by Mark A. Lamport
The United Kingdom, where only ten percent of youth attend church weekly, has recently witnessed a new mission strategy called “Youth Churches.”
Editor’s note: The United Kingdom, where only ten percent of youth attend church weekly, has recently witnessed a new mission strategy called “Youth Churches.” As the name implies, these churches are composed entirely of youth and marketed to attract this alienated group through popular music and worship. The author attended an international conference at Oxford University at which lectures were presented on this growing phenomenon. It provoked such interest that he traveled to England to do field research, including interviews with denominational leaders. Here is what he discovered.
Graham Cray, recently invested as the Church of England’s Bishop of Maidstone, says youth ministry faces a gap that’s cultural, not generational. Out-of-touch church cultures, he says, must not be allowed to impose additional obstacles to the gospel. Youth ministry involves entering young people’s worlds to plant the gospel and the church there. The youth church strategy, Cray says, does not necessarily intend to draw young people back into a church culture that’s alien to them if that culture is dying. It’s not a bridge strategy but a genuine commitment to new forms of church for a new cultural era. Nor is it a temporary way of holding them in the church until they learn to worship properly like the rest of us (Cray 2002, 7).
I attended a conference for leaders of national church and parachurch youth ministries from about fifteen countries where this provocative notion was advanced. Cray, former principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge University, championed the virtues of churches composed entirely of youth.
It’s true that ecclesiology is inherently elastic. A doctrine of the church resists definitive description, but we seem to know “church” when we see it. After all, how could the canonical writers have anticipated all the shapes and forms for what we call church? The limberness of ecclesiology comes of necessity from the many contexts in which the Church exists. The gospel’s meaning and form are not the same. Indeed, a church’s cultural form can exclude people from the gospel.
American church structures can be innovative. A church in the Midwest advertises itself as the place where you can worship without getting out of your car. Another in the Pacific Northwest is for in-line skaters.
I think I have a fitting amount of tolerance for creative church forms, but an adolescent church gave me pause. I wondered, what are the parameters of the Church’s elasticity? What of England’s new phenomenon? To whom are these youth churches accountable in their teaching and practice? What is lost in wisdom and association when children and adults are excluded from the picture? Is this trend merely accommodation to a market niche mentality that causes generational ghettos? What happens when these adolescents “graduate” from youth churches?
Compelling questions, but what connection does this initiative from clear across the Atlantic have with the American church scene? David Martin, sociologist of religion from the United Kingdom, calls Britain “America’s significant other” when it comes to religion in general and evangelicalism in particular (Martin 2001, 15). Perhaps the American church should be interested in what is happening in England. Trends in art, fashion, music and theology often drift westward from England. Before youth churches hit the United States with a vengeance, they should get due consideration.
AN AMERICAN VOYAGE INTO ENGLISH YOUTH CHURCHES
I mulled over how youth churches could be faithful to Scripture and true to reaching adolescents, flip-flopping on why I favored then opposed them. But nothing less than a visit would do. So I went to England to see these churches in action and talk to the movement’s leading thinkers and practioners.
I interviewed the national heads of England’s Methodists, Baptists and Anglicans. Each described youth churches as a “growing phenomenon” and a welcome development.
British leaders distinguish between youth churches and youth congregations. Typically, youth churches are neither affiliated with a larger denominational body nor grouped with children or adults. Youth congregations, on the other hand, are connected to a traditional church body, though they likely hold youth-only worship services.
British youth churches likely stemmed from two events in 1994. First, a group of youth leaders and church leaders gathered under the name “Remix” to discuss the concept of youth churches. The conference was repeated in 1996 and 1997 under the name “Cultural Shift.” Their motto was “church in youth culture” emphasizing the need to reinvent the church. Second, Soul Survivor Watford, a youth church plant in a northwest London suburb, failed to integrate young people into the larger church. Soul Survivor now hosts a festival that has grown to become the largest Christian youth gathering in Britain, attracting thousands (Tregale 2001, 10-11).
At Soul Survivor in Watford I saw the most prominent feature of youth churches: worship—electric and earnest. Ironically, Soul Survivor Watford was set up as a “bridge project” to win youth through worship and a coffee bar. Those won to the faith would then be transferred to the host church, an all-age body affiliated with the Church of England. But they would not go!
Guitars, drums, synthesizers, upfront singers, and an array of lights and amplifiers projected praise choruses and anthems for a new generation—emblematic of youth churches. While skillful musicians pounded reverent chords, worship leaders guided the audience in an unbroken 45-minute set.
The real distinction between contemporary and traditional worship, shrugs Andy Crouch, comes down to music and a power plug. Amplified worship has the capacity to stun churchgoers into a passive stupor (Crouch 2002, 86).
Although many don’t like the wearisome repetitiveness of worship choruses, I was struck by the faithful use of the biblical text and the worshiper’s deep sincerity. All around me, youth swayed, arms stretched upward and eyes closed trance-like, and sang with solemn conviction.
Although moved by the worship, I was also troubled. Have youth, so accustomed to products and experiences narrowcast to their exclusive age, dismissed the notion of generational association, even at worship? Is it such an untenable proposition for youth to leave their thick cultural walls to experience God with the whole body?
The need for alternative forms of worship can drive youth churches. Although worship is central, remarks Matthew Reed, national mission advisor of the Methodist Church, other primary church missions, such as service and evangelism, seem lessened in youth churches. And the learning aspect is underdeveloped.
Next I traveled south to the coast town of Chichester. At Warehouse, I saw another trait of youth churches: spontaneity. In contrast to predictable traditional worship services, youth churches are abuzz with constant movement, audible prayer petitions and invitations for spiritual input from the audience. This night, worshipers were invited to share “a word” from the Lord with the congregation and, if prompted, to challenge others individually with a private prophecy. Several did each.
Jono Tregale, leader of AWEsome, a youth congregation of Emmanuel Church in Northwood in suburban London, told me most English youth churches seem to be conservative, evangelical and charismatic-leaning. Maybe charismatics, which comprise a strong minority of the the English church, are more open to flexible structures such as the youth church. Although spontaneity seems to mark charismatic worship style, it also appears to define postmoderns and their worship.
As I talked with Mark Meardon, in his ninth year as pastor of the youth congregation Eternity, I learned a third characteristic of youth churches: empowerment. Eternity is in Bracknell, an hour west of London, and is one of four congregations of War-field Parish. They have weekly youth-only worship and monthly worship with the parent parish church. Eternity seeks to instill a sense of mission and ministry involvement among the body. Youths discover and exercise their emerging gifts through publications, recreation and outreach events.
Dan Slatter, leader of Warehouse, embraces youth empowerment. He muses: “Could it be that once again youth and college age initiatives will lead England back to God?” Warehouse has developed an acclaimed youth-intensive 24-hour prayer movement in England that has been adapted in various parts of the world.
For youth, empowerment and worship in culturally relevant styles foster a sense of belonging to a common mission and a faith-sharing group of peers. Perhaps this supportive admosphere appeals most to youth. At youth churches, adolescents can meet God in a language and culture they are adept at negotiating. A sort of ecclesiastical identity is built through worship experiences. Youth want to experience worship as they want to engage in dozens of other experiences—first-hand and sensory-laden.
In the postmodern, post-Christian era, Davie, in Religion in Britain Since 1945, asserts that belonging to the faith community often precedes believing in that community’s gospel (Davie 1994, 17). Given the chance to flourish without an overshadowing adult presence, youth churches believe teenagers can more fully take part in the Church’s mission and develop their emerging gifts.
One anticipated asset of youth churches is drawing the unchurched into the mono-generational atmosphere. Yet there’s little proof that youth churches attract non-Christians, says John Buckeridge, editor of Youthwork, UK’s largest youth ministry magazine. At worst, the youth church concept fits into the individualistic philosophy of market niche; at best, it empowers youth.
Youth churches are not without flaws, but with only ten percent of British youth attending church, they do bring a ray of hope to England’s church that’s beaten and riddled with uncertainty. They may well be a resurrection strategy. To many, the splendor of English Christianity’s storied past now seems a dimming light, a punctured balloon, a deflated remnant of a grand idea. Ostentatious cathedrals are historically interesting tourist meccas for the curious but a culturally irrelevant anathema for the young. Slatter reflects that the crisis of England’s Christian church is making us face our own demise.
Peter Ball resonates with this gloomy depiction. Co-national youth officer of the Church of England, Ball wonders if the imposing old buildings, ecclesiastical hierarchy and seemingly inflexible worship practices have alienated youth. He may be right. Up to one thousand young people leave the church every week.
THE ENGLISH CHURCH IN CRISIS
My skeptical ears perk when I hear the word “crisis.” But that’s how every national leader I interviewed described the English church at the start of the twenty-first century. Now I see why.
In 1950, a quarter of all British adults identified themselves as Christian. Forty years later, this figure had been halved. Combined with the growth of New Age religion and renewed interest in the occult, one sociologist observed, “Christian churches have lost their ability to shape popular thinking.” An opinion poll shows the church to be “one of the least-respected institutions in Britain” (Dudley-Smith 2001, 434). Only bobbies (police) are held in lower regard than church members.
Other statistics spell more dismay. Sunday attendance at Anglican churches by fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds dropped by thirty-five percent between 1987 and 1996. The 2000 English Church Attendance Survey revealed that in the last two decades of the twentieth century, the numbers of youth in church under age nineteen has plummeted fifty percent (Dudley-Smith 2001, 435).
This alarming portrait could suggest to some that the youth church rise may be necessitated by the low percentage of Christian parents. England’s Christian cultural heritage, at least heretofore given lip service, has faded. One observer says what many are afraid to admit: Denominations see that unless they do something, there will be no church left in the next generation.
So are youth churches an impetus for a second English Reformation? Fermenting elements suggest a move in the youth church direction. First, former Anglican Church leader George Carey asked the policy-making Archbishop’s Council of Canterbury and York to address the issue of youth churches and ecclesiology. And while some bishops are concerned about their maverick nature and accountability structures, the archbishop has youth initiatives high on his agenda. Yvonne Criddle, co-national youth officer for the Church of England, reports that some form of youth church may already be at least in some form in each diocese.
Second, in June 2001 there was a strategy meeting of nearly eight hundred current and prospective youth church planters. Jonny Baker, director of Youth For Christ in London, says that youth ministry has nearly always been the path to church renewal. In terms of subversion, he says with a grin, youth ministry is the place to be. Nick Lear, advisor for research and training in mission for the Baptist Union of Great Britain, says that although youth congregations are not yet widespread in the Baptist Church, there are “green shoots.” The movement appears to be gathering steam. He predicts that five years from now, they will be much larger.
Wendy Murray Zoba, an American religion writer, argues that innovative worship models that reach various generations are heralding “a new reformation of ecclesiology and methodology” (Zoba 2001, 84). Of course, England’s sixteenth century reformation was more political than theological. If this is a church reformation, its grounds may be more sociological than theological.
Youth church participants may go for sociological reasons—other youth. They go to be a part of something big in a country where small youth groups are the norm, says Buckeridge. But, are sociological reasons enough to legitimize a radical departure from the precedent of children, youth and adults joined together as the family of God?
ECCLESIOLOGY AND THE TOWER OF BABEL
David Coffey, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, empathizes with some youth who experience what he calls a “double shock”—one of meeting Jesus and another of encountering the church. Some believe youth congregations reduce the barriers to church and may be the best way to gain the interest of the unevangelized and keeping youth raised in the faith. It allows the uninitiated to be socialized into a form of the church without being scared away by staid adult traditions.
I grasp the basic arguments touting youth churches. Baldly speaking, I can in no way ecclesiologically defend the rationale for them. I consulted more than two dozen systematic theology primers and monographs on church doctrine. Almost all speak of unity and commonality despite cultural, economic, educational, age and other perceived differences. In The Consumer Church Bruce Shelley and Marshall Shelley ask:
How can a church know when it is failing in its attempts at an effective mission in the wider world? When it reflects no diversity of the world beyond its parking lot—no ethnic differences, no variety of ages, no rich or poor in its services and ministries. (Shelley and Shelley 1992, 225, emphasis mine)
The first Christian church united very diverse people. The gift of tongues on the day of Pentecost made numerous languages comprehensible to people from many nations (Acts 2:5-11), thus reversing rifts caused at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Yet the gospel is to be transplanted as new wine (Matt. 9:14-17) and contextualized, becoming all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:19-22).
I suppose the bottom line issue is, what constitutes a church? The Lutheran’s Augsburg Confession refers to a “congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered.” Calvin writes, Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a Church of God exists. (Grudem 1994, 865)
No age restrictions are mentioned here; a good follow-up question at a Luther-Calvin press conference would be age as a condition.
WHEN ECCLESIOLOGY MET MISSIOLOGY
While I cannot endorse an ecclesiological rationale for youth churches, I am however predisposed now to see how a missiological argument may trump my ecclesiological concerns. Some may criticize that logic for smacking of non-theological pragmatism. Perhaps they are right. Theologian Alister McGrath, principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, seems to agree with my tentative conclusions: “The youth church movement is from God and sounds a wake up call to the Church in asking what we are doing here. If worship brings them in, then it is better than nothing.” In our interview, McGrath expressed hope that youth congregations might start a rejuvenation of the English church.
Timothy Yates in Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century explains:
It is impossible to avoid ecclesiology in the communication of the gospel, for the sake of the gospel does not come as a pure message but issues from, and gives rise to, specific communities; and such communities will adopt certain characteristics which they believe express the gospel in churchly form. (Yates 1994, 127)
The premise for this theory is based on the view that youth exist in their own unique culture. These concerns dictate that the youth church project is vital because of differences between youth culture and the middle-class, middle-age church culture. It regards youth ministry as a cross-cultural mission.
Cray reminds us that the evangelical church has allowed for creatively applied ecclesiastical practice as missionaries have tried to plant the gospel in foreign lands. In other words, he says, they were “missiological pragmatists.” As subgroups even in the same society become more distinct with less in common, a niche gospel may be appropriate. If the gospel is presented in culturally alien forms, it is viewed as cultural imposition and rejected. This is not a new way for the American church to think. Only the application is new.
In foreign outreach efforts to discrete bands of people, missiologists used Donald McGavran’s term “homogeneous unit principle.” Simply stated, homogeneous units are groupings of people defined by social class, ethnic origin, educational background, age or common culture. John Stott in The Willowbank Report concludes:
the essential part in the HUP debate was that in evangelism it was legitimate to recognize homogeneous units, but in the church it is important not to acquiesce in them, but to work conscientiously towards homogeneity. (Dudley-Smith 2001, 267)
The Christian attitude to HUs is called the “realist attitude,” Stott continues, because it realistically accepts that HUs exist and will always exist. We would prefer a new homogeneity that transcends all others for now they find their essential unity in Christ rather than in culture (Dudley-Smith 1999).
Of course, Stott’s balanced analysis lies at the crux of dilemma. In the best of all worlds, youth would homogeneously blend comfortably without cultural roadblocks into the typical congregation. The UK’s brutal reality suggests a less pleasant story. And so youth churches launch missions targeted to a distinct people group. Buckeridge glumly admits the concept of youth churches being a bridge to adult churches still exists in people’s hopes and perceptions, but does not exist in reality, and may never. This is a new animal, not a route into an old one.
Yet, again pragmatically, many churches that offer multiple worship services do just that—a traditional service, contemporary service, and even children’s church. The style of worship seems to be central in differentiating who goes to church, and when.
THE PERENNIAL PROBLEM OF ASSIMILATION
Most observers of the youth church movement are naturally curious about what happens after the youth church experience. Dan Slatter of Warehouse has some angst: “We struggle with what happens to youth who leave youth church. Many youth have only gone to youth churches and would be very uncomfortable in another format. We attempt to ‘graduate them’ to transition cells into the traditional family congregation, but we have varying levels of success.”
The sustainability of youth churches is what concerns McGrath. He conjectures: “People change in their outlook and music preference; where will people move? Pragmatically, they will either grow out of the youth congregation and move to a traditional church or lapse.” All involved in this young experiment agree that a transition strategy is needed.
Frankly, the issue of assimilating youth or young adults into the larger congregation hasn’t been addressed. This same nemesis has always been a concern for most parachurch youth ministry organizations. Because the youth church phenomenon has been around for only a decade, it really is too early to evaluate its long-term effect on the faith journey of those who affiliate with it.
Another emerging youth church model is that of growing old together. This is the route Soul Survivor Watford, among others, has chosen. This is also the course a youthful American group took. It’s now called Willow Creek.
YOUTH CHURCHES IN THE US
Will youth churches catch on in the US? Maybe not. Although I am aware of a handful of American youth churches, at this point it is largely a British development.
Youth churches may not rise up in the US to the degree they will continue to in England partly because social dynamics and the religious landscape in each country are different. From my experiences around Britain, I don’t sense that youth are as welcomed and nurtured in the UK as in the US. McGrath speaks from experience in both countries and sees a greater gap between both youth and the church, and youth and adults in the UK. While only ten percent of youth attend church in England, almost fifty percent attend in the US.
Then again, maybe youth churches will take root here as well. American youth ministry practitioners are nothing if not pragmatic. We embrace programatic elements quickly, freely and often indiscriminately. If it works, we will want to try it, at least until it doesn’t.
With most of those who become Christian before the age of twenty, the paramount issue continually before both the American and English churches is how to effectively reach the fifty percent (and ninety percent) of youth who are unchurched. What structures of church and forms of worship, faithful to the transcultural message of the gospel, will attract youth and nurture them into fuller maturity in Christ?
Cray challenges the whole church:
We cannot simply sit back, confident that we know what the Church of England should look like irrespective of our missionary context. It is not declining numbers which are the motivation for new forms of youth mission and church. The numbers are merely a warning sign that we are out of touch with our God-given context. The motivation for new initiatives at being church are found in the power of the gospel itself and in our essential calling to share in the mission of God. (Cray 2002, 17)
Baker has learned from experience that a problem with doing new things in youth work is that those who hold the power often don’t trust those trying to experiment. Many adults don’t fully trust youth church methods because of the loss of tradition. They rightly ask: How will our young people learn the traditions? The reality is that many will not learn them as older church members know them. But the Christian faith is malleable and prone to transformation. New ways of passing on the faith are inevitable and desirable, yet understandably uncomfortable.
At best, youth churches could just be one piece of a viable, culturally sensitive strategy for renewing and challenging our thinking. They will never be a panacea. This is a potentially thorny topic that certainly merits more discussion and prayer. What is called for in this and all ages, and indeed all cultures, is imaginative thinking and trust in those who are leading in seemingly unorthodox ways.
Cray, Graham. 2002. Youth Congregations and the Emerging Church. Cambridge, England: Grove Books Limited.
Crouch, Andy. 2002. “Amplified Versions,” Christianity Today, 22 April.
Davie, Grace. 1994. Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.
Dudley-Smith, Timothy. 1999. John Stott: The Making of a Leader. A Biography. Vol. 1, The Early Years. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
______. 2001. John Stott: The Making of a Leader. A Biography. Vol. 2, The Later Years. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Grudem, Wayne. 1994. Systematic Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Martin, David. 2001. “Whatever Happened to Methodism?” in Books & Culture, May/June.
Rabey, Steve. 2001. “In Search of Authentic Faith.” Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook Press. In “Decoding Generations,” by Wendy
Murray Zoba, Christianity Today, 2 April 2001.
Shelley, Bruce and Marshall Shelley. 1992. The Consumer Church. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Tregale, Jono. 2001. Youth Church Explored. M.A. thesis, University of Sheffield (at Cliff College).
Yates, Timothy. 1994. Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Mark A. Lamport is professor of educational ministries at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (Amsterdam). He is director of Infinity Quest, an international center for youth ministry.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 12-21. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.