How can the UK Church retain its children and young people?

For anyone who works with children and young people in a church setting, Naomi Thompson's book Young People and the Church since 1900 contains a stark warning. It covers a time when ministry among children in the UK was at its numerical peak before virtually disappearing.

In the late 1800's more than 2 million children in the UK attended Sunday schools. As Thompson's research indicates, this had dropped to just over 500,000 by the mid 1950s and 60s. It was a movement that was responding to a crisis of uptake (fewer children were attending) and a crisis of progression (fewer children were staying). Both of these continue to be questions for children and youth workers today.

UnsplashHow can the Church retain children and young people?

The key responses to these crises within Sunday School Unions was to blame Sunday school leaders for lack of training, produce even more materials, or to set up follow-on groups such as early youth fellowship provision. In effect, the crisis of progression in Sunday Schools was a contributory factor to the dawning of modern day youth ministry. What also is apparent from Thompson's research is that regional or national strategies for Sunday Schools depended on the local church for their implementation, and often this did not occur.

So, what about now? These two questions still remain for children's and youth ministers across the UK. How can we address the crisis of uptake, especially as, according to Scripture Union, churches only work with five per cent of the UK's young people? And how can we address the crisis of progression – once children and young people start attending, how does a church keep them?

Many churches tell me, 'Well, we have children – but we lose them at 11' or 'Once they're nine they don't keep coming to our Messy Church.' Looking around the country, it feels as though more churches are creating places for initial interest and connection, from the explosion in churches developing Messy Church , or after-school provision led by volunteers, or youth workers. Churches may not have regained the 2 million who used to attend Sunday schools – but the desire to provide spaces and connections with children and families again is there, and children and youth provision has become part of diocesan and strategies.

So, if churches have cracked the 'uptake' question, what about the progression one?

The answer to the Sunday School progression question was to develop similar older groups, that still had the same feel and style to the 'junior' ones, writes Thompson. For a short time, a few young people retained interest, but the groups were generally a failure because they didn't change as young people themselves changed.

There is no easy answer as to when children or young people start to get bored with the provision on offer. For some young people it's after just a few weeks. For some, depending on the age they start, it could be two or three years. It doesn't matter how old a child is, it is how long they are in the particular activity that can determine how they feel about it.

It's funny how quickly the question of uptake is often usurped by the questions of progression. We might celebrate 25 families coming to Messy Church – but theres an air of disappointment that 'only one' maintained an interest in the wider church community – or 'started coming on Sunday mornings'. Uptake is often measured through a lens of progression, and can weigh heavily, distracting from the genuine good that is occurring in every interaction, activity and session.

For something like Messy Church, or an equivalent after-school provision, there is significant learning from Sunday schools that can be accessed. One of the key recommendations from the Sunday School Unions – that was never implemented locally – was to encourage person-centred education methods. This was an approach ahead of its time, but because Sunday school leaders and teachers relied on materials and 'school' culture and the curriculum had been established, the change was was a difficult one to make in local churches. Often when children and young people are bored, they are choosing to reject the curriculum and culture and so adopting person-centred approaches before this boredom occurs might delay this – and give children developed responsibility and ownership of their learning, a critical aspect of long-term discipleship.

However, the question of progression never goes away. Not every child in Messy Church will want to 'be a leader' or have responsibility – some have a desire for learning about faith that might not be matched by the programme. For others they just want to be away from the 'younger ones'. There are no simple solutions, because each young person has a uniqueness, gifting and possibility that our interactions with them need to acknowledge and harness. So it might be persons rather than programmes that need to be makers of any future provision.

Thompson's insight into Sunday schools is thorough, well researched and provides ample questions for youth and children's workers today. However, it is most notable for its price, and a paperback copy should definitely be made available. The questions it suggests haven't gone away, though at the same time it has to be realised that cultural shifts in the way children and young people are formed through learning within churches are hard to make, as formal approaches remain popular. Children in primary schools are given the responsibility of spending portions of school budgets through small committees, yet in churches their choices might be limited to the flavour of juice to choose at snack time.

If their autonomy is awakened in one context, then might we begin to reflect their potential to be decision-makers within the faith community? How to progress children from one group to another is not really the question we need to ask. It is more about we might help children use the full gifting, character and abilities they have in discovering a long-term life of faith. And if this is the question, how might we plan for this through all the wonderful, creative spaces that churches currently create?

Naomi Thompson's book 'Young People and theChurch since 1900' can be purchased here.

James Ballantyne is North East youth work adviser for Frontier Youth Trust. He delivers training and support for pioneering youth work within churches and projects. He can be contacted via his blog: