Could the church offer a fun and alcohol-free alternative to boozy nights out?


The BBC released a report last week that reveals the number of young people who consume alcohol has declined rapidly in recent years.

According to National Health Service statistics, only 12 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds claimed to have drunk alcohol in the previous week in 2011 – a much lower number than the 26 per cent of those who were asked the same question in 1998.

The percentage of those who said they had tried alcohol also fell from 61 to 45.

A similar trend was followed by older teenagers and young adults, with 48 per cent saying they had drunk alcohol in the past seven days in 2011, compared to 71 per cent of 16 to 26-year olds in 1998.

These statistics may shock those who have bought into the tabloid-selling slurs that demonise young people and claim they are drinking more alcohol than ever.

It's still early days, but what's bringing on this apparent sea change?

I have a slightly different experience than most, having spent the later portion of my teenage years living in Shanghai where underage drinking wasn't strictly policed, but even in the UK, where I lived until I was 15, I didn't know many teenagers who didn't drink – and if I'm honest, those who chose to abstain were considered a bit odd. Older friends, those who'd managed to get their hands on fake IDs, or parents' alcohol cupboards were our sources for elicit beverages.

However, I'm not necessarily surprised that young people are now choosing to say no to alcohol, while numbers of smokers and drug users among the younger generation have also dropped. Now in my early twenties, I have friends who don't drink, though most Christians and non-Christians alike, including myself, do.

It is often the case that alcohol becomes less appealing the more readily available and normalised it is. Mainland Europe is a great example – where countries such as France and Italy have a much more relaxed approach to alcohol yet their underage binge drinking rates are far lower than our own in the UK.

I myself became fairly bored of over indulging in alcohol before I even turned 18; given that it wasn't 'forbidden fruit', it quickly lost its appeal. Perhaps the same thing is happening to today's teenagers? Alcohol is becoming increasingly normalised, and though still illegal and difficult to buy yourself if you aren't of age, young people are surprisingly resourceful when they want to be.

Catrin Nye and Hermeet Chadha of the BBC suggest that alcohol is actually less readily available, with sellers being more vigilant to under-age consumers.

Other possible reasons for the fall in drinking levels are the rise in the number of young non-drinking Muslims in the UK, increased awareness campaigns, more time spent on social media rather than on the streets, and greater aspirations which require focussing on studying and doing well in school.

But whatever the overriding reason, the trend is sparking a rise in the number of alcohol-free businesses and bars opening across the UK.

One of those responding to the new tendency towards less drinking is Catherine Salway, who founded the alcohol-free Redemption bar in west London after finding a gap in the market for a venue that offered "a night out, but a night off" drinking.

"Lots of people thought I was mad to come up with the idea of an alcohol-free bar but I like to think I was just at the cutting edge," she told the BBC.

"Rather than preaching to people about their lifestyles we're just providing an alternative."

Furthermore, Salway claims: "It is the young at the forefront of this movement," suggesting that changing attitudes towards drinking really do back up the statistics.

It seems such venues as these could be a great addition to the usual bars and clubs on offer. Though I by no means wish to suggest such places shouldn't also be frequented by Christians – in fact, I believe it is imperative that they are if we are to be witnesses where the unchurched are - it might be nice if alternatives were available, offering a night out for those who aren't big drinkers or don't want to be alongside drunken behaviour, or even somewhere where former addicts are able to relax and socialise without fear of relapse.

There is clearly a demand – venues geared towards drinking, offering happy hour deals and two-for-one offers, are a turn-off for young consumers who are looking for something different, something more fulfilling and dare I say it, more life enhancing.

Perhaps the trend away from binge drinking is related to the rise in those who consider themselves to be 'spiritual', although not religious. Are young people looking for something more than a hazy night out?

Churches are in a great position to be invitational and generous in this apparent new season. Often located in the hearts of towns and cities, many places of worship are providing alternative nights out for those who are looking for something a little less drinks-focussed to do on the weekend.

Union Chapel in Islington is one such example. A Grade I listed building completed in 1877, it is a working church serving its locality through projects such as a centre for the homeless and in crisis, while also being a popular venue for live music.

Voted Time Out's No 1 live music venue in London, the church hopes to place the arts and creativity at its heart and invites anyone to come and enjoy a wide range of live performances, promising "the ultimate fusion of atmospheric high gothic surroundings while enjoying your favourite artists".

Time Out magazine praised the venue for its uniqueness: "Put simply, bands raise their game when they're playing the Union Chapel – it'd be sacrilege not to," it says, describing the surroundings and acoustics as "spellbinding".

There is an alcohol serving bar, but drinking is strictly limited to a specific area and, according to Time Out, "drinking tea while watching bands makes the experience all the more charming".

Not all churches need to do the same thing but it would be good if they tried to do something. Whether hosting alternative events, sending out teams of Street Pastors or offering tea and toast to late night party-goers, the Church has shown itself able to demonstrate the generosity and love of Jesus in all kinds of ways, and to be the invitational people that God calls us to be. As a young Christian who loves being with friends and out where the people are, I would love to see more of that.

As for whether or not the rejection of heavy drinking will continue among the young, it remains to be seen, although with calls to raise the legal age of drinking in the UK to 21, I fear it may not. The evidence suggests that it is changed attitudes that are able to transform binge drinking culture, not the law. There is a huge opening for the church there and we are undoubtedly in a strong position to be a part of changing our cultural attitude towards drinking and the big weekend nights out. Making the most of this opening may mean thinking outside the box. But how great would it be if we could change attitudes to drinking and the church at the same time?