Dwindling, aging congregations? How very dare he!
“Optimism is a precondition for any job in the Church of England. But the overwhelming impression is of dwindling, ageing congregations: homely, well-mannered and kindly folk increasingly out of joint with the noisy, secular spirit of the age.” So says Jeremy Paxman in a recent article for the FT.
Whatever your thoughts on Jeremy Paxman, it cannot be denied that, across Cornwall, the demographic of many congregations is very far from youthful, in age if not spirit! And, harsh as it sounds, unless younger people start filling up the pews, the outlook for the Anglican church in Cornwall could be bleak.
It’s a familiar dilemma, how to get younger people, especially children, engaged with God, His churches and the multitude of blessings that being in a church family can bring? It’s an issue that is constantly wrestled with across the diocese.
And we’re not alone. Scripture Union estimate that 95% of all children and young people in England and Wales don’t go to church. They’re so passionate about the issue, they’ve prioritised children for their 150th Anniversary with The 95 Campaign. Follow the link, or read on below at the foot of this article, to find out how you could apply to them to get some money to support your outreach efforts with children and young people.
Churches as destinations
As Revd Anne Brown of the Atlantic Coast Cluster says, “One church service cannot be all things to all people. The type of service an elderly congregation have been brought up with, and remained faithful to, is unlikely to appeal to a young family with children who want interaction, colour and, let’s face it, noise.”
That doesn’t mean of course that all elderly people only want a traditional service – many an elderly hand can be seen raised in joy to the drum beats and guitar strumming of some of the more charismatic churches across the diocese.
Happily, for Anne’s benefice, there are a variety churches that offer different experiences for different people.
“Some churches will become destinations for families, couples or individuals depending on what they are offering, so people will travel beyond their immediate locality to seek the presence of God in the way that they can best connect – and what suits the needs of their family.”
“For example, Soul in the village hall in Porthtowan is a haven for young families. Parents know they won’t have to stress over pacifying their children as there are lots of other, equally child-like-children to play with, fun groups, guitars and a high level of noise tolerance! Alternatively, in Cubert, the church building is an important part of the village community, the services and music traditional and the congregation are passionate about the part it plays in village life.”
But what if your benefice doesn’t have the breadth to offer a service that will bring in children? Many churches have been working hard to reach out to young families with initiatives like Messy Church. It’s an activity outside of the normal Sunday service with the objective of blessing and engaging young children and their families with craft based activities, food and opportunities to share Bible stories.
It can work fantastically well – so much so that it can be hard sometimes to gently come alongside a family when all the energy is poured into managing the numbers, the activities and the service provision. Although who knows what seeds are sown when love is being busy in action?
As Revd Karsten Wedgewood said at the beginning of the launch of their Messy Church in Pendeen and Morvah, “…It’s all ages mixing faith with our messy relationships, messy questions, messy schedules and our messy lives. Messy Church is another way of doing church with good food, good company, good crafts and activities and a good Christian message. First and foremost, it’s about having fun together!”
Sonia Pearce, from St Bridget’s at Virginstow, just across the county border, said of their Messy Church that it has helped to change the mindset of the congregation. They do their Messy Church on a Sunday, at the back of the church, then go to the front for some child-orientated worship and prayers.
“Like many of us in the congregation, I used to be a little watchful and wary of noisy children but Messy Church has softened my approach. It has helped many of us to appreciate the value of having children in church and helped the children to know that church isn’t a scary place, it can be a place where there is time for fun, to be messy but also a time, sometimes, to be quiet.
Sonia goes on to say that it also helps to reassure parents, “They know their children, in all their messiness, are welcomed and loved which helps them to relax and get something out of being in church. Everyone benefits!”
Shop windows or recruitment drives
Shelley Porter, Discipleship Project Officer for the diocese says, “Messy Church provides a vibrant and practical way to engage with local communities, children and their families. It can be cross-generational, give parents time-out, help to break down barriers and bring something different to church life. Messy Church is a wonderful shop window, but it isn’t a recruitment drive to get children into church.” And nor does it need to be, as so often is said, these are seeds that are being planted and can help to encourage families to explore further.
Having said that, Shelley insists there is more that can be developed from the activity, especially as the children get older and are suddenly too cool to get stuck into craft activities or at least be seen to! “We always have to ask, what next? It’s great if we can encourage these young people to become planners, to get involved in the running of activities and coming up with ideas of what they would like to move on to. Too often it’s a case of young people being done to, rather than them doing and being part of something.” By getting young people involved, it’s also easier to come alongside and being on hand to answer some of the bigger questions, always treading that fine line between being open but not over-bearing.
Open the Book
Another initiative is ‘Open the Book’ where volunteers go into local primary schools and take over their assemblies by, literally, opening the book, the book being the Bible. The time is interactive and fun, usually involving the adults and children donning tea-towels, and is a great way to bring some of the Bible stories to life. Schools area very receptive, especially community schools, which is fantastic, and the sessions really help to encourage positive behavior. They are also a great way of mixing the generations as most of the volunteers, by nature of the timings, are older and retired.
Jonathan Sleep, head teacher at Gorran Primary Community School, says of his Open the Book team, “I’ve been pleased to welcome the group because it provides a not-too-pushy introduction to the bible. I’m not a Christian, but see the need for our children to be aware of the main religion of the country, as it shapes so much of our culture and what the Government calls, ‘British Values’.
Primary schools are obliged to have a daily act of collective worship that should be wholly or broadly Christian, so, as Mr. Sleep says, it’s a real boon to have a team willing to come in and volunteer to take that on. It’s a balance though, because, whereas it’s great to be able to share Bible stories, it is really important to remember that children are very impressionable. They also have crystal clear memories, so keeping stories fresh and new helps!
What if you don’t have resources, volunteers or energy?
All these initiatives can be powerful but what if you don’t have a team of volunteers willing to run these time-consuming, resource heavy initiatives? And will they ultimately lead to changing the aging demographic of our congregations?
Shelley has a cunning plan – an in-built solution in every single church across the diocese that holds the potential to encourage young families. “Baptisms!” she says. “They are family friendly services that get young families and their extended families through the door. What an opportunity to build on that! If those services are as family friendly and welcoming as possible, and the families invited back, the potential for growth is unlimited!”
Reaching the 95
Scripture Union, who estimate that 95% of children and young people in England and Wales don’t go to church, have made them their top priority as part of their 150th anniversary. They’ve launched a Good News Fund to help all those who have a great idea for reaching out to children and young people beyond your church, but need a bit of financial help to get it off the ground. Click on the picture to find out more.
Hope and rolling up sleeves
Combined with the outreach into communities with initiatives like Messy Church and Open the Book, there is hope and the Anglican church in Cornwall is on a journey, as it always should be. But in answer to the charge, “…Homely, well-mannered and kindly folk increasingly out of joint with the noisy, secular spirit of the age?” Not in Cornwall Mr. Paxman. We have a lot of work to do, but there is overwhelming evidence that sleeves are being rolled up and work is being done that is “…mixing faith with our messy relationships, messy questions, messy schedules and our messy lives.”