Francis Gardom on Tweenage Apostasy

In December’s article we faced the unpalatable fact that a thousand or more children quit churchgoing permanently every Sunday, especially the eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds. The exceptions – churches with a large and active children’s ministry – merely emphasizes how badly the rest of us are doing.

There are, we saw, certain social factors – more spending money, earlier physical (but not emotional) maturity, marketing directed specifically at this age-group, and a premium on novelty – which affect the attitudes of tweenagers generally, not just towards churchgoing; and we noted that the biggest haemorrhage coincides with changing schools from primary to secondary. Other factors, like Sunday opening of shops and Sunday team-sports of course have an effect too, but as these apply equally to adults and not just tweenagers, we did not include them in our catalogue.


The Misled – and their Misleaders

Now let’s consider another significant influence upon tweenage attitudes and beliefs – what teachers and educationalists in the secular world themselves believe and practise.

It is rare nowadays, outside a fully-fledged church secondary school (itself an endangered species) and fee-paying Christian schools (rarer still) to find teachers who are as committed as their predecessors were to the inculcation of virtues (as opposed to ‘values’) into their pupils not merely by word but by example.

As a result, many children accept without question, and often with their teachers’ encouragement, a selection from the following ideas:

Everyone’s opinion is as good as everyone else’s;

There are no such things as absolutes – everything is relative;

Discrimination is a Bad Thing;

Every society should strive to be inclusive – being exclusive is the sign of bigotry;

Self-esteem is the most important virtue;

What we feel about things is of great significance;

Multiculturalism is the end towards which every society should be directing its efforts;

Forming relationships is the purpose of all social intercourse;

There is nothing wrong with sex outside marriage, and between people of the same sex providing one is careful;

The ultimate moral test of any behaviour is whether or not it harms other people. If it does, then it’s wrong, otherwise it’s OK;

Being judgmental is always wrong;

Learning should always be a pleasurable activity; if it isn’t then the subject and/or the teacher may safely be ignored.

All these are dubious propositions, and some are simply false. However, the majority of teachers – who profess no religious beliefs – are simply in no position to say why they are wrong. For instance, many teachers openly co-habit with a partner, and no reference to this may be made when considering their appointment.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that tweenagers describe church, where virtues such as chastity and humility are promoted, as being ‘boring’. At that age every biological and emotional force provokes them to ‘prove their adulthood’, so an institution which (rightly) talks about dependence upon God, and the frailty of human nature, stands less chance of a fair hearing than the peer-group which encourages them to ‘do their own thing’, reinforced by soap operas, advertising, media pressure, and not least by widespread classroom and playground assumptions.

True Maturity – the Missing Link

The missing link is the connection in their perception between adulthood and right belief. Earlier generations believed that the ‘faith of our fathers/teachers’, whether about good manners, honesty, reliability, workmanship, marital fidelity or religious belief, was something to take seriously, and contravened, questioned or doubted only for a good reason; and to have inculcated such faith-articles into one’s children was the hallmark of a successful parent or teacher.

Today however, in the lapidary phrase of Jack Spong, ‘everything is up for grabs’ – with the predictable and obvious result: that every child (and adult) ‘[does] what is right in his own eyes’ (the final verse of Judges, and Deuteronomy 12.8!).

The only way back is to reconnect in their minds the link between true maturity and what Scripture terms ‘Wisdom’ – of which the fear of the Lord is the beginning.

It’s not going to be an easy task, especially given the fact that, in clergy circles not least, simplification has popularly been seen as the answer to apostasy, not only juvenile but national also. This results in the predictable conclusion being drawn by any thoughtful tweenager that, if what they hear their parents, parish priest and fellow-churchgoers professing to believe depends on nothing else than their own say-so, it rests on very slender intellectual foundations indeed.

But the tide against the simplicity-cult is beginning to turn: and Dr Brierley in Tweenagers points to a way forward.

One Ray of Light – the Grandparents

On page 194 he writes:

The importance of grandparents

There are a number of places where grandparents come into the story (or the analysis). Sometimes they are seen as people of influence, either on their grandchildren directly or via their parents. Sometimes they are the ‘holders of the story’ who reflect a practice to be followed when grandchildren visit. Sometimes they are active in the development of their grandchildren, or in teaching Sunday School at their church. They can be especially important in helping their grandchildren’s world to hold together if their parents divorce.

I suspect not enough attention has been paid to the grandparents’ role and would wish to urge them to pray, act and encourage in every way possible the spiritual development of their grandchildren. How best this might be accomplished is not clear. Maybe just recognizing the strategic role they often play will encourage some to keep going despite waning energy or increasing physical disability.

Increasingly, in a divorce-ridden society, grandparents are the people who hold things together. Because grandparents are of a different generation, and just because they are not the children’s parents, they are often key-players who are responsible for the daily care and upbringing of their grandchildren.

Because they belong to a generation whose outlook on life was formed and conditioned long before the disastrous mistakes of the 1960s which have misled so many people, not least churchpeople and parents, grandparents are in a better position than parents to present tweenagers with a wisdom-based view of life.

Since most churches are richly endued with people of grandparental age, I believe that we should be setting up classes for grandparents where they can relearn their faith, which many were last taught systematically at their Confirmation (maybe over forty years ago) but have forgotten in the meanwhile. An important feature of their re-education should be helping them to understand how the tweenage mind works – a lesson which necessarily involves practical face-to-face encounters with tweenagers themselves.

From personal experience I can testify that grandchildren will discuss matters with their grandparents which they are reluctant to broach with their parents; and also what a lot we who are grandparents can learn by listening carefully to them.

Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience.