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Extinction or rebellion? Young people and the church.

What are we to make of statistics which suggest that we are one generation away from extinction?

On Wednesday of this week, I took part in two debates on two different forms of extinction and loss of biodiversity. They had very differing outcomes.

The occasion was the General Synod of the Church of England – our governing body. The first debate was about the hard reality of global warming and the extinction of both animal and plant species. We responded with bold (some would say reckless) ambition - a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 (not 2045 as originally proposed). We listened to the campaigners and lobbyists and recognised lots of good work already being done, and, although the vote was close, we declared our belief that the emergency is real, and the need for further action urgent.

The second debate was about numbers of children and young people in church but we largely ignored the hard reality of the statistics – in case you are interested, numbers of children and young people in church are declining at twice the rate of adults, and we now have fewer than 100,000 under 16s in the Church of England, and most of these are in a small number of larger churches. And so we passed a watered-down motion which mumbled something about the need to do more to get children and young people into church.

For me, the contrast between the debates was startling.

Top of my list of surprises was the place of children and young people within the discussions. When talking about the environment, the voices of young people were strong and clear. I was heavily lobbied by young people from my diocese and they effectively persuaded me to change my mind and vote for the more ambitious goal.

Yet when we started to talk about children and young people in church, their voice was almost completely absent. Not only was there zero lobbying, but almost no one under 30 was called to speak in the debate (as one tweet said, ‘when will the old, white men sit down and shut up’ – which of course, included me!) And all this on the same day we considered safeguarding (also very much about children and young people), with the repeated refrain of listening to the voices of survivors.

So why the difference between the two debates? And why the involvement of children and young people in one and not the other? Was this just a failure of process, or is there something deeper going on here?

It’s worth noting that the environment is now widely talked about in all contexts and there is broad agreement on the need for action. This wasn’t always the case, but the movement has gathered pace. And young people are at the forefront of this global movement.

However, the situation is reversed when it comes to church attendance. We’re still very much at the denial stage. We’d prefer not to talk about the numbers, and we’ll point out all the gaps in the research and tell ourselves stories which show that ‘it’s all alright really’. And whatever we do, we mustn’t make people overly anxious or threaten cherished traditions.

There are of course, bands of activists who get on with innovating new approaches and try to get the wider church to take notice (Messy Church being one of the best examples). But my overall conclusion is that generally we’re at least ten years behind the environmental movement in waking up to the reality of our situation and creating a movement for change.

I am also intrigued that the Synod environment debate started with science and continued with clear practical steps to make a difference – steps ranging from multi-million pound investment schemes from the national church, to actions every local church and individual can take (I’m pleased that Leicester got a mention for our proposals to develop solar farms on church land).

By contrast, when it comes to children and young people in church, we singularly fail to listen to the ‘experts’ - not that anyone wants that title, but we do have employed youth and children’s workers with many years’ experience in this field and some who have PhDs and have done a lot of research. However, my own conversations with them suggest that many feel distinctly undervalued. They face constant questions about when they will be ordained, as if being a lay children’s worker isn’t a strong enough vocation. Their remuneration rates are well below that of a curate which is supposed to be the minimum needed to live and devote yourself to ministry. And there’s a feeling that they are blamed for the failures of the wider church - how many clergy are told funding for their post is not being renewed because they haven’t brought enough new people to church over the past year?

That said, we are at least beginning to put in place a practical plan of action. The Growing Faith initiative provides a great framework for churches, schools and households (recognising that schools are not a ‘recruiting ground’, but rather values-based institutions looking to help young people discover a moral compass). There are clear steps that every individual and church can take. I truly hope that Growing Faith will develop into something of a movement, but at this moment in time I don’t sense much of an urgency about this in most parts of the church.

Perhaps the biggest learning point for me in all this, (and you’ll think it is so obvious it hardly needs stating), is that when the church starts to address the issues that young people care about, climate change being one, but there are many others, and when church leaders take time to listen to young people and genuinely take on board their suggestions, then we will start to create an environment where faith and church participation can grow. This is about putting children and young people at the forefront of a movement of change in the same way as they are with the environment.  

And maybe the first step is for every one of us in full-time ministry to commit to spending more time with people under the age of 21 - two days per week was the bold target suggested by one activist. For in spending time with young people, we’re also likely to find ourselves having to think about, and act on, the environment, mental health, questions of identity and so on.

We now need to accept that the church itself has been subject to global warming and is threatened with a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. In losing children and young people from our churches, we face not just a future threat, but the loss of their creativity, energy, vision and skill which is available to us now.

Society has changed so rapidly in the last 30 years that many of the factors which once provided an environment for growing faith, are now no longer fruitful. We will need new technologies and a new culture if we are to survive. That culture will be defined by humility (a recognition that we don’t have all the answers), and by learning (the heart of Christian discipleship), and by sacrifice (a willingness to set aside our own needs and desires for the good of others). Jesus said that the children would be our teachers. It’s time we started to listen.

Martyn Snow

Bishop of Leicester




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