Pioneering event aims to tackle falling church attendance

A pioneering event in Swansea will help those trying to pass on faith to the next generation, says Rev Rachel Bunting

Over the last few months as I’ve started my role as Bishop’s Officer for Family Ministry, I’ve met so many people who are passionate about sharing their faith with young people, and who are disappointed at how few people under the age of 18, or even 30(!) there are in our churches.

Speaking to the older generations, they can remember the days when Sunday Schools were filled with hundreds of children, and classes were run over several age groups.
Sadly, our church attendance figures paint a very different picture now across all age groups, not just young people.

In 2004 the number of under-18s worshipping in a Church in Wales congregation on a Sunday morning was 7,749; by 2015 this had dropped to 5,827.
So why is it that the younger generations aren’t coming to church anymore? What happened to the days where it was normal to go to church on a Sunday?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t simple and so neither is the solution. There are many contributing factors for the drop in church attendance, and at their root they come down to culture.

It is true that our culture in Britain has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. The introduction of shops opening on a Sunday means that a large percentage of the population are now working or shopping on a Sunday morning. Many sports leagues fixtures are held on a Sunday morning, and for a generation with rising obesity levels, it’s not really something we can discourage.

However, there is more to it than just competition. The changing culture has resulted in a huge change in mindset between different generations, who have all been affected by different life experiences and events happening in the world around them.

Research has shown that people born within a certain period tend to have a similar attitude towards life which has been influenced by the world they were brought up in. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the generations are largely split into these categories:

  • The Silent Generation, born between 1928-1945
  • Baby Boomers, 1946-1964
  • Generation X, 1965-1980
  • Millenials, or Generation Y, 1981-2000
  • Generation Z, 2000 or later.

Our churches tend to be filled with Baby Boomers and ‘Silents’, with a few Gen X thrown in. Generations Y and Z are very few and far between, but the reason can be seen within the characteristics of their generations.

Generation Y grew up in a time of largely uninterrupted economic prosperity, smothered by health and safety regulations, and used to being consulted on family decisions. However, they were under severe stress from parents who want to raise trophy kids with perfect grades, who go on to have the perfect job.

They don’t want to be consumed with work the way their parents were. Instead, they have a strong group and community orientation, form deep relationships with their friends, and tend to share the same values as their parents, whilst looking forward to raising families rather than getting the best jobs.

One of the key characteristics of this generation is their confidence with modern technology. They’ve grown up with the internet and computers and take mobile phones for granted. This is reflected in the way they spend their time.

In 1998, only between 5% and 7% of this generation went to church on a Sunday. However, many of them do hold religious beliefs, mainstream religion ‘matters’ to most of them, and their beliefs and practices tend to be highly conventional, but stay in the background of their lives.

Part of the problem is that as many as 51% of young adults feel they can be a Christian without going to church.

So, if this is how their parents think, what does this mean for Generation Z, our current cohort of young people?

James Emery White has brought out a book this year called Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New-Post Christian World, in which he gives five factors that define this generation:

  1.  they are recession marked- growing up in a post-911 world;
  2.  they are Wi-Fi enabled;
  3.  they are multi-racial;
  4.  they are sexually fluid; and
  5.  they are post-Christian.

Put together they are a rising generation of globally connected, technologically savvy, strategically ambitious, passionately driven, and religiously confused individuals. Some 78% of Generation Z still believe in the existence of God. But only 41% attend weekly religious services of any kind. As a result, they are spiritually illiterate, the first generation raised without “even a memory of the gospel”. White calls Generation Z “lost” and “leaderless.” And now they’re facing a dynamic world hopelessly confused about God, church, morality, and faith.

Amid all this confusion, being guided by generations of people who have never set foot in church, what difference can we make? Contrary to popular belief, there actually isn’t a huge amount of antagonism towards Christians from this generation. A recent survey by Youth for Christ found that while 32% of young people believe in God, only 59% of those would consider themselves Christian. However, 61% of people know someone who is a Christian and have a positive opinion about them. At the same time, only 35% of all those surveyed said that they don’t think about God. That means that 65% are thinking about Him, and are asking questions, so are we in the right place to answer them?

It can be very difficult to know where to start when there is a huge gap of young people in our churches. But there is so much scope and potential to be working with this age group. They are open and questioning. They respond well to creativity, integrity, and a genuine interest in their lives. They aren’t that intent on spending their lives attached to their phones- give them the opportunity to interact with their friends face to face, and they will take it. With so few safe spaces offered to young people and children with government spending cuts, anything our churches can offer will be positively received.

From youth clubs, to mother and toddler groups, messy church, after school clubs, assemblies, holiday clubs. When you build up relationships with young people who know that you are a Christian, then eventually they will come to you with questions for themselves.

I know there are a lot of Christians out there with a passion for these generations but no idea where to start. I’ve met so many people who used to have a thriving ministry with young people, but think that they no longer have anything to offer, or feel the gap towards children is now too big to cross.

To try and give a bit of a push of encouragement, there will be a conference called Kindling a Flame in the autumn, to give you the resources you need to reach out. There will be representatives from all sorts of organisations who work with young people across different walks of life, so whatever your experience or your skills, there will be something for you.

Whether you work with children in a school setting, are interested in starting up a youth group or choir, already have a youth group and would like to take them away, are involved in the ministry to children in your church, or are seeking to encourage your own children- you are very welcome

Kindling a Flame is on Saturday, October 28, from 10am-4.30pm in St Mary’s Church in Swansea. For details contact Rachel at revrachelbunting@hotmail.co.uk, or 01792 652891.