The challenge of passing on faith to future generations - pt 1

Posted by Tim Ling on 30th March 2017

In the first of two guest blogs Nick Shepherd writes about three recent reports on the challenge of passing on faith to future generations. His second blog will reflect on this challenge in terms of whether it represents a technical or adaptive change. He writes:

What are we learning? Headlines from three important reports

We have been aware for sometime about the challenges that the church faces in passing on faith to future generations, and in how we best enable children and young people to play an active and fulsome part in church life. The 2014 report From Anecdote to Evidence, captures well the:

urgent need to focus on children, young people and their parents and a challenge to identify how the church can best invest in people, programmes and strategies which will encourage young people actively to continue exploring faith.

Recognition of this need is becoming evident in the strategic planning of several dioceses and in the attention and focus of churches. An ongoing problem however is a general lack of insightful work and research to help support this ministry development. Into this void 2016 delivered not one but three significant pieces of research about children, young people and faith.

If you haven’t read these reports yet, then I strongly advise you to.  There is an excellent summary of all three reports on Ali Campbell’s blog (the other Ali Campbell, not the bloke from UB40).  If you have only got 2min 20sec to spare then the Church of England’s Rooted in the Church report now has a YouTube animation to capture its key findings.

Rooted in the Church  is a report on research commissioned by the Church of England’s Education Division into the factors and influences that enable young people to identify as Christian and participate in church.  This study develops the views and insights of young people and their parents to conclude that:

  • Churches should build a culture of intergenerational relationships
  • Churches should be inclusive of all ages in both leadership and worship
  • Churches should recognise young people as equal members of the Body of Christ
  • Churches should be encouraged to explore the possibility of admitting baptised children to Communion before Confirmation
  • Churches should become unconditionally welcoming places for young people
  • Churches need to do more to support their youth workers and leaders

Each of these has more nuances in the report than a bullet point can capture. Yet even where ‘rootedness factors’ are developed there is thinness to the theological underpinning of why they are important. This mirrors similar research undertaken in the USA by the Barna Group and Fuller Seminary. That aside, the animation version is already proving, at least in our diocese, to be a very helpful tool for churches to identify the changes they might need to take.  Making these changes though, as readers to Friday Mailing will be familiar, is not just a matter of technical change. This means that the capacity for adaptive change needs to be instilled - but more on this later.

Losing Heart is another piece of commissioned research this time by the Luton based charity Youthscape.  This large-scale survey based work focused on finding out what types of activities churches in England, Scotland and Wales provide children and young people, and the influence this is perceived to have.  The headlines from their work is that:

  • Churches, especially smaller churches, do more children’s work than youth work.
  • Churches are failing to talk about the topics young people want to discuss.
  • Churches know that they are struggling with their youth and children’s work but don’t know how to fix it.

Loosing Heart suggest that whilst in spite of the urgency to focus on work with children and young people and parents the church (across a breadth of denominations) is loosing her confidence and capacity to do so. Like any research Loosing Heart is open to critique.  Like Rooted this report is again too thin in its theological articulation of what children and youth ministry is, and in how to understand transformation within this.  The insights from Rooted might offer some encouragement to addressing the struggles ‘to fix’ work with children and young people. Yet here too there are clear makers of the need for adaptation. A drift towards work with children is positive, but is this more a marker of a failure to adapt. When we do engage in youth work, whether open or catechesis, are we learning well enough what the ‘programmes and strategies’ are that ‘will encourage young people actively to continue exploring faith’? 

The third report comes from that juggernaut of a think-tank Theos. Passing on Faith is an extended literature review of (largely) sociological understanding about the transmission of faith between generations. This report seeks to address concerns about the role that parent’s play, or don’t play as the case might be in nurturing this faith and notes that

  • The foundations for faith are laid in childhood, which requires a particular focus for the Christian community.
  • The role and responsibility of the family is central in faith transmission, and this is under pressure in secular society.  
  • Enduring adolescent and adult believers are largely the product homes, where faith is seen, heard and experienced.
  • Modelling is key: parents need to ‘be’ and ‘do’ what they want their child to become.

Here then we face a systemic problem of how we sustain parents as adult disciples, how we help to animate faith in the home and how we support the particular task of the transmission of faith between generations. Here too I believe the notion of technical and adaptive change is useful. More on this next week.

Nick Shepherd is Assistant Director of Discipleship and Ministry in the Diocese of Southwark.  Nick’s latest book Faith Generation: Retaining Young People and Growing the Church published by SPCK is out now. Nick is a trustee of The International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry.


Comment by Martin Wood at 11.18am on 3rd April 2017

Thank you, Nick, it is good to have an overview of these reports. I knew about 'Rooted in the Church' as we have been doing some work on it, but not the other two

Leave a comment

Please complete the instructions below, which will either be a checkbox or a question. This helps us avoid spam
Spam protection
img imgimgimg img