At the recent Church Growth conference put on by the Church of England, one of the key areas that many growing churches had in common was a commitment to children and youth ministries. Indeed the research is strong that churches that commit themselves to grow and develop children and youth ministries and invest the resources in that tend to grow.
But there is a wider church issue to do with confidence in our faith that was touched upon. According to a social attitudes survey only 36% of Anglicans who saw faith as very important saw religious faith for their children as important. Professor Voas who led this section said
Apologies for blaming the parents, but the decline seems to start with parents
By which I took it to mean that if we aren’t concerned with our children’s faith then who will be!?! It was also interesting to hear a mea culpa from Andreas Whittam-Smith (one of the Church of England’s Commissioners) reflecting that he was one of these people who although regular themselves had wanted their children to choose themselves and wondered if he had done the right thing – how can children choose if they don’t know the faith?
Of course, in all of this there are exceptions (for example Cathedrals which are heavily weighted to the over 50s and are still growing). Nor will it be the case that throwing a youth worker at a church with no children or youth will solve the problem.
So what did the research about children say?
Well the good news is that the ratio of children to adults in the church is the same as that in the general population. However, much of that appears to be in midweek attendance (38% of midweek attendance).
Transitions from children to youth; and from youth to adulthood are critical and here there is breakdown with significant loss of children and young people. What the report found was that intergenerational difference was large but that a particular generation did not substantially change its views once it had reached their mid 20s. So, by the time people are in their mid 20s their views tend to harden – either for or against (though obviously there are exceptions!).
So, there is a real need for churches to engage with children and young families. Yet nearly half of Anglican churches (48%) have fewer than five under 16 year olds. So, what did the report show us?
- There is a correlation between having a youth worker and a growing church. Indeed the report highlighted that they are the most important member of staff for growing churches
- There is a correlation between the percentage of children in the church and a growing church. If there are 2 or more children per 10 adults the church is more likely to be growing.
- youth camps, retreats and conferences all help the church to grow and yet only 1/5 of churches offer them
- The presence of children in the church is correlated with all measures of growth – including adults
Children are good for the church! Not only for the future of the church but also for health of the current church. We have certainly found that in Springfield church. They have not only been a driver for new ways of doing things and for reaching out to young families but, for example, they have been part of why some adults have joined the church who then have worked with the elderly. Children can keep us young!
The implications are that we need to invest in children and young people and put our resources into nurturing them. One of the key ministries that any church can have is in their children and young people and to encourage good and innovative children and youth work. Work that doesn’t just entertain them but also encourages them to grow in faith.
This also means, given the very shocking survey about parents lack of interest in passing on their faith, that we need to be engaged as leaders of the church and we also need to engage parents in nurturing the faith of their children. We also need parents to realise that an hour or two input by the church doesn’t replace their sharing their faith with their children at home. One of the reasons we are experimenting with our all age services at the moment is to try and see how we can encourage parents and their children to engage in faith together.
Now, obviously if you have an older congregation none of this may seem to help very much! But this is where things such as Fresh Expressions can be helpful. The report delivered by George Lings pointed out that Dioceses that encouraged Fresh Expressions of church saw substantial numbers joining with some 40% of them being children! Therefore, we need to start with with what God has given us. It may well be that for an older church that a Fresh Expression such as a Messy Church will be a good first step.