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Reimagining Church with young people

Lots of churches are great. Lots of congregations which meet to worship in buildings up and down the land are genuinely forming communities
of equipped disciples who are working, together with the Holy Spirit, for the transformation of the world. Many have a good spread of ages, are growing, and seeing the kingdom come in their communities.

Unfortunately, lots of churches are less great. Hopefully you are involved with and know of exceptions to the norm, but the general trend of Church decline and aging in the UK is both undeniable and devastating. There are a plethora of sad looking graphs confirming this.

The reality is that we live in a time of incomparable change. This side of the industrial revolution, the world wars and the digital revolution, the only thing for certain is that change is here to stay. In the midst of this turbulence we can take great comfort from the knowledge that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever but this does not mean, as some presumably assume, that church should remain unchanged. A changing world needs a changing Church. The vast majority of the churches in the UK basically operate in a format that is hundreds of years old, with the best of them only achieving relatively minor cosmetic changes to service style, language and music. This might be a bold statement, but unless we re-find our story and discard the baggage unquestioningly inherited, which was designed by prior generations and is no longer fit for purpose, we are destined for extinction. Like David refusing to fight in Saul’s heavy bronze armour, a fresh look at a stalemate might just be exactly what the Spirit is requiring. 

There is all the difference in the world between a fresh expression of a church service, and a completely reimagined understanding of what it means for a community of people to exist as the people of God  

Fully aware of this reality, the much misunderstood Fresh Expressions movement has been encouraging people to reimagine what church might be and look like throughout the diversity of our society. This officially approved campaign is a more palatable progression from the emerging Church scene which almost every denomination in the country now encourages. These are exciting times. When else in the Church’s history was revolution so welcomed by the establishment?

The problem is that even ten years on, most congregations have never heard of Fresh Expressions, and the vast majority of those involved are over 50. Many of those who have heard of it basically think it means Messy Church, which although at its roots and at its best is a valid fresh expression of church, is often treated with suspicion as the patronising status quo ask: ‘When will they come to proper church?’  

Evidence suggests that we are not losing young people because of the idea of Jesus and the challenge of the gospel in this materialistic world, but because the culture of our churches is so unattractive 

Here we see the problem. All this stuff is seen as a bridge. A halfway house. A trick with which we can engage people before recruiting them for our unchanged ‘proper’ churches. It could be argued that lots of youth groups actually function as fresh expressions of church: communities of people, pursuing the way of Jesus, engaged in his mission and committed to discipleship. Again the problem is the expectation that they will one day graduate to ‘real’ church, instead of being encouraged to consider what church is and how they might continue to be church in culturally relevant ways.

Encouraging young people to think outside the box when it comes to church can be quite tricky. Sadly even at a young age they are so acclimatised to the culture of church that they can’t reimagine the wood for the trees. A while back it was quite popular to start youth congregations. Many of them were useful and successful, many presumably less so. Many of them have since stopped, many have grown up, had babies, and are youth congregations no longer. They would often receive criticism that church should be multi-generational, and would be seen as rebellious young people who wanted everything in their own style and on their own terms. (The pot calling the kettle to tell her about the speck in her eye springs to mind.) My criticism of them would be that on the whole they didn’t go far enough. They were often born of a holy discontentment and a desire to exist in a more culturally relevant way that might increase the likeliness of getting their friends to come along. They often changed the music, and swapped the pews for bean bags, but still did recognisable services complete with sung worship and a talk from the front. It was like a new paint job for an old car instead of taking the opportunity to invent a hover-car. Or perhaps the more biblical image of getting some new wineskins but putting the same old wine in them. There is all the difference in the world between a fresh expression of a church service, and a completely reimagined understanding of what it means for a community of people to exist as the people of God, living out the mission of Jesus in a given context. Read that last sentence again slowly. In fact, read it again here: there is all the difference in the world between a fresh expression of a church service, and a completely reimagined understanding of what it means for a community of people to exist as the people of God, living out the mission of Jesus in a given context. This is what we’re after.  

If young people find church boring, irrelevant or alien, then there is of course the possibility that it’s because church is boring, irrelevant and alien  

At the risk of showing my age, it was when watching Chicken Run that God really spoke to me about being church differently. The fat chickens cooped up inside their caged run were visited by a free cockerel who invited them out. Their initial question made me shudder to my core, ‘What’s… out?’ They had no comprehension of anything beyond their fences. The next question they asked – ‘Who will feed us?’ – is so similar to the barrage of questions my friends and I were asked when we began to do things differently: ‘Where will you get your teaching?’ In truth, the answer is that we get our teaching from the Bible, the sharing of books, TED talks, radio programmes, occasional sermons online, and conversations with wise old friends, but I used to prefer responding with a reciprocal question: ‘What are you doing with all the teaching you get?’ It’s so telling that this was often the primary concern in our post-enlightenment culture with its elevated status of knowledge; as though without hearing sermons every week we would not learn anything new about how to follow Jesus. People would warn us with concerned looking crinkly foreheads, ‘Make sure you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ which is wise, but the voice in my head would scream back, ‘Yes but change the bathwater for goodness sake – it’s cold and dirty and the baby is getting wrinkly.’ The next verse levied against us would usually be the warning not to neglect our meeting together from Hebrews chapter ten. My cheeky answer would be to point out that it says, ‘Do not neglect meeting’ not, ‘Do not neglect your meetings’, but in truth we found that we met more regularly and more meaningfully than any of us had experienced by attending services and sitting quietly in rows once a week. Let me be clear: I am not advocating departure from a church community for a disgruntled individual, but if a few together embark on the pursuit of a more meaningful and engaging expression of Church, we know that Jesus will be among them. 

Even young people are so acclimatised to the culture of church that they can’t reimagine the wood for the trees 

This is such an exciting opportunity, to sit with young people and ask: ‘What does it mean to be Church?’ I remember having the opportunity to explain this to a group of 120 sixth formers in a school near to where I used to live. I played them the Chicken Run clip and I told them my story. Over about 45 minutes I described how I’d grown up in church, how I often found it boring and yet how I found Jesus fascinating. I said that church was something people are as a community, not somewhere people go to attend. I told them about how I wanted to change the world, and I thought that God, although often a mystery to me, wanted this too. I told them about the anti-trafficking charity my friends and I were involved with, and read them Amos chapter five, explaining that working to make sure girls aren’t abducted and sold for rape is more worshipful to God than gathering to sing songs. Then I asked them: ‘If this is what we mean by church, who’d be up for it? Who wants to get together next week to work out what this could look like?’ I sensed it had gone pretty well, but couldn’t believe my eyes when getting on for half of them raised their hands! One lad who was very concerned came and insisted that his church wasn’t boring, and that I’d enjoy the songs there. I doubt it. The school didn’t let me start a church with them and shortly after I moved town, but I did go home that afternoon leaping and jumping for joy (inside). Had I given them the Four  Points and told them to come to church, I suspect it might not have been such a positive response. Inviting them into the adventure I believe God has for us was a much more helpful way to frame the gospel for this group of young people.

The point is this: more is up for negotiation than we might at first think, and unless we cultivate innovation we risk getting stuck and ultimately extinct. In every group there are always those who see the world differently and dream of new possibilities. They need to be celebrated and encouraged to dream their dreams. They do not need taming and sapping by a tired culture of risk-averse pastors, desperately claiming against all the evidence that fluency in their archaic practice is essential for ministry in the 21st Century. If in their pursuit of Jesus’ vision for his bride and kingdom your dreamers are perpetually scrutinised by defensive guardians of the status quo who perceive them as a threat, the chances are they won’t be around for long. If they do hang in there, they will waste a lot of energy justifying themselves. That energy would surely be better expended in dreaming, daring and doing all that God has for them.

Why not put this into practice with your young people, and explore what church could look like in your context? Check out the first instalment of our meeting guides for reimagining church with young people (continued next month) 

There is much evidence that we are not losing young people because of the idea of Jesus and the challenge of the gospel in this materialistic world but because the culture of our churches is so unattractive. If young people find church boring, irrelevant or alien, then there is of course the possibility that it’s because church is boring, irrelevant and alien. One answer is to beat them into submission. A better is to be open to change. This isn’t about entertaining them more with ever increasingly impressive multimedia production. This is about engaging the adventurer in them with glimpses of the potential for life in all its beautiful fullness. Your rehearsed answers, slick animated logo and clichéd slogans won’t impress them. Your life, captivated by Jesus and vulnerably shared in play, in work, in party and in pain should do the trick over about three to five years. Incidentally, I think this is the model Jesus used. 



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