What would church look like if it was handed over to young people for a week? Probably pretty different and a bit messy. But, as Gavin Calver argues, shouldn’t it already be messy in all the right kind of ways…?
Have you ever watched one of those TV programmes where the parents go away for a week and the kids are left to turn the home into whatever they wish? It’s a crazy idea - who in their right mind would do that? And yet we, as viewers, sit and watch the poor returning parents looking horrified as they observe their once beautifully decorated lounge transformed into a window-less cinema, their spacious kitchen replaced with a burger bar and their antique four-poster bed swapped for individual sleeping pods. The look of desperation on their faces makes you want to laugh and cry in equal measure. Laugh because they were nuts enough to agree to it, and cry because you know how you would feel if it happened to you.
The whole notion of the programme got me wondering about what might happen if the adult church decided to go away for a week, allowing local teenagers to reform the church into what they wanted it to be. Can you picture what might happen? Would it be as disastrous as the programme? I would find it incredibly exciting, but I know there are many churchgoers who would be terrified by such a suggestion. The more I think about it, the more aware I become of how different the generations are: how the hopes and desires of the young people we are seeking to reach from outside of the Church are profoundly different to the older attendees within it, and as a result we have a massive challenge in seeking to reach new generations of young people.
Now I am sure that there are some young people who, on starting to engage with Church, would sit quietly, accept the way that it is and not want to upset the status quo. But the majority of teenagers, if they had the choice, would do things differently. Therefore, because things often don’t change there is inevitably a stage for a large percentage of adolescents when any engagement with church becomes an incredibly difficult concept and many will be turned off and utter the refrain: “I hate church”.
Dumbo and dinner time
Why does this happen? Firstly, there is an increased desire for independence. Teens inevitably seek to break away from perceived institutions like the Church as they begin to make their own personal choices. Secondly, they can often feel ignored within church, partly because many members of our congregations struggle to communicate with young people. Thirdly, adolescents can feel as if they have no place there. All three of these can have dramatic consequences. The overarching challenge we face is in making our existing young people feel like they belong, at the same time as trying to reach the teenagers who currently have no contact with the Church.
The problem is the way we approach things. If a young family are to download a film to watch together the choice will always reflect the preferences of the least mature. Dad may desperately want to watch Rambo but his five-year-old daughter would definitely find Dumbo more appealing and appropriate. Inevitably common sense dictates that Dad settles down to watch the Disney classic with his children. At the same time, if your son invites a friend for dinner, you would check what food they like and if there are any allergies you need to be aware of. The needs of the guest would trump whatever is normally on the menu for Tuesday evenings. Why then do the rules change when it comes to church? Why do we expect less mature teenagers to integrate into our adult way of doing church? Why are so many of our services set up to the likes and dislikes of those who are already committed, rather than those who may be guests?
Why are so many of our services set up to the likes and dislikes of those who are already committed, rather than those who may be guests?
Surely this should be entirely reversed? The more spiritually mature should sacrifice their own preferences, not expect the less mature to do so. It’s time we started seeing church as a true family and reflecting this in all we do. There are so many young people with little concept of family today and, if we as the Church reached out to them, they could experience the love of authentic family for themselves.
Recent research we’ve done at the Evangelical Alliance showed that 86 per cent of those who become Christians in the UK do so under the age of 25. This shows the huge need for evangelistic youth ministry and the incredible potential it possesses. It also highlights the fact that for the majority of young people today, you never know what’s waiting just around the corner: the difficult and disengaging teenagers in your community right now could, with the right investment, go on to be tomorrow’s Christian heroes. It’s interesting to look through the pages of church history and see the ages at which many of our leaders came to faith: Charles Spurgeon (15 years old), George Whitefield (16), William Booth (15), CT Studd (16), James Hudson Taylor (15), DL Moody (18), Amy Carmichael (15) and Billy Graham (17). Anything could be possible in the youth ministry we’re involved in. We simply have to make sure we’re doing things well with young people and praying loads!
The style challenge
Whether we like it or not, young people are going to struggle within the confines of church. As teenagers they are often going to want to discover new things for themselves, or rebel against the youth group they’ve joined. The problem is not in the struggle, but in how the church chooses to respond. We need to create an environment that is youth-friendly, so when young people kick against the system we still welcome them in with open arms. This can be achieved in numerous ways, such as inviting them to participate in the life of the church, playing sport together, or simply having a conversation over a coffee. Lottie Jones, youth worker at St. Georges Leeds, says: “We need to find ways that make young people feel comfortable inviting their friends. They are the ones with the social capital so we want to equip our young people who are followers of Jesus to be confident evangelists. As youth workers we can support them by releasing young people into leadership opportunities and then they invite their friends to see what they are doing, or by creating safe spaces for young people to invite their friends to - places that they and their friends want to be.”
Laura Hancock, at Youth for Christ’s head of church resources and a volunteer youth worker at her church in Halesowen, goes further, saying: “We need to work really hard on intentionally making our youth work as accessible as possible to the young people in our community. This might mean plotting out an ‘ideal journey’ that you would expect a young person to take, from first point of contact to discipleship and peer evangelism, and making the transitions between groups and activities as simple and comfortable as possible. It could be that you need to change the location, time, content, structure, culture and even language of your groups. Eeverything you run should be as accessible as possible for every young person in your community setting.”
Perhaps the simplest thing for many of us would be to try something new. Ali Campbell, from The Resource says that to reach young people we might just need to start something! He goes on to say: “I have met lots of churches that do great kids’ work and then stop. They can have a rising group of ten and eleven-year-olds, on the cusp of joining secondary school and starting adolescence - with all that goes with that - but, for whatever reason, the church ‘doesn’t do youth work’. Don’t stop - you know these kids, you’ve built relationship with them - carry on, create a space for them, this can develop into offering a youth group. What a disaster for young people to leave because there literally is nothing for them! Evangelistic youth work starts with starting something!”
We must empower our young people to reach their friends but let’s make sure we’re doing the same too
What about those young people outside of the Church? I served at Youth for Christ for 14 years but now that I’m settled in to life at the Evangelical Alliance I didn’t want to assume I was entirely in touch. I asked a number of youth specialists what they thought were the best ways for the churches to reach young people. Christine Blair, a long-serving volunteer youth worker at the Church of the Good Shepherd on the Wirral says: “Young people are clearly the best tool to reach young people! So the one thing we need to do to make our youth work more impactful is to equip, empower and motivate our Christian young people to share the good news of Jesus with their friends. Leadership courses that enable young people to see that they are leaders even if they only lead one person to Jesus; teaching in our midweek groups on why and how to share faith: drawing young people into groups to pray for their friends; and supporting outreach work in our schools.”
Christine isn’t alone in the idea that empowering teens is the most important thing. Ebenezer Ademisoye, a youth worker at Woolwich Central Baptist Church, says: “It’s my duty to equip my youth group to better share their faith. I teach that evangelism must be married to prayer and fasting, or we speak in vain. I have found nothing as helpful as practising, in groups of peers, how to initiate conversation in a loving but effective way. With sufficient practice and equipping, young people will see sharing their blessing as the norm.”
Clearly we need to be empowering young people to reach their peers in order to make a real difference but perhaps some of this starts with us too. Jason and Rachel Gardner, who among other things are the curate at St Peter’s Harrow and the relationships theme lead at Youthscape respectively, say: “Leaders need to model active evangelism. Full time church staff - vicars, pastors, youth workers, children’s workers - need to be doing regular ‘out there’ evangelism. Start with once a month and work up to once a week. The more evangelism you do as a team and as individuals, the more stories you’ll have to tell to encourage the rest of your church to join you!” We must empower our young people to reach their friends but let’s make sure we’re doing the same too.
When young people say: “I hate church,” too often the Church seems to respond through their actions as if to say: “Well, we hate young people.” I love teenagers and the Church and I long to see the two brought together. Let’s create an environment which can live up to the mandate of being the bride of Christ, where young people are loved, reached, empowered and blessed.
A while ago I met four wonderful old ladies who were desperate to see the teenagers of their town reached. They felt they had nothing to offer but wanted the Church to have a future. I talked with them about the needs of young people and encouraged them to try to reach out. They bravely set up a youth group, arranging to meet once a week. Six months later I was thrilled to receive a letter from one of the ladies saying that there were now 30 young people coming to their group on a Thursday evening. As these old ladies prove, it doesn’t matter what your age, anyone can bridge that gap. It takes a heart of compassion for young people and a desire to see the Church have a future. Maybe Ali is right, some of us simply need the confidence to start something new.
Let’s create a new programme for the Church: one where if the adults went away they would be missed. One where the young people wouldn’t want to just ditch the adults’ way of doing things, because it was designed with young people in mind, and one where the adults would be confident in what they would return to if they did go away. A church where the two are working, loving and serving so well together that the numbers of lost folks being reached is doubling every week. That’s the church that I dream of.
We at the EA have launched a web portal to help the whole Shurch evangelise to all more effectively. Within this is a strong focus on youth evangelism and you can see video testimonies, read reflections and access a huge variety of resources, ideas and encouragement for your youth ministry locally. Check it out at greatcommission.co.uk