Engaging the Next Generation: Relationships and Education, not Just Bums on Seats.

If we are going to engage the next generation with the Christian faith it will be through relationships and education, not waiting for them to tun up at our churches. This is one conclusion we have drawn from two of our recent surveys. We should be equipping Christians to be able to explain their faith gently and respectfully to the non-Christians they know and making the most of the opportunities to serve schools and assist them in teaching about the christian faith.

In the first survey we asked school students about their connections with churches and Christians. We were intrigued as to whether or not they consider themselves to be Christian, what their links with churches are like and whether or not they know any Christians. In the second survey, conducted at the Midlands Gospel Partnership (MGP) Growing Young Disciples 1-day conference (GYD) for children’s, youth and families workers from churches across the Midlands region, we asked similar questions, but with a view from the other side. I.E. how many young people do churches have connections with and what do they do to connect with young people in their communities?

In the first survey, it is important to note that, given the nature of our work, we have a disproportionate percentage of Christians in our clubs and groups. This was shown in their responses; 51% identify as Christians and 49% say they are not a Christian. We have tried to keep this in mind when analysing the results and looking for any obvious differences between these two groups.

We asked the young people if they had ever been to church.

Even though 49% are not Christians, we found that 98% of respondents had been to a church run activity at some point. For most non-Christians their attendance is limited to special occasions (e.g. baptisms, weddings, school visits, etc.). So it would seem the church still has a role to play in the lives of many people in the UK, even if it is a minimal role limited to significant points in life. In fact, when asked how frequently they attend church activities, only 10% of the respondents say they never visit a church.

This might seem positive, but our sample is not representative of all secondary school students. As I have already stated, we have a disproportionate number of Christians in our clubs and groups. Anecdotally, our impression from the conversations we have is that, across the whole secondary school population, the percentage who never attend church is much higher. This was confirmed by the information we got through our MGP GYD survey. We asked church representatives, what percentage of young people do their churches have contact with from their local area?’ The average for our sample is 8%. Conversely, this means they do not have contact with 92% of the young people in their area. This is better than larger surveys from churches across the country, where the results are more like 3% to 5% of young people attend a church and 95% to 97% do not. It seems safe to say that, apart from Christian young people and children from Christian families, young people do not go to any church activities except on special occasions; e.g. baptisms and weddings. It would seem many do not go to church at all. Is this likely to change as they get older? We asked the school students how likely it was that they would attend church as an adult. It is no surprise that Christian students regularly attend church and are very likely to attend church as adults. It is equally unsurprising that non-Christians are not likely to attend church in the near future nor as adults. The Christian church still has a place within our society, but for many this is reduced to births, marriages and deaths. There is no desire to attend church activities at other points in life.

Does this matter? I am sure many would say ‘no’ and there will be some who think this trend is a good thing. However, I would argue that our young people are not able to fully understand the culture and society they live in if they do not have a good understanding of the Christian faith, the Christian church and at least some Christian teaching. The Christian church still has an influential place in UK culture and society.

Christian values permeate through so much of our British culture; Free speech and democracy, charity, our language, literature and arts, justice and community. There are many more and we can see Christian values coming through in the modern ‘British Values’.

Many of our significant institutions have Christian roots; Our legal system. Our education system. Our health system. Our political system.

The evidence of Christianity in these systems varies today, but many of the foundational values remain, as do some of the links. We have an established state church, with the head of state also being the head of the church. We have bishops in the House of Lords. Our young people are better able to understand the culture and nation they are growing up in if they have a good understanding of the Christian faith, even if they are not Christians themselves.

I would also argue that having a better knowledge of the beliefs and worldviews of other people helps us all get along together with less ignorance and suspicion. We should be teaching our young people about the various faiths represented in our communities and providing opportunities for them to meet people from these faith groups. Given that Christianity is the largest religious group in the UK, it makes sense for all young people to be learning about the Christian faith and meeting Christians. It is very likely they will study with Christians, have Christian neighbours and work with Christians in the future, as well as have Christian friends and family.

While our young people are at school, they are also developing their own understanding of the world and deciding which answers to life’s ‘big questions’ they find most persuasive. There are many groups who make significant claims about our existence, the purpose of life and how we should live: what many would term a marketplace of worldviews. If we genuinely live in a free, open and democratic nation, people should be able to explore these different worldviews so that they can make their own conclusions and decisions and form their own worldview. This includes young people. They should be able to explore Christianity alongside other religions and worldviews in an age-appropriate and educational way. Learning about a range of beliefs, religions and worldviews will help them develop and refine their own worldview as well as help them to better understand the people around them.

But young people are not planning to come to our churches! Many churches have already spotted this and there are many reports about this trend. There are also many ideas for how to get young people into churches. It can seem sometimes that our churches are worried about numbers (bums on seats) and it can be unclear why they think it would be good for the young people to be in their churches. It certainly seems few young people are convinced going to church is worthwhile. I am not convinced young people will be persuaded to come along by the arguments I have given either. So, how will they learn about, understand, engage with and respond to the Christian faith if they are not in our churches?

Despite what some think, there are other ways to explain what it is we believe as Christians and how this affects how we live and the wider impact Christianity has had on our culture and society, other than through church activities. This could be done through relationships Christians have with non-Christians.

Another way young people might learn about Christianity and what Christians believe is via relationships with Christians. Only 3.4% of our respondents say they know no Christians. This suggests that individual Christians have a far greater reach than churches as organisations.

A potential bias in our survey is that around half of the non-Christians have a friend who is a Christian. This may explain why they attend our clubs: their Christian friend has invited them along. I.E. they are in our clubs or groups precisely because they have a Christian friend and so this is not a representative group of the school community as a whole. Even so, fewer of the non-Christians report not knowing any Christians than say they do not ever attend church. So, it seems reasonable to say that even if non-Christian young people are not attending church, there is a good chance they know a Christian.

Are these Christians telling non-Christians about Christianity and explaining what Christianity is about and what it means to be a Christian? We asked the young people if anyone had ever explained to them why they are a Christian and what it means to be a Christian. Almost exclusively, those who said no to either of these, were the young people who said they are non-Christians. 30% said no-one had ever explained to them why they are a Christian. 35% said no-one had ever explained to them what it means to be a Christian.

A massive proportion of young people in our communities are not in church in any meaningful way. It would also seem that many non-Christian young people, who know Christians, still do not get an explanation of Christianity and the teachings of Christianity. One thing we could be doing as churches is equipping Christians to be able to talk confidently, respectfully and gently about their faith and the impact it has on how we live. Thinking specifically about young people, this would mean equipping the young people who are in our churches to be able to do this well.

Another place where young people have the opportunity to learn about, understand, engage with and respond to the Christian faith is in schools. Those responsible for setting the curriculum, recognise the importance of teaching about religions and the specific value of teaching students about the Christian faith. This means there are a range of opportunities, within a school setting, to teach young people about the Christian faith and to provide opportunities for young people to connect with the Christian community.

  • Schools are required to teach Religious Education (usually known as RE, but the subject title might vary) and this flows through Key Stage 4 and 6th Form. Currently, RE must include Christianity. So, schools are teaching about the Christian faith. Often though this is being done by non-specialists and frequently by non-Christians. There is a place here for Christians to serve schools by assisting with the teaching of Christianity. Schools can teach the knowledge about Christian doctrine and practices, but a Christian can unpack this and talk about the impact this has on how they live. Christians can give the students opportunities to ask questions and challenge Christian teaching. Christians can explain what it is like to be part of the local Christian community. It is not that we seek to replace the RE teachers, but that we work in partnership with schools to add value by helping students get beyond just having knowledge of what Christians believe.

  • Schools are also required to hold daily Acts of Worship (AofW) that are broadly or mainly Christian in character. We know of many schools who struggle with this mainly because they do not have staff who are confident about leading such activities. As our nation has become less religious it has also become less clear about what these activities should look like. How can you have a Christian AofW that is inclusive and engaging for all students? Again, we can serve schools in this area by offering to lead these activities. If we take this on it must be done well and for the good of all students. We firmly believe a well led AofW can be inspiring and stimulating for all students.

  • Schools have a responsibility for the Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) development of students. It is recognised that our young people are not just receivers of knowledge. They are also spiritual and moral beings who live within a social and cultural context. I have already set out why I believe, as do many others, that teaching about the Christian faith in a way that encourages engagement and a response can contribute significantly to the SMSC Development of all students. Again, local churches and Christians can work with schools to contribute professionally and with integrity in this area of school life.

  • Schools are also encouraged to engage with their local communities, including faith communities. Again, for the reasons I stated earlier, and other reasons, this seems like a very good thing to do if we are going to create communities where people are not ignorant, suspicious or fearful of others who do not share their religious beliefs or worldview. Churches should be seeking to connect with their local schools and provide these opportunities for students to meet Christians and find out more about what the Christian community looks like and how it functions.

This is why we do Christian schools work. We want to make sure all young people, in the areas where we work, have a better understanding of Christianity and an opportunity to meet Christians. We think this is for their good, for the reasons explained, and adds to and enhances their educational experience. We also work in partnership with churches to facilitate the relationships between schools and churches and give young people the opportunity to find out about church communities in their area. An example of how we do this is to enable interactive and enjoyable church visits.

We are not the only ones who see the value of Christian schools work. In the MGP GYD survey we found that around 90% of the churches represented by the respondents have some contact with their local secondary school(s) where they are able to teach about the Christian faith. There are many Christians serving their local schools to enhance the education of the students and to bring the Christian community to where students are rather than waiting for the them to come to our churches. A great way to genuinely serve and love the young people around them.

Given what we do and our purpose for existing, it is no surprise that we are convinced schools work is necessary if we are going to make sure students learn about Christianity in a way that includes more than just facts about Christianity. This work is needed to enable students to meet people from the Christian community and engage with those people to learn about them and from them. We should be encouraging Christians to be talking about their faith more openly and more often, in a way that is gentle and respectful (1 Peter). Individual Christians are often best placed to help their non-Christian friends learn about what it means to be a Christian and how Christians live. This is as true for young people as it is for adults. Through relationships and education we can engage the next generation

Read more about our work here: www.crossteach.com

Donate to our work here: http://www.crossteach.com/support-us/

crossteach is an educational charity which has been teaching about the Christian faith in schools since 2001. We visit lots of different types of schools – primary and secondary, community and Church of England, private and state-funded, academy and maintained.

Our mission: To teach about the Christian faith in schools

Our vision: For pupils to develop spiritually through understanding, engaging with and responding to the Christian faith

Our aims:

  • To provide direct encounters with Christians speaking about their faith which are enjoyable, memorable and challenging.
  • To teach informed RE lessons that provoke critical enquiry and thoughtful reflection.
  • To lead inspiring, stimulating Collective Worship.
  • To run extracurricular activities that allow pupils to explore fundamental questions about human life, religion and belief.

Our approach:

  • Professional: engaging, trained, organised, experienced and working within national and local requirements and guidelines
  • Reputable: working in schools with integrity and transparency since 2001
  • Distinctively Christian: knowledgeable, authentic and passionate about the Christian faith
  • Collegiate: working in partnership with schools at their invitation and under their direction, and alongside local churches and other school visitors

Survey questions

Survey of students in schools

  • Would you describe yourself as a Christian?

  • Have you ever attended a church run activity (e.g. Sunday service, youth group, Fun Day, school visit, wedding or baptism/christening)?

  • How often do you attend events run by a local church?

  • If you attend church once a month or more, what is the name of the church you attend?

  • If you attend church less than once a month, what is the name of the church nearest to where you live?

  • Do you know any Christians?

  • Has anyone ever explained to you why they are a Christian?

  • Have you ever had a conversation with someone about what it means to be a Christian?

  • How likely is it that you will attend a church event this year?

  • How likely is it that you will attend church regularly as an adult?

MGP GYD Survey

  • On average, over the course of a week, how many children and young people participate in one of your church-based activities?

  • How many children and young people would you estimate there were in your local area?

  • What is your perception of how welcome Christian visitors are in Secondary schools?

  • What do you think is the value of Christian work in Secondary schools?

  • Do you or your church offer any of the following in your local Secondary schools? (Tick all that apply)