Monday, 1 November 2010

Church Imbalance

I ought to preface this post as it has the potential to chuff some well-meaning people off - and that is to remind you, dear readers, that I am regarded as one of the church's younger priests at a mere 38. I also love almost just about everybody everywhere. Hold that in your minds, please ...

I have touched on this before, but it has risen to the top of the Cloakey Attention Top Ten once again - and that is the church's desperate appetite to enter into a love affair with 'youth'. The Church Times had a feature just this very week of some lovely folk who work with that amorphous blob of social demographic - youth. I must say here that they are good people doing very valuable work, end of. Then I look at the job ads as is my wont these days and so many of the vacancies seek someone who 'connect with young people'. Again, laudable in its place. 

Speaking as one who has worked with Amorphous Yoof, and as someone who is still in his thirties and therefore still acquainted with his memories of being a member of Amorphous Yoof, I wonder why it is we hunt this specific age group like ecclesial stalkers. The time, effort, person-power and ad-space that is devoted to the 12-18s is considerable, but I would contend - imbalanced.

It seems to me that teenagers, on the whole, just don't really want to go to a church (go on admit it, it isn't a heresy). They seem to want to be teenagers with their teenage wants and needs, a circle of non-church friends, sport, doing the responsible  thing and getting a weekend job, girls/boys, sleep, music and then the biggy, getting to know themselves and all that that entails. These things demand time and I felt minded to offer it to those rites of passage when I was that age. For me, I fitted church in fairly well, but it was often the first thing I felt able to dump if the need arose.

Ads and articles concerning youth workers have this implicit sense that Amorphous Yoof needs fixing, changing, bringing 'home' (converting) - and indeed the very good article from the CTimes seems to mirror that in its strap-lines: 'I saved this Yoof from this calamity or that calamity'. I worry that the premis of such work is utterly bound up in 'saving' kids and then reeling them in. I didn't need saving and I had my fair share of scrapes; neither did my friends and they had their scrapes. Neither did the large majority from my large secondary school, though of course there are always exceptions. The very very very large majority of teenagers are not (thank God) suicidal abused crack addict single parents with a cleptomania, hoody and over-sexualised life to support.

I see very little written about those who work with toddlers and their families (and even simple marketing prowess will tell you that if you get the toddlers you will get their parents, if 'getting' is your bag). I see very little written about those who work with the 30-50 age group, or the 65 and overs. Of the latter, if column inches were allocated to numbers of church goers per age, then we would hear little else - and perhaps rightly so. I have seen no job ads looking for priests to engage with the absent males, for example. I have to be honest, I just don't understand this church mono-passion with Amorphous Yoof, and I think they themselves would share my point of view - they want to be left alone in my experience, to make their choices on their own terms, iPods on. All the while, our pensioners are saying 'what about us, we count' and the 30-50s are barely audible on the basis of simple lack of numbers. 

Yes, stalk Amorphous Yoof and do that well. Employ your Yoof Workers and get them degrees in Yoof Work, that is good. I love Yoof too. But let us not ignore the rest of God's wonderful creation for another moment. While we are chasing hoodies around parks with our floppy-black Bibles in our own funky hoodies with crosses on, there are pensioners who have not seen a living soul for months just aching for a visit from someone; there are young families who would love to find a place to bring the kid on a Sunday like they used to when they too were kids; there are fellas who would love a philosophical yap over a pint. - and many more facets of our broad society. If we do one, let us do the other. Better a Pastoral Worker than a Yoof Worker, surely. Let us not be so hooked on the need to make another Sunbeam for the Lord Jesus Christ - let us love everyone with equal zeal and reflect that in how our churches do business.

... oh, and God does the convertin', not us - we 'just' need to be impressive Christians (and that isn't another heresy either)!


  1. Hear, hear! I've also long thought this. There is a perversity in concentrating most effort on the category of people who seem statistically least likely to respond. There is a genuine calling, I'm sure, to work in unprofitable-seeming fields, but as a whole-church strategy it is odd. Is it only the cult of youth, I wonder, or is there some magic quality in youthful converts that makes us (I was one) more valuable.

    It is a shame, to the mission-hearted, that so few young people go to church. But then it is also a shame that so few people go full stop. The members of my church are mostly elderly, but most of the elderly in the parish don't go either. We've plenty of mission to do there, it seems.

  2. You may (or may not) be comforted to know that after several years of badgering to be christened, my 11.5 year old daughter will be christened and confirmed next Sunday. She regularly sings in the choir and acts as a boat girl.

    Maybe she'll fall away from church through her teenage years, but I wouldn't bet on it. Only a few do round here. Umm, and we have Lay Pastoral Assistants who are both closer in age and less scary than a real priest for the teenagers to deal with. Any ads that are asking for priests who can connect with youth probably already have a problem they can't work out how to fix ...

  3. Oh, and on a (possibly) more trivial note, I was reminded by Father David's own youthful status, of a priest friend of mine who was turned down for ordination in 1980-something, and then accepted twenty years later and ordained in 2000-something. I believe if he had been ordained in 1980-something he would have been the average age for a new priest (late twenties). When he was ordained twenty years later he was still the average age for a new priest!

  4. Fractal - thanks for stopping by! I am hugely comforted by what you describe and I thank God for her and her choices! I was a child as you describe - and was encompassed by 'jobs' - i served and sang in choirs, and I rang bells etc - and if I hadn't done those things, I may have been less 'present' on Sundays!

    It reminds me of something someone said to me once - that God wanted me to be a priest because he didn't trust me to go to church otherwise!

  5. To Sui - God gets us in the end and at about the right moment I am sure! And yes, for the mission hearted, absence does not make the heart grow grow fonder - in fact we own it and wonder what we are doing wrong persoanlly.

    I said in one post on old age that I am apt, when/if incumbent, to channel all my energies at the toddlers and dodderers, and leave the Yoof the the guys up the road. Experience has taught me that as fruitful ministries go, those two groups would keep me going for several lifetimes!



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