Nobody likes hearing bad news, which is why last week, perhaps subconsciously, the Church of England’s Synod skirted around the more difficult aspects of a report on the declining numbers of young people in the church.
The excellent paper produced by the Evangelism and Discipleship Team was admittedly tough reading. Numbers of 0-16 year olds attending Sunday services fell below 100,000 for the first time. Given that this number includes babies, toddlers and children, how many of this number are over the age of 11? Surely in the low tens of thousands. That’s painful to write.
The statistics don’t stop there:
- 38% of churches have no 0-16s, 68% have fewer than five young people.
- The attendance of under 16s is declining faster than any other age group in the CofE (it has fallen by 20% in the last five years).
- Even among those churches who have 25 or more 0-16s (903 churches), 51% of these groups are still in decline (44% have experienced growth).
- The concentration of young people is narrow: "44% of all of 0-16’s are to be found in 6.4% of churches and parishes."
Dire decline: the new normal?
These are figures for the Church of England. I imagine they might be comparable – or even worse – for other denominations. Even though the statistics don’t tell the whole story – some have pointed out rightly that they don’t capture numbers attending mid-week activities – the overall trend is undeniable. The Church is emptying of young people and getting greyer by the day. You can brush away that fact and ignore it or let the sting of those statistics propel you into action. Which is it to be?
As the Church gets greyer, one of the challenges we face is not to make this the ‘new normal’. If we’re not careful we’ll stop seeing the lack of young people as a problem and start seeing it as ‘just the way it is’. That’s something we can’t allow to happen.
I remember the day we removed our old hall and stair carpet, in anticipation of new carpet being bought and laid. For the first few days the absence of carpet seemed glaring and urgent as we walked across bare floorboards. But surprisingly quickly I found myself no longer even noticing we had no carpet.
Days, weeks, months passed. Life moved on and we just got used to it. Isn’t that the danger of where we find ourselves now? Becoming accustomed to seeing few, if any, young people in church services. That’s just the way it is, right? Nearly four and half million teenagers in the country but just a few thousand in church.
What propelled me into action was a large and painful splinter one day. Buried deep in my foot, it was agony! I howled and hopped around, pulled it out… and bought a carpet.
Do something, or do nothing?
The report presented to Synod was a chance for the church to feel the pain of what is happening with young people in the Church, and respond. It seems it didn’t, which must have been enormously disappointing for those who had put so much work into publishing it.
What is especially frustrating is that those of us working with young people are actually hopeful about the future. The Church does have something wonderful to offer young people. There are promising signs that, by tackling this decline full on, we can reimagine how the Church can serve and include and love young people again.
At Youthscape this kind of reimagination is something we're committed to across all our work, be it training, research, or new resources. I’m personally involved with Launchpad, a program that supports church leaders who have little or no youth work, and want help – insight, confidence, encouragement – in getting it off the ground. In May we launch Youthscape Essentials; a training course looking beyond the paid youth leader model, seeking to empower volunteers and their vital contribution to youth work.
We might even argue that a decline in old methods and approaches is exactly what’s needed to clear the way for something truly different to emerge. But to get to that point you first have to accept the reality we find ourselves in. There’s good news to share, but you might need to hear the bad news first.