The missing generation

Monday, 20 June, 2011

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

One of the most painful realities of church life in the UK is the absence of young adults. If 7.5% of the population are in church on an average Sunday, it is only three percent of those in their twenties and thirties. Of these, more than a quarter worship in London, and many more worship in large churches round the country that have developed significant ministries for this age group. These churches often have a major emphasis on discipleship, are not growing consumer Christians and are a vital resource for the church nationally, both now and for the long term future. But the fact remains that the twenties and thirties age group is as good as missing from the majority of churches.

Conversations at Soul Survivor's Momentum event also showed that some keen Christians in this age group are hanging on to church by the skin of their teeth, more out of loyalty than anything else. Some also spoke of the difficulty of reconnecting to 'ordinary' church after a few years of student Christianity. Christian ministry on campus put some off and demanded all the extra curricula time available from others. The result was disconnection from normal church life. Many students then moved to find a job and found no-one within twenty years of their age group when they tried to join a local church. In a culture which changes so fast, that is a substantial gulf.

In theory, fresh expressions have majored on those who have never been involved in church, even if in practice many first attempts at a fresh expression draw in people with some former church background. This generation provides us with a major challenge in both categories. We need to plant fresh expressions which have a primary focus on young adults and we need some of those well-discipled young adults to take a lead. Good pioneer ministry will be needed. We also need to find ways to network and support those young adults who continue as ones or twos in much older congregations, so that they do not give up and leave, but can fully play their part.

But above all we need to listen to those who are struggling to remain or who have given up. In the UK one third of all adults are de-churched. People have been pouring through the back doors of Britain's churches for decades now, with little local attempt to ask them why. There is no point trying to plant fresh expressions for those who have given up the struggle with church, let alone for their many non-churched contemporaries, if we do not find out what the problems are! The listening process, which lies at the birth of any fresh expression of church, is even more vital here.

There seem to be some distinctive characteristics of this generation – most notably many have a real struggle with commitment and closure. This is not because they are weaker or less spiritual than other generations, it is substantially the consequence of the culture which formed them. Put this together with churches that can be conservative about change and are older than the average of the population and some of the difficulties come into clearer focus. But nothing replaces careful local listening. In South Africa recently I spoke with younger Dutch Reformed pastors, who were teenagers during Apartheid and who want to remain in their church, but struggle to trust it. It gave me an interesting parallel.

I do not believe that the struggles of young adults are necessarily an indication of future generations. The teenagers I meet at Soul Survivor are different again. But for the sake of God's kingdom and of his church as its sign, instrument and foretaste, I believe this is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.



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