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29 February 2012

The Child Exodus: and how the Church can stop it

by Chine Mbubaegbu

Mass child exodus. One generation from extinction. Teen apostates. These are just some of the headlines representing the dire state that the global Church is in when it comes to the next generation. Everywhere you turn, doomsayers are signalling the
end of Christianity as we know it. As populations age, we will be tackling a new generation of young people for whom Christianity is not part of a collective memory.

What is particularly alarming is the rate at which we are losing those who grow up in the Church, but whose faith does not transition into adulthood. According to Christian Research, the Church in the UK will have lost an estimated 1.1 million children between 1990 and 2020. They also predict that in the year 2020, 183,700 children aged under-15 will attend church compared to 375,300 in 2010. Unless we do something about it now. According to statistician Peter Brierley, it is possible to buck the trend if action is taken. He says the rise in the number of youth workers in recent years has meant that the Church has not lost as many young people as it could have done. He says that fewer people have left the Church than would have if we had not had as many of these dedicated workers.

A mere 104,200 under-15s left the Church between 1998 and 2005, compared to a predicted 256,000. A job well done? Clearly not. The Bible tasks us in Proverbs 22:6 to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”. With so many children choosing not to stick with the faith, have we failed? And what can we do about it now?

In the Alliance’s latest research booklet How’s the Family?, published in February, it was revealed that 45.5 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “in my church many young people have stopped attending on Sundays in their teenage years”. There is lots of research about just why this is. Most of the religious beliefs, behaviours and expectations that define a person’s life have been developed and embraced by the age of 13, according to Christian Research. If there isn’t a firm foundation in the Bible and the Christian life before that, children are more susceptible to succumbing to peer pressure, to doubting the faith and seeing church life as alien to the real world.

It would seem there is something in the waters, and a recognition that there needs to be a radical step change – a rescue mission in search of our young people. Christian groups and organisations seem to be sitting up and taking notice of these bleak statistics. This is why we’re providing a forum to explore the issue in detail with key Christian leaders from across the evangelical spectrum at our Council meeting on 1 March.

Krish Kandiah, the Alliance’s executive director: churches in mission, says: “These are awful and scary statistics. We need enough of us to try and make a difference because it doesn’t bode well for the future. Will the Church be dead in 2020?” He says for UK Christianity to continue to be alive and kicking in the next decade, it will take the Church as a whole sitting up and taking notice. And this means the whole Church, as a family, rather than tasking
youth workers alone with the responsibility of keeping young people in church.

It’s the intentionally inter-generational churches that might keep more young people and foster an environment in  which they can transition into adulthood, rather than churches which keep children’s work and youth ministry isolated from the main life of the church.

“We are the household of God. We’re adopted into God’s family. And if that’s to be more than just a metaphor, we have to make church ‘family’ rather than ‘event’. It’s relatively easy to leave something that you feel is an event. It’s relatively easy to leave something that you view as a provider or a service. But it’s harder to leave a family – if you feel this is a family of people that love you and have been through thick and thin with you.”

Take a moment to think about your church. How does it ‘do’ children’s work? Are you encouraged as an adult in he church to be active in the lives of younger members? Is the church regularly informed of what’s being taught in Sunday School? Does what is being taught to the children bear any relation to what the adults are hearing in the sermons? The Alliance’s research found that over two thirds of evangelicals agree or strongly agree that investing time, people and resources in the outreach and disciplemaking of children and young people should be the Church’s highest priority. Despite this, less than a third said they know about children’s ministry within their church. If children’s work is more connected, then that could in turn enable the young people to be more connected to the Church as they grow older. “Inter-generational contact is one of the main drivers behind resilient faith, according to the Fuller Youth Institute in the US,” says Krish. “We have isolated children from the wider church and we have not helped them. Many of these children have not experienced adult church and so many of them do not have a role model of what it is to be a normal Christian adult. They don’t know what their future looks like within the church context.”

Care for the Family is leading the way on this subject with its Getting Your Kids Through Church Without Them Ending Up Hating God initiative, which aims to help prevent a generation of young people being lost to the Church. Care for the Family’s founder and chairman Rob Parsons OBE recently spoke about what inspired him to start the project. “It was when I was at Spring Harvest some years ago where I witnessed one of the most moving dramas I’ve ever seen. Some fresh statistics had just been released about the rate at which young people leave the church. The Big Top was crammed with people – many of them under 20 years old. The narrator began by shouting out: ‘Age 10’. A few children stood up and left, symbolising the number of 10-year-olds who had stopped attending church. “Then the narrator shouted, ‘Age 11’ and more children left. With every jump in age, more and more kids headed for the exit. Suddenly, at ages 15 and 16, an avalanche of children seemed to be walking away from the faith of their childhood. “Those of us who were adults watched open-mouthed as child after child left. My heart broke – I felt absolutely impotent to stop the tide. And I felt incredible guilt. I’m certain that most people in that audience felt the same – but we’re not meant to. Most parents, youth leaders, and church leaders don’t need another dose of guilt about how we could have done things better. But I sensed later that it could, perhaps, be helpful to consider some of the reasons behind many young people’s decision to leave church.”


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