Last weekend I was away with a wonderful group of twenty-somethings/young adults (is there a better description in circulation?) from my church. I was there to help them do some thinking about community which was cool because it was obvious they already had a strong sense of belonging and a desire to go deeper in terms of their shared life, their relationship with God and their impact on the world around them.
As part of the thinking process I got everyone to complete a short questionnaire about previous experiences of the Christian life, community, and their thoughts about church and about friends who have abandoned church. What did we discover?
Firstly, an important general observation. Out of general conversations and feedback during the discussion sessions it's clear that the group are absolutely committed to church, roughly in the form in which they are currently experiencing it. There was no hint of disillusionment or any desire to peel off and create a new congregation or emerging community. These guys weren't after a revolution, but they were pretty passionate about developing their shared life within the existing expression of church. Theirs is a hunger for a discipleship that digs deeper into loving God, loving one another and loving the lost.
Over the weekend we learned that the key to this is a greater commitment to community, in the sense that our shared lives provides the place where personal growth comes through relationship and accountability, and out of which mission, justice and engagement with the world of their peers flows. None of this is new. What made it special was the sense of shared revelation as the whole group recognised community as the answer to a longing that they were all feeling. As a result, some new stuff is already starting to happen.
Here, briefly, are some observations from the questionnaire.
When asked about their best experience of the Christian life, eight mentioned involvement in mission or an outward focused activity, seven commented on relationships, and five referred to some kind of existential awareness of God's presence or the assurance of faith.
When asked whether they would prefer to create a worship event with and for their friends or go to a big worship event the answers were an almost exact equal split, with a few saying they'd like to do both as long as it's with friends.
The most important ingredients of church for this age group were - relational/social, not just for one age group but open to the wisdom of older Christians, 'safe' (didn't explore what was meant by this), relevant, engaging worship, creative, outward focus.
They believe their friends are put off becoming Christians by issues to do with the church (irrelevance, boring, perception of Christians) and issues to do with the people themselves (lifestyle implications, life is ok without God, intellectual or volitional problems with belief)
It was felt that these same people are attracted to Christianity predominantly through relationships, though some also felt that Christianity would be attractive because it offers answers to life's questions.
This experience of a UK group contrasts sharply with the findings of the Barna report which looked at the US situation. Clearly the group I worked with was small and it is not possible to extrapolate from them for the rest of the UK. But I don't think they are unusual or uncommon. Being unfamiliar with the US church youth group scene I can only comment on the UK situation but perhaps the following features contribute to the difference.
In the UK most youth groups are small which forces the focus onto relationships and engagement with the wider world rather than the overwhelming comfort of a well organised programme (large can also produce a kind of group-think which destabilises leavers once they've moved on from the group). Our culture is inherently wary of institutional belonging, particularly among young people which means they shy away from too much commitment and like to keep their options open. Most of our losses in the UK are during the teenage years, around 14-17 so those that survive this phase usually emerge with a stronger personal faith and commitment to church which then starts to mature into an adult faith as it carries them into their twenties.
There may be other factors we should be aware of, but those with trans-Atlantic experience will be able to identify these more clearly.
My basic conclusions probably sound a bit obvious. Get people involved. Let people relate in a way that's authentic to their peer group. Stay intentionally engaged with the world beyond the group. Let patterns of worship change and grow as the people do.
But there are also some interesting connections that I'm thinking over regarding youth work, schools work and young adult faith. I have been greatly encouraged by the twenty-somethings group I spent a weekend with, and by the emergence of other groups locally, some within existing churches, and one of which has founded a new church. Having a good relationship with all of these groups it's tempting to delve a little more deeply and find out what it was that kept them in the faith, or drew them to the faith.