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Children dropping out of church?

Ali Campbell from The Resource takes a look at recent Church of England statistics to see what it means for our children and young people

The Church of England’s mission statistics for 2016 were published this week. It is scary, sobering and a bit – well – numbing. 

I can read a bunch of stats and see a load of figures and forget that these are people, this is part of the body of Christ – the church – that we are talking about. More specifically, as I look at the figures I am thinking about children and young people. 

These statistics might freak you out, so let’s put in a couple of caveats as we take a peek through our fingers (deep breaths everyone):

-    Caveat 1: for some reason the Church of England calls these “statistics for mission”, which I have always found weird as they are mostly stats related to existing engagement with people who are part of the church. 

-    Caveat 2: when the Church of England refers to ‘children’ in these stats it is sometimes 0-16s and it is sometimes 0-18s. The statistics for Sunday attendance here refer to children and young people under 16.   

Where two or three are gathered

The stand out statistic that has been picked up by news outlets is that when we look at Sunday attendance figures, 25 per cent of Church of England parishes have no children at all.

None.

This isn’t because the rest of them are brimming over with children. In fact, 75 per cent of Church of England parishes have three or fewer children attending on a Sunday. 

In 1997, average child attendance on a Sunday was 179,300. Across the Church of England, the number of children attending has dropped by 40 per cent in the last 20 years. There has been a 14 per cent drop in just the last 6 years.

It is important to remember that the Church of England aims to be a presence in every community, however remote and devoid of people. I have (just once) visited a church who were anxious about having no children and I asked if there were any children who lived in their village. The answer was: “no, as far as we know there are no young families / children who live in our village.” I said: “Not to worry then, minister to who is in your village!”

This is not the norm though. A number of years ago Jason Gardner wrote a book called Mend the Gap, looking at how the Church could re-connect the generations. The gap is more like a chasm now.

Transition and rites of passage

The Church of England has a sacrament of confirmation. This is when children, young people or adults confirm their baptismal vows at a special service. Tucked away in the report are the confirmation figures. In 2006 there were 29,380 confirmations. In just a decade, the number of confirmations has dropped by 45 per cent to 15,950.

It has long been a sad joke that confirmation is a “passing out parade” for those young people who continue to get confirmed. Rather than a commitment to growing in discipleship, cofirmation became a nice way to finish. Yet, even this will be all but gone by 2026.

This begs the question – if not this, then what? What markers are there for young people who want to own their faith, step up and join in, take their place as active members in the church community?

Leaving for good?

Another feature of the statistics was a question about ‘leavers’. While just 13 per cent of adult leavers were thought to not be worshipping anywhere after they had left, this jumps to 37 per cent for children leaving the worshipping community.

This is really troubling. According to David Voas and his research for the Church of England a couple of years ago, if a child had two church going parents, the chance of them growing to have an adult faith is 50/50. For children with neither parent attending church the chance of them growing to have an adult faith is almost nil.

Re-imagining reaching children with social media

More people are now reached via social media by the Church of England than attend services. Their #LiveLent campaign reached 2.5 million people, 1.5 million were reached with last year’s Christmas campaign, and prayers produced at key moments in the life of the nation received 1.3 million views.

From reach to engagement and conversation?

There is an old youth work ‘process model’ I still use for training churches. There are six stages.  First, you make contact, young people have access to information but the relationship level is low. Then you meet again, this might develop towards meeting regularly, learning names and some basic sharing begins. Then comes socialise, regular discussions take place, young people begin to express opinions and seek responses. With another three stages we reach a stage where young people are taking responsibility, running programmes and group work is facilitated by them. At stage seven we have lead and young people take on leadership and shape, not just what youth work looks like, but the church and / or wider community they are part of.

Great though ‘reach’ appears, it is very much at that first stage of making contact in the digital world. Letting young people know “the Church is present in this space”. Can this be a place of engagement though? Many of those with ‘reach’ are poor at engaging in conversation and discussion.

Are we, as the Church, asking questions? Or are we making statements and promoting the general activity of our churches - a one way feed of news and positive PR? For young people to engage in ways that matter to them there needs to be space within the digital engagement strategy for conversation and questions, and for young people to shape the direction and approach the Church is taking.

What we cannot do is see the growth of reach into the digital world as an answer to the decline of the presence of children and young people in the local church.

Youthscape’s recent ‘Losing Heart’ research suggested a lack of confidence was at the heart of the struggle many churches had in reaching and retaining children and young people. 

Much more needs to be done to address this - including paying attention to the shift of many para-church organisations in investing in parents and faith in the home. If not, then future generations might have to log on to find a place to worship.