Leader of Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course, Nicky Gumbel...
The Alpha Youth film series has been translated into 19 languages and used in 49 countries, giving young people across the world the chance to explore faith, find meaning and build community. As an updated series launches this October, editor Ruth Jackson spoke to Nicky and Pippa Gumbel about the importance of children and young people.
Ruth Jackson: What impact have you seen Alpha having on families?
Nicky Gumbel: Most of the people who come on Alpha are between 18 and 35. The average age is around 27, so most of them are single. But what you see is those people then getting married and having children. Wandering around church or our church week away [Focus], there are so many families. I just bumped into a person who was in my small group back in 1991 and their children are now grown up. You see the impact of one person coming to faith and then getting married, then having children and grandchildren; a whole dynasty. So the impact is huge on families.
RJ: How can church leaders help support youth and children’s ministries?
Pippa Gumbel: I don’t see youth and children’s work as a side thing. It’s a main thing. It’s not something the Church does; children and young people are the Church. I’m thrilled that on the Saturday night of Focus, the children and young people ran the event in the big top for the adults. That is a really good thing to do, because it’s showing that we believe in them; that they have a ministry now, not just in years to come.
Resources are probably short in churches. So we encourage churches to get involved with bigger things if they can; festivals like Soul Survivor or whatever works for them. Help each other. If you’ve got a bigger children’s or youth group, help the other churches that are smaller, and try and network. Don’t just encourage your own ministries and build your own group, see what is happening in other children’s and youth groups around your area and support them.
NG: The children, to some extent, are voiceless. If the adults don’t like the seating, they complain. But the children are just as important. Jesus said: "Let the children come to me." The children are as much members of the Church as the adults. The Bible encourages us to speak up for the voiceless. So we’ve got a duty to ask: have they got the facilities that they need? Let’s not just provide the adults with what they want; let’s look at what the children would say if they were able to speak and give them the best that we would give to anybody else. Because - it’s been said a thousand times, it’s a bit of a cliché but - children are not the Church of the future; they’re the Church of today. And they are every bit as much members of the Church as their parents.
"Children are highly intelligent people who have a hunger for knowledge and we need to treat them like that"
RJ: What do you think we can be doing to keep the young people we have within our churches?
NG: I think friendship is probably the key factor. Certainly for our children growing up, it was their friends who kept them. If anyone in their group in any way drifted, the others were around to be close to them, help them, encourage them. I think that’s why weeks like Focus, New Wine etc are so important, where young people get away, build relationships with people their own age and encourage one another. Soul Survivor is absolutely a bullseye in terms of that. I think friendship is key for teenagers.
RJ: How do we reach children and young people who aren’t in church?
NG: I think no one has done a better job of this than Mike Pilavachi at Soul Survivor. I think that’s one of the most remarkable works of God that we’ve seen in our generation. Thousands and thousands of young people come to faith during those weeks. In our theological college [St Mellitus], so many of the people training for ordination came to faith at Soul Survivor.
I think each church can try and have one service at least that is really attractive to people outside of the Church. I’m not sure that we’ve succeeded in it yet, but we want to have a church that people can say to their friends: "Come and see" and be confident that they can bring their teenage friends and see what they’re doing.
So there’s a ‘come and see’, but there’s also the ‘go and tell’. What someone like Lindz West [of band LZ7] is doing is ‘go and tell’. He goes into schools and speaks in an environment that most of us would be absolutely terrified in, but he manages to communicate and has a huge impact on these schools. It takes great skill and great courage to go into a school and do things that people like Lindz do that are culturally relevant and can attract people to faith.
With younger children outside the Church, I think you have to be very careful that you’re working with the parents. I think you have to be respectful; be sensitive to situations.
We have to make sure that we look after the children who are in the Church. Children are very intelligent. They can understand anything if it’s simply explained. So I think we have to treat our children as much as being members of the Church as anybody else; honour and respect them, look after them. They don’t necessarily just want to be entertained. They are highly intelligent people who have a hunger for knowledge and we need to treat them like that.
RJ: What would you say to a parent trying to raise their children in the Christian faith?
PG: I think it’s changing and the challenges are different all the time. When our children were young, we didn’t have things like smartphones. I’m sure we had different problems, but I think that’s navigating some really complex areas.
"As parents, you sort of have to have a long rein. You can’t keep controlling them. Don’t panic if they stop going to church, just keep praying and keep your mouth shut!"
I’m actually quite glad not to have to go through that! We’ve got grandchildren who will have to go through it all, but I think it’s a real challenge. Of course, the internet is brilliant, but it also is a challenge with things like cyberbullying.
I think try and encourage your children to be strong and to stand up for what they believe is right. Romans 12 says: "Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mould." Encourage them to be brave enough to stand up for what they believe in and believe that God will watch their back. They may get some flak and experience difficulties. It’s hard when you want to encourage them. They will have to swim against the tide and it’s really tough. Give them plenty of grace. Say to them: "When you fall… we’re not expecting you to be perfect. To navigate through your teenage years is really difficult. We’re praying for you, we believe in you, we’re proud of you, we’re rooting for you and we’re sure God’s going to lead you through it. But it is a navigation of a lot of obstacles and we’re just believing that God is going to get you through that and bring you out strong."
NG: The most important thing for them is what you model in your own life. The most important thing is what they see in their parents’ relationship with each other. If they see a good model in the home - of love, faithfulness - then they’re going to want to stick with that. If they see something that is not attractive in the home - it doesn’t matter what you tell them or what you teach them - they’re going to say: "I don’t want that." So I think it’s never more important to try and live out your faith than in the home, and to model by example. Teaching we can do a bit, but I think if it’s pressurised then it’s counterproductive. But it’s much more just loving them: loving your children, husbands and wives loving each other. A house of love and faithfulness is, I think, the best environment for children to grow up in, and to see that, then hopefully they will want that for their own children.
PG: And have lots of fun and don’t be too intense!
NG: Yeah, I think if we’re intense that’s very counterproductive. Personally, I feel it’s very important not to put pressure on your children. We never told our children to read their Bibles, but they all did..
PG: They might not have all the way through, but they do now!
NG: I never once said to any of them: "You should read your Bible." But they see what you do and if they want to, they’ll follow it. But I think if you say: "You’ve really got to read it," I don’t think they’ll want to do it.
RJ: What would your advice be for your 13-year-old self?
NG: The environment I was brought up in was so different from the environment today. The internet did not exist, we had a black and white television; it was just such a different world.
PG: Make sure you find Jesus, because neither of us had a relationship with Jesus at 13.
NG: Yes. The earlier you find faith, the less damage you’ll do to yourself. Because you do damage to yourself when you’re a teenager. We did damage to ourselves in our teenage years by not having a faith in Jesus. The earlier you find that faith, the better. When I became a Christian, I said to someone: "I’m so glad I became a Christian at 18 because I had all this experience beforehand." But they said: "No, the earlier you come to faith, the better." And now I totally get that wisdom.
Being brought up in a Christian home makes a huge difference. I noticed at theological college that the people that had been brought up in Christian homes didn’t have the same issues studying theology as the ones who, like me, were converted as teenagers. We went through many more doubts. There’s something about people who have been brought up in Christian homes; they have an absolute deep security about their faith; a relaxed, deep security. They just knew it was true. And they were protected, I think, from a lot of stuff that we weren’t protected from, because we lived a very different teenage life. Even though it’s quite a short period, it can do you quite a lot of damage. Pippa’s right: the earlier you put your faith in Jesus, the better.
PG: Your Christian friends are the most important thing. As parents, you sort of have to have a long rein. You can’t keep controlling your children. Don’t panic if they stop going to church, just keep praying and keep your mouth shut! Encourage your children to pick good friends. Send them to things like Soul Survivor so they have those experiences.
To find out more about the new Alpha Youth film series, which has been updated, rewritten and redesigned for a global audience, visit alpha.org/alpha-youth-series.