Francis Gardom on Tweenage Apostasy

It was Dr Peter Brierley of Christian Research organized and wrote up the now-famous Survey for Cost of Conscience entitled The Mind of Anglicans.

In November 2002 he published a book, Reaching and Keeping Tweenagers – Analysis of the 2001 RAKES survey (isbn 1-85321-147-8), based on his analysis of the figures from the 1998 English Church Attendance Survey as they apply to young churchgoers aged between eleven and fourteen.

In the Introduction he writes:

It was real scary as the analysis began. I came into work one morning and my colleagues said to me, ‘What’s up?’ ‘I’ve been trying to understand the figures from this 1998 English Church Attendance Survey,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been looking at the number of children under 15 in the church. They’ve dropped nearly half a million in the last nine years. We’re losing kids at the rate of 1,000 a week! Two churches in five in England have no children’s or youth work at all.’

‘What can we do? they asked.

‘We’ve got to find out why.’ We all agreed…

The Conference which I attended recently in Andover was an opportunity to ask questions and pool ideas directly with Dr Brierley. Here is a short résumé of it.

The Haemorrhage

In plain speech: in the UK, every Sunday over the past nine years, one thousand young people in this age-bracket went to church for the last time!

This has not been helped by the attitude of denial. Some churches indeed buck the trend of these figures by having large Sunday Schools and vigorous youth activities. But they are the exception which highlights the rule these figures demonstrate. Usually they are Evangelical churches in affluent suburbs and the children who attend them are, significantly, from the A- & B-intellect range.

Not exactly reassuring to those churches in Urban Priority Areas – which are more traditionally ‘Catholic’.

‘Something must be done!’ everyone says. But what?

Facing the Truth

Until people face the truth nothing can be done. There is the unpalatable possibility to be faced that we may have been wasting our time. Worse than that we may unintentionally have been putting young people off ‘religion’ for life. Every instance of adults returning to the fold in later life because of what they learnt as a child in church can be matched by a dozen others who say their experience of church as a child was boring, meaningless and irrelevant – and that is how they still see it.

A More Excellent Way

A more sensible step than denial is to look carefully, with Dr Brierley, at the generation about which he writes, elevens-to-fourteens to discover why they are what they are. It may be too late to do anything about them till they have grown up and shed some of their tweenage attitudes. But behind them there is another phalanx of pre-ten-year-olds whom we can influence if we study the forces to which they will soon be subjected as their older siblings are today.

Present-day tweenagers differ from its predecessors in a number of ways. In particular,

Both parents often work full-time and feel obliged to compensate for their absence from home by allowing their children much more spending-money.

This generates many tweenage-specific marketing campaigns. New periodicals are being produced designed (as one marketing policy statement puts it) to ‘introduce girls to “older ideas”’ Hence a constant pressure to ‘grow-up’ at a rate commensurate with their earlier biological maturity.

A premium upon novelty. Girls are urged to keep-up with their peers whilst boys strive to be always one ahead of them. Novelty quickly passes and Something New needs to come along to satisfy this urge.

It is arguable that these traits are ‘depriving children of their childhood’. It would be equally valid to maintain that they ‘help our children grow up’. This is borne out by the fact that eleven million adults are still living with their parents!

This is a significant statistic. Previous generations made a virtue of ‘leaving home’, ‘having your own pad’ and living an independent life. Now, it seems, whilst still wanting to be emotionally and disciplinarily independent of their parents, children and young adults are more physically dependent upon them than ever.

A Remarkable Statistic

Brierley’s research demonstrates that the highest incidence of lapsing by children who have attended church regularly with their parents coincides with the changing of schools from primary to secondary, between the ages of eleven and twelve.

This change is perceived, consciously or otherwise as a Rite of Passage. You cease to do things just because your parents do them, and place ‘markers’ to emphasize your newly-found independence. Primary schoolchildren are often taken and fetched to and from their school. Most secondary children learn to make their own way. ‘Hanging around with friends’ (after school) was said by 88% of all tweenagers to be their second-favourite leisure occupation, coming slightly below watching television which scored 98%.

A Snapshot View

Tweenagers appear to enjoy a good daily relationship with their parents, though this is often compromised by a broken marriage which may result in a step-parent to whom they do not relate well.

This results in their ambitions, and idea of success, which were formerly defined by achievement are now measured by possessions. Children are more impressed by what their parents own than who or what they are.

Tweenagers have one recurring criticism of churchgoing – ‘it’s boring’. The churches which avoid the charge of being boring are invariably those which make the most demands upon their tweenagers. Evangelical churches win hands-down in this respect: their residential weekends where tweenagers share the responsibility with adults for looking after younger children appeal strongly to the tweenager.

This presents a chicken-and-egg problem. Churches with parents who can afford to pay for them to go away on residential weekends , and the churches which can subsidize such events (which don’t come cheap!) tend to be wealthy suburban churches whose children are confident enough to spend nights away from home. Less well-to-do Urban Priority Area churches not only lack the resources but their children are more anxious about the idea of staying away from home. Lack of confidence is a serious disincentive to people getting involved with church activities, and that isn’t just true of tweenagers!

* * *

In the Second Part of this article in January we shall see how much of what is taught in schools today makes the task of reaching-and-keeping Tweenagers considerably more difficult. But from this Conference one or two really promising lines of enquiry also emerged – in particular the role that churchgoing grandparents may be enabled to play in preventing the present haemorrhage continuing into the next generation and thereby rendering the twenty-first century Church even more anaemic than it presently is.

Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience.