Young Disciples

One of my favourite Andy Capp cartoon strips has Andy Capp just waking up as Florrie brings him his early morning cuppa. ‘They are always inventing things,’ he moans, ‘but why can’t they invent something useful? Like another way to start the day besides getting up.’

Sometimes I wish General Synod could do something useful. I mean I suppose we have to do the legislation, which is after all the primary raison d’être of a Synod in an established church. But February’s menu of the draft Care of Cathedrals (Amendment) measure, the draft Religious Communities (Lay representation) rules (Amendment) resolution and the draft Payments to the Churches Conservation Trust Order 2003 are hardly the sort of fare to get your heart beating faster.

When it came to liturgy we waded through the stodgy business of Additional Collects and Extended authorization for Series One solemnization of matrimony.

When private members get a look in, what do they want to debate? Issues of such monumental importance to our church and nation as cathedral entrance charges, stipend differentials, authorized lay ministries and who pays the pension contributions for clergy employed by mission agencies.

When it came to platform motions we had a whole afternoon talking about parliamentary democracy and emerging issues in mental health.

Well these issues are all important but you are probably thinking that you are glad that other people give up their time to talk about them, and that you don’t have to. However, from time to time Synod does address issues of vital concern to all our parishes. Last November’s debate on the Church’s National Youth Strategy was a case in point.

Many parishes have little or no youth work. Others find that confirmation has become a passing-out parade – if the young people haven’t stopped going to church before confirmation becomes an issue. It is very common to find a skewed age distribution among the adults with very few representatives of the 20-40 age group. Some congregations have more that a passing resemblance to a Darby and Joan club. So what is to be done?

In October the Synod endorsed a national youth strategy. All well and good, but is the strategy going to deliver the goods? Will it get younger people taking seriously the claims Jesus Christ has on their lives, or will it simply be an exercise in tokenism?

Twenty five years ago we heard the siren voices from the Bishop of Wonderland (sorry, Woolwich) and his friends about liturgical revision. ‘If only we addressed God as you rather than thee,’ they pleaded, ‘we would be talking in the vernacular and then young people would flock back to church.’ As we all know, it didn’t happen, did it?

Some parishes today are packed out with the younger generation. Francis Gardom visited one in Wimbledon recently and has written about his experiences elsewhere in this issue of New Directions. I do wonder whether they have been doing the things which the National Youth Strategy is pushing for, or whether the secret of their success lies elsewhere.

For instance we could do as the strategy urges us and develop the Young Adult Observer Group at the July sessions of the General Synod. We could secure a stronger representative voice for young people through the Synodical Review process. We could develop the Church of England Youth Council as a national forum for young people. We could do all these things, but do you really believe that in aggregate they would bring any young people to Christ? Young people, in my experience, only come near a church if they are spiritually hungry. It is the spiritual food that draws them rather than the opportunity to be part of the maintenance machinery.

The strategy takes seriously the need to treat youth workers on a proper basis. It urges us to establish and accredit training for voluntary youth workers at Diocesan and national level, to identify and map the growing number of routes towards training and qualifications, to undertake an audit of youth work appointments within the Church of England, to establish a process of recognition for youth workers within the Church of England and to develop a more coherent strategy for the deployment of youth workers. These worthy activities are surely part of a necessary support structure for youth work, but in themselves hardly a strategy.

There are issues to be addressed, not least a career structure for youth workers. At the moment we accept that someone in their twenties is probably well attuned to youth culture, whereas someone in their forties may well be less on the same wavelength. However what do we do with youth workers, who grow one year older each year like the rest of us? Sadly we don’t seem to have many ideas at the moment other than ordination.

The strategy urges us to review projects in mission and evangelism with young people and publish a best practice guide. This might be illuminating since some churches are clearly doing something right. The report (GS1481) argued that ‘it is important that the church has a clear understanding of the breadth and effectiveness of this aspect of its mission.’ It might be instructive to discover how much of the effectiveness is down to para-church agencies, and individual parishes going it alone, as opposed to official CofE initiatives.

There is real hope when the strategy urges us to ‘train and equip young people as partners in mission and evangelism within their own communities.’ Who better to evangelize young people and make them Christ’s disciples than their friends?

Questions will need to be asked to ensure that the strategy is being implemented, but more importantly we need to monitor whether it is delivering the goods. Are we doing what is necessary to win not the generation we have lost, but the generation we have never had?

A strategy that works will have to address the supine culture within the Church of England. There is a school of thought that is so comfortable with the inevitability of managed decline that thinking outside the box is simply not possible. If St Mugwump’s up the road has a thriving youth group, why can’t our church have one? There is the ever present temptation to tell ourselves that the birthrate in our parish is lower, that St Mugwump’s has stolen all the young people from our parish, that St Mugwump’s is an eclectic church – in fact any convenient excuse or reason that relieves us of the responsibility for failing to implement Christ’s command to go and make disciples.

Let us not imagine that a National Youth Strategy will wave a magic wand and render our efforts and our prayers superfluous.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.