From the seven priorities articulated by the General Secretary and endorsed by the Gafcon Primates.
3. We will prioritise youth and children’s ministry that instructs them in the Word of the Lord, disciples them to maturity in Christ and equips them for a lifetime of Christian service. The Kigali Commitment
Just before Covid, in February 2020, the Church of England published an honest and soul-searching report [analysed here], which estimated that more than two thirds of its churches had fewer than 5 young people under 16 attending church on Sundays, and half of these have no young people at all. Around half of all Anglican young people are gathered in less than 10% of churches. There was a 20% decline in numbers of young people in church overall, between 2015 and 2020. While most of the churches retaining young people in their mid to late teens are those with intentional efforts at evangelism and discipleship, even these face challenges, with over half reporting decline.
In one sense, this should not surprise us. Western culture has experienced rapid and profound secularisation for many decades. Surveys indicate [eg here, p179] that more than 60% of young people aged 18-24 do not identify with any religion, and it may be that among teenagers the percentage of these “nones” is higher still. Added to this, most Western countries have ageing populations, meaning that there are fewer young people anyway. Compared to 50 years ago, there are so many more things for young people to do: church has to compete with many other activities in the real and virtual worlds. Anecdotal evidence suggests that during Covid lockdowns, children from affluent middle class families with a strong ethic of educational success were less likely to attend youth activities via Zoom on school nights, and many of these will not have returned to face to face youth meetings.
Many Christian parents will know the agony of their children and/or grandchildren who have abandoned the faith despite prayerful efforts. But also, some of the ‘primary disciplers’, parents and church youth workers, have failed to intentionally pass on faith to the next generation: they have either abandoned faith themselves, or have imbibed liberal and universalist theologies. Roman Catholic and other non-Anglican churches are often better at retaining young people through a strong sense of identity, and disciplines connected to family.
But there are also success stories. There are many young people following the Lord after faithful care and instruction from parents, youth workers, peers and wider Church community, and those who are determined disciples despite the failure of adult support. There remains a vital role for Christian Unions at school and uni; and summer camps to supplement the ministry of church youth groups.
Over the years, many churches have developed assumptions, influenced by secular youth culture:
• young people find adult church boring and need their own groups
• entertainment and friendship-building activities must be central, to keep young people coming
• aim at the many not-yet-Christians (focus on welcome and friendship, with very soft evangelism) rather than focus on the few who want to be serious disciples
• lots of media resources are available
• larger churches have full time dedicated staff for youth work
• but: burdens of increased legislation re safeguarding
• debates about attitudes to culture: embrace, ignore or oppose?
• debates around how to, or whether to, inculcate biblical literacy and habits of bible reading
• debates around how to navigate hot button issues: sex, race, climate, social media, mental health, identity, future life
• challenges of how to navigate journey to Christian initiation, public statement of commitment, moving from ‘youth’ to ‘adult’ in worship and service
Historically, preparation for Confirmation played a big part in bringing young people through to public confession of faith and full participation in the life of the church. In 2009, 25,000 people were confirmed in the Church of England, of whom around a third were between the ages of 12 and 19. By 2019, the total number of confirmations had dropped to 13,400, meaning that only around 4500 teenagers were confirmed in the whole country. [Stats here, p37]. Does this matter?
Cranmer and the reformers envisaged a parish system whereby as many children as possible should be baptised after a local programme of instruction in the Christian faith for parents and godparents, and that parents should be encouraged and equipped to bring up their children and household employees as Christians:
“All fathers, mothers, masters and dames shall cause their children, servants and prentices to come to church at the time appointed, and obediently to hear and be ordered by the curate, until such time as they have learned all that is here appointed for them to learn” (from the closing rubric to the Catechism, Book of Common Prayer).
This was a programme of evangelism and mission for the nation, starting at the beginning, using local clergy and then parents as the means of evangelism, rather than waiting for young people to make their own choice whether to be involved in this or not.
But in much of the global south assumptions and challenges are very different. Youth are by far the majority in the population. In many African countries, two thirds of the population are under 25. Churches are full of children, and teenagers will flock to church events which Westerners would consider to be lacking the necessary resources and pizazz.
Commonly expressed issues among churches in the global south relating to young people are not “we can’t reach young people because they are secularised and find church boring” - although this is beginning to happen in the more affluent urban areas. Rather, here are some of the challenges:
• lack of trained volunteer leaders, and resources for training
• lack of finances for all activities
• poverty and hunger among young people themselves
• attitudes from the older generation that young people should be seen and not heard
• lack of contextualisation and a need for decolonisation - youth programmes following Western models, not adapted to local cultures, not addressing real felt needs
• context of poverty, violence, drug abuse, child abuse and other socio-political crises not being addressed by churches (pietism, lack of theological confidence)
• competition between churches, rather than cooperation, especially across denominations
• false teaching, even in Christian families and churches: liberal theology, legalism (sometimes harshly enforced), prosperity teaching, ancestral devotion and magical practices
• narratives aligning evangelical theology with colonialism and racism
The Gafcon priority is not set out in terms of church attendance or group identity, for example, trying to get more youth to remain in Anglican churches rather than be drawn to Pentecostal or other groups. Despite the genuine material needs of many communities; the poverty, lack of job opportunities, crime, conflict, and the effects of climate change, these are not mentioned. It would be ridiculous and ignorant in the extreme to suggest, as some Western leaders have done, that this indicates lack of compassion on the part of church leaders in the global south. Rather, Gafcon leaders are involved in these practical issues every day in ways that the affluent liberal West cannot imagine, and yet they point to the priority in youth ministry of sound biblical teaching, and spiritual preparation of young people for their future ministries.
Whether young people are staying away from church and embracing secular philosophies, or crowding in while the culture is physically dangerous and the future appears bleak, Gafcon says the priority is not social action or entertainment, but the teaching of God’s word, just as Cranmer envisaged.