Why do we need young people in our churches? Too often we slip into thinking that it is because we need the Church to survive into the next generation. If we don’t attract young people, the Church will eventually die, as older people reach the end of our journeys. Basically, we need younger people to fill the pews and pay the bills. However, anxiety about the survival of the Church is never a good motivation for action.
The survival of the Church is God’s concern, not ours. If we focus on the survival of the Church, we are not focusing on the only thing that is truly attractive and important about the Church – the God who raised Jesus from the dead by the Holy Spirit. And if we lose our focus on him, we are really in trouble.
Henri Nouwen once wrote: “We will never believe we have anything to give unless there is someone who is able to receive.” If the Christian Church cannot receive the gifts of young people, they will think they don’t have anything to give and will go elsewhere. And that is probably why most of them don’t darken the doors of our churches – because they don’t think we really want what they have to bring.
Before we ask what the Church can give to young people, we need to ask: what can young people bring to the Church? How can the contribution and gifts of young people be received and accepted? And what is that gift? A glimpse into the life of the young Jesus might give us an answer.
In the Gospels we get one brief glimpse of Jesus as a teenager (almost?) – the time when he was found in the temple at Jerusalem while on a family visit to the city. It is said that he was found “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Reading that text recently reminded me of another teenager who did much the same recently: Greta Thunberg, the climate change activist who visited London during the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations on climate change. And I think this has a lot to teach us about why we need young people in our churches.
Jesus was “among the teachers, listening to them”. It makes a difference to adult conversation when young people are listening in. We adults talk differently when young people are present and listening, because we become aware that what we say will influence them and will shape their perceptions, not just of us, but of themselves and their world.
It was fascinating to watch our politicians talk with Greta Thunberg in the room – they spoke differently somehow. New parents often remark on a new sense of responsibility they have, as they become aware that they can no longer live wild, carefree lives, but now have someone who depends upon them, and whose future they are responsible for shaping. Having young people around, listening to our conversations, keeps us adults honest. It makes us think twice about what we are saying, what our true values are and whether what we are saying is responsible or careless. It is why having young people present for conversations on the Parochial Church Council (PCC) or in church is vital. It improves and brings sense to our conversations that they lack without it.
Jesus also asked questions. When Greta Thunberg came to the UK to speak about climate change most of what she did was to ask questions. Why are we living this way? How have we got to the point where are our oceans are clogged full of plastic? Why should I go to school when it seems that there is no great future for me and my generation? Are you listening?
Before we ask what the Church can give to young people, we need to ask: what can young people bring to the Church?
Teenagers ask questions that adults don’t usually ask. To simplify hugely, we adults have got used to the way the world is and tend to simply accept it. Older children and particularly teenagers are beginning to experience the world critically for the first time and so ask the obvious questions that the adults often miss. Why do we do it this way? Why don’t we do things differently? How have we got to this point? Teenagers won’t often have the answers to these questions, yet if we don’t have young people around, or don’t listen to their questions, just as the teachers had to in the temple with the young Jesus, we will often miss the most obvious and important questions that we need to face.
At the end of the story when Jesus is asked why he stayed in the temple, he replied: “I must be in my Father’s house.” Teenagers are those who still live in their parents or carers’ houses, yet unlike young children, are becoming aware of the complexities of that, and what it means to live as an emerging adult, obediently yet judiciously, under the authority of a parent or carer or two.
Young children don’t yet have the capacity to intelligently question what that means and how to navigate it. Adults, even though they may have elderly parents, no longer have to be obedient to them, and tend to forget what it’s like to live under the care and authority of a father or mother.
Teenagers can therefore be a hugely valuable reminder to us adults of what it means to live under the care and authority of our heavenly Father. The problem is that we adults tend to think we are the ones in charge. We get to call the shots and dictate how things work around here. Christians however are those who know that there is one true Lord and leader, Jesus Christ. We know that there is a heavenly Father under whose authority we live and whose protection we enjoy. We are not in control. And even as adults, we have to still live intelligently and wisely under his care and authority. Without teenagers around we may lose a vital reminder that we as adults are still children of our heavenly Father.
We need to find ways to make our churches more welcoming to young people. Rather than expecting them to change to fit the way we do things, we need to think carefully what changes we can introduce to make church more accessible to younger people, without losing our identity and character as the Christian Church. If we can find ways to value what younger people bring to our churches they will be much more likely to feel welcomed and valued and the whole church will be enriched as result.
The Rt Revd Dr Graham Tomlin is Bishop of Kensington. This article is adapted from a talk Graham gave to clergy.