As coronavirus makes youth work more challenging, churches must adapt

Churches were struggling to reach young people even before coronavirus. The key now is to adapt, says Youthwork's Dr Lucie Shuker(Photo: Youthscape)

For some churches, this has been a disheartening time. After working so hard to introduce youth activities that bring joy, care and often vital support, social distancing has put paid to most, if not all, of their outreach to young people.

New research from Allchurches Trust gives an interesting insight into how hundreds of churches have been faring in their engagement with children and young people during lockdown.

It's encouraging to learn from this research how many churches have launched online activities and alternative means of support when physical youth work has not been possible; being creative in meeting the needs of the families and young people they work with and even extending their reach to new young people.

At Youthscape, we've been taking our own regular 'pulses', posting three questions at 3pm every Thursday to Christian youth leaders. We've heard about very different experiences.

In some contexts, Zoom youth group, care packages and social media devotionals have created new connections and deepened existing relationships. Some teenagers will have found support that is suddenly far more accessible, as this youth worker told us:

"A young person opened up through the Zoom chat feature about her mental health in a way that she never had felt comfortable to do before at our drop in. She's now signed up for weekly mentoring with me and [it] feels like a really transformative moment."

But it's clear that for many churches, remote youth work has been a struggle to get off the ground. In some cases, high levels of engagement early in lockdown have tailed off. Digital fatigue, an increase in online schooling and the easing of restrictions all make a weekly online youth group potentially less attractive.

As we try to make sense of different experiences, it's important to take a step back and put this moment into the wider context of where the UK church was in terms of youth ministry before the pandemic.

It's been four years since Youthscape published Losing Heart, a survey of over 2,000 churches that explored the shape of youth and children's work across the UK, and found a lack of confidence and resources when it came to youth ministry. We learned more in 2019 through collaborating with Allchurches Trust on its Growing Lives research, which asked the question: "How effective are churches at connecting with young people and what help do they need to do it better?"

This 2019 research revealed that 67% of the churches surveyed had five or fewer 11- to 18-year-olds in their worshipping community, and a quarter (26%) had none. It's not surprising, but it should concern us then that the June 2020 survey shows that almost a quarter of churches have experienced a further decrease in engagement with this age group during lockdown, with 30% having not been able to run any activities at all for the younger generation since the Covid-19 outbreak began. We know this is an area of ministry that churches often struggle with, but the research also gives us reason to be optimistic too.

In the Growing Lives research, more than half of churches said they expected to run more activities for both children and teenagers in the next three years, and 96% said they would run more if they had all of the necessary resources and skills.

Since Allchurches launched its Growing Lives grants programme in 2019, around £1.4 million pounds has been given to 140 projects, enabling churches and Christian charities to engage more young people more regularly.

And we have learned from this lockdown research that more than half of churches have been able to engage young people through regular online worship in recent months, while 46% have run family focused online activities for children and parents, and 31% have run online activities and challenges for young people.

These figures might seem low, but the Growing Lives research in 2019 revealed that only 7% of churches would want to offer online support to children and young people if they had all of the necessary resources and skills in place. So, it's clear that lockdown has been a major driver for churches to embrace digital opportunities. That can only help support church growth and community connection in the challenging months that lie ahead, as churches carefully consider when physical youth work can realistically begin, and their future model for delivery.

For those churches who have been unable to engage their young people since the pandemic struck, now is the time to take stock and think about what's working and what's not. It's not a stop but a pause in which to reflect and plan.

And those future plans don't all have to be digital! There are important lessons from case studies in the Growing Lives research report from churches in all settings – rural and urban, small and large – who have been successful in capturing the imagination of young people in their communities.

Reading about their journeys – the successes and the failures, and how they have adapted to overcome those hurdles - is a great starting point for any church considering a new project, or looking to re-invigorate or expand their current offer. There's lots of information on Youthscape's resource hub too, and Allchurches Trust has a section dedicated to connecting with children and young people on its own advice hub.

What we've seen as a result of coronavirus is that the Church can adapt when it needs to. It can be innovative and that presents an enormous opportunity to facilitate experiences of church with and for young people that make it more meaningful for them. There is an open door here for churches to directly ask young people how they would like to engage, and to shape the future together.

Dr Lucie Shuker is Director of Research at Youthscape, a charity dedicated to equipping the church with resources to engage with young people.