this diocese which is good news to celebrate! However I want us to reflect on the factors affecting children and young people’s involvement with the church to set the context for the rest of the day when we will consider some good news stories and explore what we can do to reach c&yp.
I want to consider two angles, one is about external factors – secularisation and then internal factors around institutionalisation.
First, we live in a secular age. Charles Taylor, Canadian philosopher suggests 3 ways of understanding secular:
- Loss of the sacred from public spaces , God or any ultimate reality is no longer the reference point for discussions about politics, morality, economy, education etc.
- Decline in religious belief and practice, people no longer believe in God or go to church.
- Focuses on the conditions of belief – a shift from a society where belief in God is unchallenged to one where it is viewed as one option among many.
This 3rd sense is key as it relates to the conditions of belief, the culture or context in which we find ourselves. Taylor describes how this affects our self-understanding by the term, ‘social imaginary’ – the way we collectively imagine our social life – it’s intuitive, and usually expressed in story, images and legends.
Taylor argues that our dominant social imaginary is the ‘Immanent frame’ – a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (not supernatural) order’. Spirituality is reduced to the mind, be mindful and something therapeutic; faith can become all about belief and doctrine and lose sight of the mystery, transcendence or encounter with the God who calls us to lives of sacrificial, self-giving love.
Of course, that makes sense for us as we consider the world ‘out there’; of course we believe in transcendence in church.
Wrong! Studies in US and here amongst young people have highlighted a new form of faith, In US called MTD* and in UK ‘Immanent faith’.
MTD – 5 beliefs, that flatten faith and lose transcendence. This is a faith of following your own journey and your own desires, to be your authentic self is more important than any divine call or transcendent purpose. Collins-Mayo et al describe immanent faith as coming from the secular trinity of family, friends and self; they largely define their own beliefs and look to others to validate the belief.
An age of authenticity – where we seek to find ourselves and then be true to ourselves; where we protect that self from others and we’re not subject to social or religious institutions. We judge those institutions by their integrity and authenticity and they are the key tests.
What does this look like? One Love Manchester concert after the terror attack, where people held up sins ‘for our angels’ and love for one another was the theme; it was the American young adult Justin Bieber who spoke of God:
How do we respond:
By rediscovering processes of faith formation that are not just about beliefs and shaping the mind. We’ve worked with a model that said if we change our thinking, our behaviour will change; that may have worked in what’s been called the ‘information age’ but it’s not working now.
Instead we need to engage the whole person, body, soul, mind and spirit. We need to inspire the imagination and practice our faith in the everyday not just on Sundays. The exciting thing is that the church of England has the resources in our traditions and practice to do that. We just need to rediscover them or share our practice across traditions.
God is love. Everything he is and does flows from that. Likewise, made in the image of God, we are what we love or what we worship. If we worship the gods of consumerism, we are what we buy, our identity and our way of life becomes defined by the latest craze or fashion item. If we worship our God then we shape our imagination through vision, worship that engages heart as well as mind, through spiritual practices and teaching.
Internal Factors. Or lessons from history
This is the one we find easiest to ignore and hardest to do anything about.
In 1780 Robert Raikes began promoting the idea of Sunday Schools founded earlier by Hannah More and other women (but Raikes was in a position of influence and able to promote it so gets the credit). By the early 1900’s Sunday schools engaged the majority of children and young people in England and then faced rapid decline in the 1960’s.
Originally Sunday Schools were established to meet a social need – a need for education in literacy and for something to do on their day off from work. The Bible was a key text in studies but Sunday schools were not attached to churches nor was conversion their primary aim.
As mainstream state-funded schooling grew, Sunday schools became linked to churches and focussed on religious education and became accountable to local and national Sunday school unions. What started as a movement became institutionalised. As social needs changed Sunday Schools were caught between the needs of the community and the churches. Their focus moved to being about graduating to be church members rather than enriching lives. When it failed to achieve this, it was blamed by the churches and decline set in as confidence was lost.
In the 1960’s, H.A. Hamilton published a booklet advocating the ‘family church’ model; he envisaged bringing Sunday schools and church closer together; proposing that churches create a mentorship programme for young people, that churches might move their meeting times to fit the Sunday school and join them together and change the concept of church to better serve children and young people.
Instead what happened was Sunday schools were moved to fit with services and children adapted to the adults. The result was instead of Sunday schools having 80% non-church young people, it was reversed by 1977 to 80% from church families. It was however successful in retaining those young people for slightly longer.
Naomi Thompson suggests that Sunday Schools initially responded to a social need, creating a ‘social currency’ in which churches do not just meet a social need but empower individuals in meeting their own needs. ‘the mutual exchange of social benefits through autonomous relationships’ – implies that young people bring something to the table, they are assets and not just receivers of teaching or services provided.
Thompson suggests that Sunday Schools lost this social currency when they became more concerned about the institution than the needs of the community. Their decline was hastened as the needs of adults was prioritised at the expense of children and young people.
It led her to conclude that children and young people have not rejected the church so much as the church has rejected them. In other words, the external factors have played a part but the internal needs of the institution have led to devaluing and rejection of young people.
What can we do?
1st, We need to recognise the ways in which we have done this and been passive in the face of decline. It’s easier to blame the culture out there, ‘yp are too busy, they’re on their screens all the time, we can’t compete with all the other stuff going on, etc. etc.
Instead we need look at ourselves – what are we doing to ensure church community is a place of welcome, acceptance and belonging for c &yp?
How can we be active and wrestle with how we can change; not so they fit with us but we consider how we can fit with them.
We have to ask ourselves whether our work with children and young people exists to meet their needs or those of the church? How can we change the narrative?
2nd, we need to ask what are the local needs of children young people and families? How can we respond, what is our social currency? How do we form mutual relationships where we give and receive?
SU research on mission and local needs – rooted in prayer & local research
Yg people are not passive consumers, they generally want to participate, take responsibility and serve the church.
I’d suggest that key areas are around mental health, loneliness, isolation, the need to belong and find communities of acceptance.
One of the key areas are our schools. More and more is being asked of them to tackle these issues and that is where c & yp are every day. Teachers are often at the frontline of meeting needs and don’t have the resources to do it. Can we provide chaplaincy, pastoral care, adults to befriend and mentor, and warm communities to be part of.
When Sunday school started there was no school, only church. Now there is school and declining church. Can school be the new place where we grow church?
Turn and talk – what is your social currency? What do you have to offer for the needs in your community.
We live in a secular age, the secularisation theories often lead us to a place of passive acceptance that people are not interested in God and decline is inevitable. However if we understand the secular as a social imaginary, then that can be changed by fresh vision and imagining a different world – the kingdom of God.
Sam Wells, describing what happened in the Reformation and still drives reformation now suggests we need 3 things:
An Idea – that Jesus offers us abundant life, wholeness in relationship with our God who is both transcendent and immanent;
Imagination– a vision of a different way of living, of practising the way of Jesus, cultivating spiritual practices that form faith and virtue
That leads to new institutional forms – an intergenerational church that models and develops social relationships not found elsewhere.
I believe in the church! I believe that children and young people want what we have to offer, they just don’t know it; our task is to have the confidence to reach out to them and let them know what they’re missing!
*Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
- A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem
5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (Dean 2010)