Sheila Fletcher argues that the key to enlivening religious education in schools is to meet children where they really are

THE STATISTICS are disturbing. More than 93% of 14-21 year olds have no contact with any of the mainstream churches on a normal Sunday. Total Sunday attendance at Anglican Churches in this age range has dropped by over 34% since 1987.

We all bemoan the fact that there are so few young people in church these days, but can anything be done about the situation? The recent Church of England report Youth a Part was discussed at General Synod last July and is well worth reading. It gives many ideas for reaching young people and involving them in the life of the church. But as the report recognises only a very few are touched by the Gospel, despite our efforts. What are we to do about the crowds of young people “out there”? How are we to reach them with God’s love? What would Jesus do?

Certainly Jesus did not sit in the synagogue for an hour each Sabbath and wait for the crowds to come in to hear him speak. He went out to meet people – to their homes, to their work places and along the seashore. He was aware of an individual’s needs and started from where they were. He spoke to them in ways they would readily understand and used examples from their everyday experiences. So how can we reach out to young people today?

We need to ask ourselves, “Where are today’s young people to be found?” One answer must surely be in schools and colleges. But, is there a vision for Christian work in these places? Where is the prayer burden for this type of work? Do we support Christian teachers and school workers? How much of the Church’s resources and finances are involved in this area? Anyway is it possible for Christians to make an impact in schools these days?

My answer to the last question is an emphatic YES, and I speak from my own experience and that of our local sixth form college in Exeter. Much work can be done in schools, especially in extra-curricular activities.

In my first week of teaching Geography in a multi-cultural Birmingham comprehensive of nearly 2000 pupils, I found myself saying, “Lord don’t let me leave this school until this place rings with your praises.” Nearly five years later the Head gave out a notice at Assembly that there was no longer to be any singing of religious songs between lessons!

It started when I regularly met for prayer each lunchtime with a 15 year old Christian girl in my form. After some while we felt it right to start a Christian Union; I announced it in Assembly and waited. The small group who came to that first meeting probably did so to get out of the cold during the lunch hour. They had virtually no knowledge of Christian things, but also no preconceived ideas. Their lack of embarrassment and openness was refreshing.

We sought to reach these teenagers in ways they could understand, using their type of music and relating to their life-style. Undoubtedly the personal interaction and availability to talk to the children about their problems was an important factor. So many youngsters have no one they can talk to, who will listen and take them seriously. The fields are white and ready for harvest, but the labourers are few … and overworked.

Very quickly the group grew and I needed help. Fortunately a handful of students from a nearby Bible College were willing to come and assist, and sometimes I invited an outside speaker. On one occasion the main school hall was packed with over 1400 pupils, the rest had to be turned away because there was no more room! Things began to snowball, dozens of pupils became Christians. We had to hold meetings four lunch hours a week, about 100 coming each day, in order to accommodate everyone. We had small pastoral groups and some after school Bible studies. Sadly, we had to become a “church” in school, because the local churches were unwilling to cope with the young people and were unwilling to relate to them.

Obviously it did not all run smoothly and there were many spiritual battles, many problems and failures. But God is very gracious and can overrule human frailties. It was both awe-inspiring and humbling to discover that a retired teacher had prayed every day for seven years for revival to come to our school. Surely that is the secret of ”success”.

Some may say, “Well that was over ten years ago and times have changed. Individualism and materialism have hardened young people against Christianity. Times have certainly changed, but my present work among young people makes me believe that they are exceedingly open to, and hungry for genuine spiritual realities in a way that was not obvious even five years ago. I sincerely believe that now is our moment of opportunity, and we cannot afford to lose time. If the Church does not provide young people with spiritual truth, then they will turn to other more sinister powers for answers.

Recently, I was in touch with the Director of Initiative in Christian Education (ICE) who is also organiser of the Christian Union at Exeter College. I was thrilled to hear that the CU in this sixth form college of about 2000 pupils is experiencing development and growth similar to that which occurred in Birmingham. This last autumn, they held a residential camp with over 200 students. During term time there is a coffee lounge where students can come and chat and talk and pray with workers about their problems and doubts. On Wednesdays there is a worship meeting encompassing all types and styles of music and worship. On Thursdays there is the main open meeting of the week, and on Fridays they break into small groups for Bible Study. Early Friday morning is a prayer meeting. They have run an Alpha course and had a regular attendance of 400 at a lecture series dealing with various topical issues from a Christian point of view. Much of the leadership is provided by the students themselves who are trained on site. Teams of students have gone out from the college to take missions in other places, even to Africa. This rapidly growing Christian Union is very much alive and thriving. It is encouraging that in this area there are churches, of all denominations, in which the students feel at home and are welcomed.

I asked the organiser to what he attributed the success of the operation and he responded, “All I can say is that God is very gracious and it is really a result of people praying.” – almost the exact phrases I use when I am asked the same question! So let us not despair of the younger generation – let us pray fervently, let us go to where they are, and spend our energies and resources reaching them for the Kingdom of God. It can be done!!

Sheila Fletcher is a member of General Synod, the Family Life and Marriage Education (FLAME) Adviser for Exeter Diocese, and a Reader. She has 16 years of experience as a Church Youth Leader.