On 7th December 2016 we published Losing Heart - a report on our research into youth work provision in the UK Church (You can read it here). We asked Sam Donoghue, Children's Ministry Adviser for the Diocese of London and Founding Editor of Children's Work Magazine to give us a Children's Worker's perspective on it.
There is to me an odd disconnect in this report. On the face of it looks ok for children’s work; 92% of churches have some provision and are generally feeling ok about it. But as soon as the children hit the youth group everyone is overwhelmed by waves of despair and hopelessness, I’m exaggerating but it is interesting. I guess there are superficial reasons that go some of the way towards explaining this:
Children normally come to church with their parents and at that age don’t tend to get the choice
Most children in our churches are pretty well behaved and so working in the Sunday school isn’t a tough ask for people compared to working with teenagers.
In my experience parents are really keen to help with the children’s work while their children are in it but less keen when they grow up into youth.
Church leaders rarely visit the children’s groups to see if they’re any good and so numbers (which aren’t a great measure of quality) are seen as a success.
My issue with this narrative, of youth work struggling while children’s ministry gets by is that it seems to think children and youth are entirely separate things with no sense of connection. As if the children who left the youth group had never been part of our children’s group and that the issue should be treated in isolation. Where I live in sunny south Essex we’re having a major redevelopment to the main roundabout that connects the main road out of town to the main road to London. As you will imagine this has caused a few issues with the flow of traffic. The most frustrating thing about this isn’t when you’re stuck in the queue on the main road, you’re a fool to try and only have yourself to blame. The most frustrating bit is when you think you’ve been clever and gone by a back road only to discover everyone else has had the same idea and you hit a massive queue on a lane that is normally deserted. Most frustrating of all is try and head north out of the town, away from the road works and end up stuck in a line of cars going the really long way round and leaving me in the queue for somewhere I don’t even want to go! But that the thing, it’s all connected if some bits don’t work then there are knock on effects.
The solution to traffic flow in the roads around my town doesn’t lay in improving the back roads, it comes in mending the main junction. My worry is that if this survey only makes us worry about youth work we might be missing a bigger issue that might be a major cause of problems we are facing.
What I feel this survey is showing us is two things. Yes, the situation around youth work is precarious and while you could argue it’s always felt like this our stats tell us we are right to feel this possibly more than ever. Something else this research seem to show is that there is a blockage in the system and we don’t seem to notice it. We are noticing the knock on effects of the queues on the minor roads but somehow we are not seeing the roadworks on the main road causing it.
If a church feels in crisis about its youth work and happy and confident about its children’s work then I would suggest it needs to think again about its children’s work. The crisis starts there, that is the major roadworks that is blocking up the system. I know that’s a harsh thing to say and if a youth worker said it I’d be cross and defensive but I’m a children’s worker and I’m allowed to say it. For years young people have left the church as teenagers and we’ve worried about youth work without asking why the years they spent in our children’s groups didn’t seem to make them want to stay in the church after their first opportunity to stop coming presented itself.
So for me this report is an important reminder that we shouldn’t let better numbers and more confidence in our children’s groups deceive us if the faith we are transmitting isn’t surviving long into the teenage years. We need to work closely with youth workers to think about how we support one another to do this better and as perhaps over time lose this arbitrary line between children and youth and just journey with young people and children through their time in the church rather than looking to pass them on to a specialist.