The churches that are reaching and keeping young people
Beth Keith has spent the last 12 months researching churches that are bucking the trend of decline in attendance among young adults.
She has identified five types of churches that are successfully reaching and discipling the "missing generation" of people in their 20s and 30s.
Her report, Authentic Faith: Fresh expressions of church amongst young adults, found that these churches are largely in towns and cities, and especially in London.
The study does not consider all churches with young adults (identified in the report as those aged 20 to35) but only those churches with growing numbers of young adults.
Churches represented in the study include those from the Church of England, Methodist and Baptist denominations, free churches with links to church planting networks, CMS and Church Army plants, and independent churches with links to other organisations.
The five types of young adult churches are identified by Keith as:
- Church planting hubs
- Youth church grown up
- Deconstructed church
- Church on the margins
- Context shaped church
Church planting hubs come largely from the charismatic evangelical tradition and are attracting adults with a Christian upbringing – around 80% to 90% have attended church as a child. Their context is largely middle class and well educated, and they tend to be in or near student areas. They hold weekly Sunday services complemented by midweek discipleship and mission, and have a contemporary style. The congregation size averages a hundred and there is a strong emphasis on mission and evangelism through shared mission activities and personal witness. The young adults at this church are generally looking for a church after moving into the area for work or study, or returning to church after a brief lapse during university. Leaders of these congregations felt they lacked resources and none had a full time young adult worker.
Youth church grown up These churches are reaching Christians and open de-churched young adults, also largely from a middle class, well educated background. These churches typically started life as a youth ministry or youth church established around a decade ago, and feature a Sunday service, midweek discipleship and mission. However, Keith identifies transitional challenges. The growth in young adults at these churches is almost all from the arrival of Christians transferring from other churches, or students and post-graduates moving into the area, meaning that these churches are now reaching mainly churched, middle class and well educated young adults. Keith found that one church had lost many of its unchurched teenagers because it was unable to transition from the youth church to the existing young adults' church. Churches that transitioned successfully were found to be those that had developed additional young adult groups and congregations.
Deconstructed church Churches in this group are reaching closed de-churched and non-churched young adults, also typically middle class and well educated, although with some "vulnerable" young adults in the mix. They tend to meet around a meal or for a specific project or task, and while church planting hubs and youth church grown up tend to be based in church buildings, deconstructed churches tend to meet in homes and there is no singing and often no plan or set service. They are more likely to have started by accident and are least likely out of the five types to be connected to the wider church. Deconstructed church communities tend to be smaller in size, with between 20 and 40 people, and were found to struggle if they lost their building or key members of the group moved on.
Church on the margins These tend to be based in urban areas and attract non-churched young adults (at least 80%) experiencing high levels of poverty, mental health problems, addictions, homelessness, and crime. The churches were formed around discipleship, coaching and meals, and tended to meet in public spaces and homes. They are often characterised by sharing God's love through practical help, getting to know the adults, and "over time demonstrate that they are trustworthy". Keith notes that it "may be that in such a context any definition of church may need to be stretched".
Context shaped church These churches are made up of a mixture of churched and non-churched young adults, including people who feel excluded from church. They use both sacred and secular spaces, appropriating a range of connecting points through cafes, projects and discussion groups. Although they hold regular gatherings, these are not necessarily on a Sunday. There is no clear service, preaching or singing. There is an emphasis on community and mission as starting places from which worship can develop. Numbers at the small church gatherings tend to be around 30 and consisting mainly of Christians from a churched background, while a wider network of young adults connected to the context shaped church is typically over a hundred and mainly non-churched (80%). Discipleship happens often informally and on a one-to-one basis, with leaders talking about "discipleship without becoming 'churchy'", "approachable entry points", and "non-threatening ways to encounter God without having to go to a church service".
Although the churches differ in style, practice and emphasis, Keith sees some common characteristics:
- Community – food, socials and hospitality are all "key components of church life rather than additional activities"
- Authenticity – church is understood as journeying together and working out faith together
- Doubt – there is openness to express doubt, question, or deconstruct
- Spirituality – the spiritual encounter with God as something "felt"
- Change – the continuous transition of people in and out of the community
Keith warns, however, that while the growth of these young adult churches is encouraging, the number of young adults attending church remains "worryingly low" in comparison to the overall population of young adults in the UK.
"It would be naïve to ignore the wider trend of the movement among young adults. A church in one of these locations may grow year on year and have a thriving young adult ministry, with only a minimal growth of new Christians and significant numbers of young adults leaving," she said.
The report concludes with a call to the wider church to get behind these fledgling churches by releasing resources like empty vicarages.
Connections with the wider church, she said, could be "the difference between these young churches dying or continuing".
"Supportive and positive links to the wider church should be encouraged and consideration given to how these communities can develop their sacramental life further," she said.