Are young people curious about Christianity?

Published 04 May 2014  |  
(PA)

In an episode of the televised version of PG Wodehouse's "Jeeves and Wooster", one of the main characters presents a young schoolboy with a class prize for excellence in the field of 'Scripture Knowledge'.

Such things are now very much an anachronism. Religious education has become more diverse and more to do with presenting the general principles and beliefs of various faiths, and would never seek to present any as truth.

Fewer children are being directly exposed to Christian teaching, but the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has recently commented - in response to David Cameron's Christian comments - that he believed there could actually be an up side to young people having little experience of Christianity in their own lives.  

Lord Williams, who is now Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge, said in The Telegraph: "Given that we have a younger generation now who know less about [Britain's Christian] legacy ... there may be a further shrinkage of awareness and commitment.

"The other side is that people then rediscover Christianity with a certain freshness, because it's not 'the boring old stuff that we learnt at school and have come to despise'.

"I see signs of that, talking to youngsters here at Magdalene and in school visits. There is a curiosity about Christianity."

Christian Today spoke to youth ministries to ask whether this is a reality they have also picked up on when they go into Britain's schools.

Dr Nick Shepherd, chief executive of the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission, said he definitely could see where the former Archbishop was coming from.

"We do see an increased interest from young people in understanding Christianity, and the contact that our students and partners have with young people in schools and youth work supports this," Dr Shepherd said.

"Many young people today do not have the family connections or cultural memory that 'clouds' a perception of faith as negative, or boring."

Dr Shepherd highlighted how research conducted by Sally Nash from ICYM's Midlands office found that young people expect Christian youth workers to be open about their faith and they enjoy interacting with their views.

Nigel Roberts, an ICYM course leader for youth work in schools and chaplaincy, shared one account of his experiences teaching young people about the Bible: "This Easter I undertook a project with 20 teenagers looking at the story of Jairus' Daughter [a young girl raised from the dead by Jesus].

"All were non-Christians and one of the most common phrases we heard was 'I didn't know that'.  Exposure to authentic teaching was a rare experience for these 17-year-olds, so maybe Rowan Williams is right."

Christian Youth Ministry told of one youth worker who had seen a curiosity about the Christian faith within the wider context of spirituality.

"After talking to young people in college and school settings, I am not sure that there is a curiosity about Christianity but there is an openness to spirituality and faith," they reported.

"There is a curiosity about life after death and big questions like 'why do bad things happen to good people?'

"There is not much response to religion, and less and less understanding of basic Bible stories and facts about Jesus life and ministry."

But Jesus remains a talking point: "When we explore some of the stories of Jesus's life and how his life was counter to the culture he was in and applying it to today is fresh, exciting, relational, and generates more questions."

Other parts of the Bible too are positively received: "In one school I read out 1 Corinthians 13 on what love is and over 300 people applauded the word of God – Scripture and truth than many had never heard or unpacked."

While the general perception is that the younger generation is one of the least involved societal groups in churches, statistical data on that point is more mixed.

While the 2011 UK census did find that the 0 to 24 age group had the second largest percentage of those with no religion (39 per cent) but it also found that the same age group had the second highest percentage of Christians (26 per cent).

But the experience of Father David O'Malley, of the Salesian Youth Ministry Office, suggests that age group may be too broad to draw conclusions from.

"As part of the Catholic sector in youth work I believe that Rowan Williams may well be right in identifying a renewed curiosity about Christianity among third level students. However, I am less sure that the same can be said for those in secondary education."

Father O'Malley believes that certain natural tendencies of secondary school children makes Christianity a difficult proposition for them: "Most adolescents are rightly suspicious of any attempt to organise their minds or their meanings from outside.

"Christianity can often be seen as an easy, off the peg answer, to the search for meaning. It could be that those in school need to bear the burden of adolescent rejection of faith so that it can be re-discovered later, perhaps in student life. Rowan Williams may well be right with regard to students but less so with adolescents at school."

In 2013, conclusions from the school's regulator OFSTED suggested that teaching of Christianity was poor. Their report suggested that Christianity was being "squeezed out" and that pupils were leaving school with a "very limited understanding" of Christianity.

This situation, combined with the hard work of youth ministry teams, is perhaps then being turned to the advantage of God's kingdom, and allowing children to be curious about faith, rather than instilling doctrine continuously, could allow for a more natural relationship with God to develop.

If Christianity is merely a constant background buzz of someone's life right from their earliest memories, then the wonder and awe it should inspire may be dulled to them.

This wisdom was expressed in one notable song from the Christian pop group Switchfoot: "If we're adding to the noise, turn off this song."

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