What is it that attracts and keeps young people in church through their teens and into adult life?
As a child I remember finding church incredibly boring. The main service was incurably dull, and Sunday School lessons always involved listening to a story then colouring in a picture to do with it. The wooden chairs were really uncomfortable and I hated colouring. That was Church.
More formative, probably, was joining the junior choir. I loved singing. I loved belonging; and it was it through those songs that I developed an early sense of God’s love for me.
When I was thirteen a new phase of my life began. I joined ‘Sunday Club’. Sunday Club met (unsurprisingly) on Sunday evenings, and was for 13-18 year olds. There was no faith element. We just hung out. At the age of thirteen I went from being an outsider to being one of the big kids; and it was great. I can’t remember there being one conversation about Jesus – but I can remember, at the age of fourteen, being outraged that millions were starving in Ethiopia while most of the kids worried about whether or not they would be allowed to have a tv in their room.
I left church at the age of eighteen. I could no longer buy into an institution which preached the words and deeds of Christ but, in my idealistic opinion, didn’t seem to practice them very well. I also found that the childish faith I had been taught didn’t really work in my adult world. I needed to search for meaning somewhere beyond my own limited experience. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that ‘somewhere’ was to be found in a deep relationship with God rather than in another country or culture.
I came back to church following discussions with a Jewish housemate and her Sikh friend. They encouraged me to go, so I did. My local United Reformed Church welcomed and loved me as I was – with all my questions and doubts; and encouraged me to take on responsibilities in my mid twenties.
Research suggests that a combination of believing in God, a sense of belonging, and being taken seriously are key factors in keeping young people in the church. My personal experience certainly suggests that. Despite the reduction in the number of ‘cradle Christians’, the Evangelical Alliance has found that there are equal numbers identifying as Christians in each generation. While I remain to be convinced that as many young people are engaging with belief in Jesus now as they were forty years ago, I do think churches can benefit from engaging with current research findings and the suggestions coming from them.
The United Reformed Church has recently published a report on the ‘missing generation’ Drawing on a variety of sources, it highlights the importance of both believing and belonging, and challenges churches to take seriously the questions and potential creativity of those in the 20-40 age group.
To read the report click here and scroll down to p.25 (marked p.23 in the Book of Reports).