Beth Keith considers 'being' church for the missing generation.
The Church of England's annual statistics for 2011 were released to much fanfare last week with glowing reference being made to 'an increase in child and adult baptisms and a growing stability in weekly service attendance'.
All well and good you may think but the fact is that the Church, as a whole, is failing to reach or keep young adults - any stats on church attendance will tell you that. Only 11% of regular churchgoers are between the ages of 25 and 34, whilst 16% of the UK population is within that age group. In tracking church decline, the greatest losses per year are occurring amongst those aged 15 to 29.
But, and it's a big but, there are churches bucking this trend, churches which are attracting growing numbers of people in their 20s and 30s.
Over the last year I've been talking with leaders of churches who are reaching and discipling young adults of the so-called 'missing generation'. These include parish churches, traditional church plants and fresh expressions of church. It's been a privilege to hear stories of how these churches are developing and a challenge to discover more of the issues they have faced along the way.
When this qualitative research project started through Fresh Expressions (via their Young Adults Round Table) and Church Army, we were keen to look at churches based in different contexts and ensure we had examples of churches reaching young adults from a range of socio-economic and religious backgrounds. We didn't want to simply track large student churches.
As a result, I have identified five distinct types of young adults' church. They have different personalities, are of different sizes, connect with different kinds of young adults and practice faith differently. They are:
- church planting hubs;
- youth church grown up;
- deconstructed church;
- church on the margins;
- context shaped church.
What did I find? Some larger churches, with young adult congregations gathering for a Sunday service alongside midweek groups, are effectively reaching middle class, well-educated young adults who previously attended church as children. They act as gathering points, and are highly effective in attracting, retaining and discipling Christian young adults for a vocational life of mission in the world and ministry in the church. These young adults tend to move on to family-based congregations as they grow up.
But the churches managing to reach young adults with no prior faith or church experience - and from a broader socio-economic background - exhibit very different traits and practices. Meeting more often around the dining table than the church building; eating together is the new 'Sunday service'. For these small sacramental communities, access to communal spaces, such as cafes, large vicarages and community houses, can make a crucial difference to their growth and sustainability.
These more experimental forms of Christian community are greatly affected by the level of support and connection with the wider church, particularly during times of transition. But their unconventional style can be a stumbling block to this. They face a number of challenges and issues remain about permissions, authorisation, and the appropriate administration of the sacraments, alongside questions about sustainability.
Young adults attending these types of churches may struggle to make the leap to more traditional forms of church as they get older. This suggests the determining factor here is not their age or life stage, and that these new forms of church will continue to grow and develop. The recognition of these small sacramental communities as church is vital, both for the sustainability of these fledgling churches and for the building up of the wider church.
You can read more about this and the five types of young adults' church in a 36-page report outlining the findings: copies of authentic faith: fresh expressions of church amongst young adults are available now.