(Youthwork) Youth congregations: right or wrong?

Thursday, 17 March, 2011

Should we have distinctive congregations for young people or not? Is it better to have all ages together in the local church at worship? Bishop Graham Cray - Archbishops' Missioner, leader of the Fresh Expressions team and Chair of the Soul Survivor Trust - explores the often thorny subject.

What is the logic of youth congregations? Does it mean that we end up with children's church, youth church, 20-30s church (with no-one there…), middle-aged church and elderly church?

To make matters worse, should there be black church, white church, Chinese church, rich church, poor church and computer nerd church? (The fact that some of these actually exist does not answer the question about God's will and the purpose of his Church.) What does each generation lose if it is cut off from the others? How is the reconciling, barrier breaking work of Christ's cross to be experienced and demonstrated?

The answer lies in mission, unity and diversity.

Underlying this very practical issue are a number of important principles about the nature of the Gospel, the relationship between mission and unity, and the nature of unity and diversity in the local church. The danger is that an emphasis on mission alone can result in a fragmented church where no one has significant relationships with any Christians from a different generation or fragment of society. Equally, an emphasis on unity alone can restrict mission to 'people like us' or 'people we can cope with'. Or it can lead to disaster because no one had thought how young people, or young people from a different background, could be integrated into existing church life and culture.

I once asked a youth minister if his middle class youth fellowship and the members of his estate youth club ever met one another? His reply was that they did – and when they did they threw cups and plates at one another! If we want unity we will also need to have diversity, whether it be within a congregation, between linked congregations or between sister churches. I will take a look at these apparently competing principles later.

Reaching and keeping

In 2002, in a Grove booklet about Youth Congregations and the Emerging Church, I pointed out that they had emerged as a new feature on the Church's landscape for two main reasons:

  • As a practical way to keep young people we might otherwise lose. This was not paranoia. In the last two decades of the twentieth century the number of children and teenagers in the UK churches halved. It was not easy to keep existing young people in the churches and it seemed far easier to win young people to Christ than to integrate them into church;
  • A missional motive, as well as this pragmatic 'survival' one. Young people were on the cutting edge of the massive shift in culture, which many people have called modern to postmodern. Western culture was changing and the gospel needed to be preached and the church planted into the new world, which was emerging. Inevitably the first fully integrated inhabitants of that new world were young people, hence youth congregations. Those youth congregations whose members did not all leave the area for higher education at 18 could be expected to develop into all age congregations within the new culture. Some – notably Soul Survivor Watford – have done precisely that, while retaining the priority of winning teenagers for Christ.

But what about today? There are still, sadly, churches which still have not been able to integrate young people into their weekly life and worship. In my previous role as a bishop in Kent I sometimes met congregations who wanted young people to attend, but entirely on their own terms and without any will for change. It is a fundamental principle about the body of Christ that new members, whatever their age, automatically imply change. New people have to be considered as decisions are made, and space made for new gifts and insights. So when it comes to the eternal salvation of teenagers I am a pragmatist. I would rather have young people meeting and worshipping separately than be lost to the church and possibly to Christ.

On the other hand the recent study on The Faith of Generation Y - by Bob Mayo, Sylvia Collins-Mayo, Sally Nash and Christopher Cocksworth - shows that many of today's teenagers are not put off the church. They don't know much about it and are not at all adverse to intergenerational activity, partly because family is so important to them. If church is really functioning as the family of God there are good reasons to believe that more local churches should now be able to integrate young people than was the case a decade ago. The gospel of reconciliation to God is mean to be demonstrated by visible local reconciliation with one another.

The 'distinctive' argument

I would also caution against too much use of the idea that each generation is distinctive, and thus needs its own version of church. It is one thing to point out that, when there is a culture shift of the sort that occurs every few centuries, innovative mission will be needed among the first generation to be shaped by the new world. It is another thing altogether to imply that the distinctive features of each generation are more influential than features held in common, and is such that each generation needs its own church! There are always generational distinctives, but that alone is not the basis for segregated congregations.

Some youth workers make the mistake of assuming that the young people they serve must see things the same way that they did, when they were in their teens. They had angst about the church so their young people must as well. That is not necessarily so. Beware of generational theory. It was developed as a marketing tool and should not be used uncritically by the Church.

A third way

Despite all that I have said so far, I still believe there is still a vital role for youth congregations today. They should not just be a last resort for churches that can't keep their young people any other way. They are appropriate mission initiatives in their own right. Many churches in the UK use a cluster of approaches for mission. They make their churches as welcoming and hospitable as possible and invite friends to events and courses, aiming to help them to both believe and belong. This is just as appropriate for young people as for any other age group. But churches also involve themselves in their communities to demonstrate the gospel through loving service, and thus make new friends to invite. Various forms of youth work can act as one of these bridging projects. There is a third strategy complementary to the first two. It begins by asking the question 'Who will never be reached if we only do what we are doing now?' and results in the planting of new congregations, with a different ethos, designed to reach those untouched by existing local patterns of church life. We call these fresh expressions of church and it is my role nationally to resource the Church to plant them.

Youth congregations are one of many examples of fresh expressions of church – as was made clear in the Mission-shaped Church report in 2004. The underlying principle here is not generational. It is a God given passion to reach those with no connection to church and little knowledge of the gospel. Fresh expressions of church might be identified with an activity (such as the surfers of Tubestation in Cornwall); a vocation, an institution – maybe a workplace, school or college; a particular neighbourhood or any other way in which human beings form community these days. There are plenty of intergenerational fresh expressions but there are also, and need to be, youth specific ones as well. Sorted, a youth congregation in Bradford is a good example. It began with relational evangelism at skate parks, is now involved in two secondary schools, and is recognised as a church by the diocese.

Teenagers can and should be integrated into multi generational churches. But some churches are not anything like multi-generational. They have ageing congregations into which it would be extremely difficult to integrate younger people. It may be too late. It might be better to plant something younger, and begin again! We should work for an active partnership between existing patterns of church life and fresh expressions of church in each area. This combination is often called 'the mixed economy' church. All dimensions of this mixed economy need to win and disciple young people. It is not either or, it is both and.

The theological rationale for this is found in the relationship between mission and unity. Christ died for 'all' so that 'all things' could be reconciled to God and forgiven people to one another. Those who have received the gospel of reconciliation are in debt; they owe the gospel to those who have not heard it. As a result there can be two equal problems about unity in the Church. One is that those who are already Christians may not be united. They may be more content to live and worship in groups defined by their particular culture, rather than by their shared identity in Christ. But there is an equal problem.

Even if all the Christians in a place were united across the generations and all other cultural differences, that unity might not be broad enough, because of all the groups who remain completely untouched by the gospel. The first problem would be solved by finding appropriate ways to express unity and interdependence, the second can only be solved by outreaches to untouched groups – sometimes by an appropriate fresh expression of church. So innovative mission is meant to create problems for unity, and unity is meant to challenge fragmented mission. Youth specific congregations are one of the tools we need to re-evangelize a nation in which the vast majority of young people have little meaningful connection to the Church, but all cultural specific congregations – including the elderly ones worshipping with the Book of Common Prayer need to have a real connection to the rest of the local church or churches.

Up, in, out, of

Every congregation needs four dimensions - up to God in worship, in to one another in community, out to the world in mission and of the rest of the church in partnership. Unity can be embodied in many more ways than all being in the same worship service. It might mean joint service to the local community. Soul Survivor's 'Noise' weekends were designed for young people but in many places all generations now share in what the young people began. It might mean a prayer evening or 24/7 prayer week in which all generations join.  It might mean having a really good intergenerational party sometimes! It sometimes means young people being mentored by older members of another congregation of the same church. It might equally mean members of a youth congregation visiting elderly or housebound members of a sister congregation. Unity is about real relationships, not about always being together in the same time and space.

There are a wide variety of possible models. A youth congregation can be one of a number of interlinked congregations of one church, A secondary school based youth congregation can have strong links to churches in the communities and youth ministries where the students live. An Anglican deanery, Methodist circuit, or ecumenical group of nearby churches can run a combined youth celebration with youth cells within each participating church. A youth church plant can sometimes grow into an all age congregation. A multigenerational church can have, as its primary calling, the winning of unchurched teenagers for Christ – such as St Laurence's, Reading.

There is no simple one size fits all, answer to 'Youth congregations – right or wrong?' In some contexts they are vital – or whole groups of young people will remain untouched by the gospel! The mission of the church requires them.  In other places they are unnecessary as intergenerational unity is achievable, and disunity would impede the mission of the church.

All mission requires discernment – listening to and following the missionary, uniting, Holy Spirit in the local context is the only safe way to decide.