Mission activities that included 'distinctively Christian' elements like prayer, worship and Bible reading were more likely to engage children and young people in the faith than those that tried to introduce them at a later point.
That is one of the findings of a major new report by Scripture Union identifying the five most important factors in effective mission among children and young people.
The report is the result of a yearlong investigation into over 1,300 Scripture Union mission activities among young people. The report was inspired by figures from church researcher Peter Brierley last year revealing that a staggering 95 per cent of young people in England Wales do not regularly attend church.
The figures were released as Scripture Union celebrated 150 years of sharing the Gospel with children and young people in the UK, revealing the scale of the challenge for the years ahead.
'We estimate the 95% statistic equates to around 12 million children and young people who aren't in church, so we all have a huge challenge ahead of us as we seek to share the good news with them,' the organisation said.
'That's why we're committed to finding out and sharing what works, to help facilitate best practice and, ultimately, to ensure more children and young people are given effective opportunities to explore the difference Jesus can make to their lives.'
The report identifies five key findings into what makes mission engagement with young people effective. Not surprisingly, prayer was top of the list, with Scripture Union finding that teams with prayer support were more likely to achieve success in meeting their objectives.
'Teams reported that prayer resulted in changes in behaviour and attitudes, and the provision of finances and volunteers. Prayer support was frequently cited as a means of widening the base of people involved in the mission and raising the profile of mission within the Christian community,' it said.
The research also found that agreeing on objectives and having a shared vision made it more likely that the teams would achieve these objectives. This was particularly important, it said, because many teams had limited finance and people-power.
'Teams that were well prepared felt more confident about what they were doing and were more likely to report that they had met their objectives,' it said.
Another key to successful mission was understanding the local context and responding to the needs of the community.
'The socio-economic status of the area had significant implications on a mission's timings, location, duration and level of parental involvement,' it said.
'Missions that addressed the needs of the families as well as children were often able to maintain long-lasting relationships. Missions that were responding to local needs were also often given opportunities to extend their reach and received support from external agencies.'
Tim Hastie-Smith, National Director for Scripture Union England and Wales, cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach to community engagement and instead advised churches to 'be agile to those in the community'.
He said, 'It vital that God is not hidden in the heart of our church buildings. We need to go out into our communities, listen to the real needs of those around us and respond accordingly.
'This research reminds us that prayer is vital to success in God's work, and that programmes and missions are meaningless unless they meet real, felt needs.'
The report also emphasised the importance of focusing on building relationships rather than providing an activity-filled programme. This could be done, Scripture Union said, by including a residential event that would allow more quality time together.
While large-scale events were enjoyed by the children who participated, the research found that they had their limitations.
'Although these events were memorable, children and young people tended to remember the experience of the event rather than relational encounters,' it said.
Lastly, Scripture Union said the most effective mission activities were those that included 'distinctively Christian elements from the start,' like prayer, worship and Bible reading.
Groups that included these elements from the get-go created more opportunities for youngsters to explore the faith than those that introduced them at a later stage.
'Missions that had very little or no distinctively Christian content rarely led to opportunities for children and young people to explore faith,' it said.
'Conversely, where practices such as prayer, worship and Bible reading were part of the DNA of the mission, they created a communal rhythm that shaped expectations of participants.
'Witnessing and participating in Christian practice had an impact on participants' attitudes towards Christianity and on their own practice outside of the group.'