01 January 2010
A missing generation?
They're skint, they're single and, in what Soul Survivor's Mike Pilavachi calls the Church's "guilty family secret", a lot of them are turning their backs on church. Charis Gibson looks at the changing face of youth work...
Welcome to the world of Brits in their 20s. With education almost or already behind them, they're catapulted into adulthood in the face of high unemployment levels and, more often than not, shouldering a mountain of debt. They're marrying and having children later in life than previous generations - the average age to get married is now 31 for men and 29 for women - while mortgages seem further out of reach than ever, leaving nearly 3 million of them still living with their parents.
And the numbers of 20-somethings attending church is in steep decline, falling 62 per cent from 520,000 in 1985 to 230,600 two decades later.
So perhaps it's no small wonder that youth leaders who spoke at the Alliance's council symposium The 18-30s Mission: A Missing Generation? made a strong case for churches to extend their youth work focus far beyond the age of 18.
As Youth for Christ's Gavin Calver put it, "To see Christian youth work as a success, you have to take young people through to 25. I think from a youth point of view we look at it too narrowly. We say: 'They're 18, they're Christians, yeah! They're 19, they go to church, fantastic!' But I think we have to start thinking about people up to 25, maybe 29."
Gavin was one of a number of youth workers at the symposium who responded to an Alliance survey taken of 800 young people at Soul Survivor's Momentum event for students and 20-somethings. The young adults surveyed were from a specific demographic, so the symposium was told the results may not hold true for everyone, but that it was useful to confirm trends and spark a conversation.
Attracted to church
"For some, it's actually a choice between surviving as a Christian or not"
The respondents said they were most attracted to a church by the resources it provides to support their own personal faith. Relevant preaching was ranked as the characteristic that would most attract them to church, followed by excellent worship. People they can relate to came in third.
Less important were whether the church is mission-oriented or a safe place to invite friends. And only one-third of the under-30s said they see themselves as leaders in their church.
The Alliance's Head of Communications Miles Giljam said this focus on individual benefits over mission shows a "me-focused" attitude to church. Mike Pilavachi echoed this concern, saying that 20-somethings are influenced by a culture of consumerism, individualism and entitlement.
He and other youth workers at the symposium suggested a number of ways to help young people negotiate this culture, including mentoring and discipleship from childhood and empowering young people to take more leading roles within the Church.
Jason Lane, executive director of Innovista, a ministry that develops young leaders for relevant mission to their generation, said, "In our experience, people from this age group feel they have to make a choice between a church that's for me and a church that's about mission. For them, it's actually a choice between surviving as a Christian or not.
"We need to give them both, where church can support you as a Christian and help you live for Jesus, which involves and includes mission."
Ness Wilson, who runs Open Heaven church in Loughborough, gave a powerful example of this by talking about her own experience leading a student-focused church, which she started with some fellow graduates in 1993. She said that over the past 16 years, 800 students have been part of Open Heaven and around 200 have become Christians.
As well as discipling the students in church, Open Heaven is mission-orientated. It has built such strong, relational links with Loughborough University that the Student's Union has given them two rooms to care for drunk students and invited them to advertise student Alpha in freshers' packs.
"There's openness to exploring faith and other world views, and it's at that age that the desire for meaning and purpose and destiny really comes to the surface," Ness said. "So you just have to add some prayer, some fired up students who know they're missionaries into a post-Christian, post-modern culture, and some relevant models of student mission and - bang! - it all can happen."
Mixing action with mission
Gavin Calver said he was also very encouraged by the response to one of the Momentum survey questions, which showed that 76 per cent of respondents believe social action and evangelism are equally important.
"This is the kind of dangerous generation that might just change the world"
He said that over the past decade - with initiatives like Message 2000, Festival Manchester, Soul in the City, Merseyfest and Hope 08 - the Church has re-educated a generation of Christians to see social action and evangelism as totally integral to one another.
"If you get rid of that divide, you've got the kind of dangerous generation that might just change the world," he said. "That shows me we've got to set the bar high, not to give people the kind of Jesus who's a self-help guide, but a Jesus who's to live for and, if necessary, to die for."
The four short essays below explore a range of different opinions about this challenge and look at the way forward...
Lindsey Sisk, 29, co-ordinates Care for the Family's Looking at Life project: lookingatlife.org.uk
Focus on friendship
There's a lot of stuff thrown at you as a young adult. Suddenly, after the relative seclusion of living at home or being a student, you're thrust into the real world to make life-shaping choices about relationships, careers, finances and parenthood.
As 20-somethings, we've grown up in a consumer era and a time of economic growth. We've been labelled Generation Y, never satisfied and always shopping around for the perfect job, partner and lifestyle. While this may be true, young adults also crave ongoing relationships, and we also value the opinion and wisdom of older people with life experience.
It's difficult to make a generalisation on what young adults want. Most 18-30s would not define themselves by age, but by their role or life-stage. At 25, you can be a single student living at home with your parents or married with your own children. You could be a homeowner, have a high-flying career or be unemployed looking for your first big break.
Generally 18-30s rarely congregate anywhere as a defined group, so the idea of belonging to a church is alien. Rather, 18-30s associate in friendship circles. To connect with them, churches may need to emphasise social or communal activities, rather than the traditional group structures.
For those of us in our 20s who are already part of the Church, we want to know how to apply God's truth practically to our everyday lives and our big decisions. Engaging with the needs of young adults would result in growth, both for us and the Church.
Mike Pilavachi, 51, is co-founder and head of Soul Survivor: soulsurvivor.com/uk
Challenge the culture
It's clear to see that the church has been haemorrhaging 20-somethings in recent years. The statistics are frightening, and so we're now in the process of trying to understand what's going on with this age group so that we can better love and serve them.
I'm certainly not saying I have the answers, but one thing I think is key is the culture of consumerism, individualism and entitlement that I believe is eating into the psyche of many 20-somethings. It's incompatible with commitment to community, because if you're in this culture it's all about you and all about what you receive. It can also lead people to struggle with commitment to the key areas of their lives: relationships, careers and church. Often, this stems from a huge fear of getting involved with something in case it's the wrong thing, or in case something better comes along at a later date.
Our culture also tells 20-somethings that they deserve things to be perfect. But of course life's not like that, so they become disillusioned when they see churches that are flawed. And often there's lots of support for teenagers when they are part of the church youth group, but when they go into the workplace or to university, they can feel that their support network is suddenly taken away.
We have to work out how to support 20-somethings better in the challenges they face in their different life-stages. We've got to love them, we've got to listen and we've got to respond to them. But also, we've got to find ways to work with them to gently, lovingly but definitely challenge some of the things that come from today's culture.
Gareth Ward, 24, is a Royal Navy lieutenant who attends Southampton Community Church.
My first response when faced with writing this was to change my Facebook status to: "Gareth Ward is attempting to write 250 words on how the church can connect with people in their 20s. Suggestions please!"
Then it hit me: people my age have become so expectant that things happen instantly and only for them that, instead of actually engaging people to ask their opinion, I simply Facebooked.
Some people at our church in Southampton have started a 20s-30s monthly get-together that is simply socialising - going for a curry followed by a club, or a walk and sitting in the pub chatting for the evening. Now that's sheer brilliance, because we don't really need more spiritual stuff. In my opinion, what we need is to reconnect with each other over a beer, coffee, meal or, even better, all three.
And I'm talking about people in our age group from all walks of life. We don't want to bring them to meetings; we want to bring them into a group of normal people who, far from being perfect, just chat, connect and live. The challenge is to ensure our conduct and conversation mirror Jesus, even when we are not directly referring to Him.
The problem with my suggestion is that it isn't instant; it isn't a programme we can strategise or implement. Real connection can't be forced and it won't be quick. It happens slowly and naturally in pubs and curry houses. And have you noticed the theme of eating and drinking together?
Krish Kandiah, 38, is the Alliance's executive director for Churches in Mission
The Missing Generation symposium is just one example of how to challenge the Church to raise up and support godly, fired-up young Christians with a passion for transforming their communities. Clearly we need a debate in congregations around the country about how best to reach and disciple 20-somethings.
Meanwhile, the Alliance has been implementing grass-roots programmes that invest directly in younger leaders. Slipstream is one of these, using a monthly e-letter, podcast and Facebook presence to help younger leaders stay informed, connected, stretched intellectually and equipped for ministry.
We also need to continue planning face-to-face opportunities for youth ministry organisations to partner to encourage, mentor and coach younger leaders. For example, in Wales, the New Generation Leadership event has for a number of years brought together groups of churches and organisations to offer specific and focussed assistance for leaders. And the Just Generation event in Scotland saw more than 100 younger leaders gather to seek
justice in their lives, communities and the world.
So how can you help? If you know a young leader, encourage him or her to check out Slipstream to connect with others. Talk to your church leadership team about how you can proactively minister to the 20s in your church, or simply take the initiative to befriend and mentor someone in that age group.
I believe we won't just see their lives transformed, but our congregations will be re-energised to speak with relevance into the lives of countless numbers of young people searching for spirituality and identity in these uncertain times.