SATS (Standard Attainment Tests) happen across the country this term for year six primary school children. It is their last term before they leave for the bewildering new world of secondary school. This same age provides a benchmark for the Church’s work because the transition between primary and secondary school marks a significant falling away from Christianity among young people.

If these transition points are not well managed then young people will see Church as an experience from their primary school and something to be left behind once they start at their new school. The changes that come in the shift from primary to secondary can be really stressful for children, as they come to terms with being the small fish in a much bigger pond. In years five and six they are kings and queens of their world. In year seven at secondary school they start again at the bottom of the pile. At primary school, children stay in one class and the teachers come to them. At secondary school children move from one classroom to another and there is a whole philosophy of learning contained in them needing to do so. In year six learning is brought to them, in year seven they have to start to think more for themselves, rather than simply to absorb what they are being told. At primary school, the children walk to school with their parents. At secondary school, where the distances from home to school are often greater, children get themselves to school.

The irony for me, as minister at a local church, is that the more successful my children’s work becomes, the more it puts a stress on where the joints are most weak, on the church’s work with young people who are making the transition between primary and secondary school. Once a month we hold half-hour services, with up to 94 children in attendance. It is Messy Church for fringe parents, drawn in through the church school and the surrounding area. Younger children like being with their friends and it is fun for them to be boisterous in church and to shout out the answers to questions. Older children want a shared enterprise rather than a single event. They begin to distance themselves and see Church as something connected with primary school and to be left behind them as they make the transition to secondary school.

The problem with Sunday school

My conundrum, as a church minister, is that the better the Sunday school leaders teach the faith to the children in the church, the less the family see it as their responsibility to do so. There is a latent assumption that children learn about Christianity at church and then put it into practice at home and at school. Families outsource the role of Christian nurture to the Church. Parents think of a church’s teaching as they might do a school and see it as the church’s responsibility to help their children follow Jesus.

Many congregations have contributed to the situation by over-emphasising age-segregated programming, which further divides families. Sunday school can inadvertently become a de-facto childcare facility, allowing parents to enjoy uninterrupted adult worship time secure in the knowledge that their children are being looked after by reliable volunteers.

The Evangelical Alliance tells us that there was a better chance of surviving on the Titanic than there is of a child’s faith surviving in our churches; 1,523 out of 2,228 passengers and crew were drowned during the sinking of the Titanic - a loss of 68 per cent. But of every class of 50 0-9-year olds in Sunday school in 1985, only 15 will still be going to church in their 20s: we lose 70 per cent of our children in their progress from Sunday school to university. The explanation of why young people are not in church lies in the fact that the Church can’t hold on to the children and young people it has, let alone reach out to those outside the Church.

The task of a Sunday school is to supplement not to replace the family’s role in nurturing their children in faith. Oftentimes there is little to no programming on offer in a church that engages the entire family as a family, or that empowers and equips parents for their task as the primary religious teachers of their children and teens. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 offers a charter for family learning: teaching children the faith is the responsibility of the family, rather than the synagogue or Church.

Well-managed transitions

A well-managed transition between primary and secondary school needs youth ministers to become family workers in order to provide parents with the tools to teach their own children. In 2014’s The church growth research programme report, Voas and Watt report that 64 per cent of Anglican parents see it as the responsibility of the Church, rather than their own, to nurture their children’s faith. In order to work with young people, I find myself turning my back on youth work and becoming a family worker. When only 36 per cent of Anglican parents say that they see it as important to teach their children the Christian faith, it is evident that youth workers need to invest in parents.

The answer to a well-managed transition between primary and secondary school does not lie in better-prepared all-age services or more comprehensive Sunday school teaching. It does not come in better-equipped youth work projects. It comes in how well the young people are able to learn about following Jesus in their homes, rather than in church. If the parents do not come to church the likelihood is that the children will not do so either. Voas and Crockett’s 2005 research suggests that if neither parent attends [church] at least once a month, the chances of the child doing so are negligible: less than three per cent. If both parents attend at least monthly, there is a 46 per cent chance that the child will do so. Where just one parent attends, the likelihood is halved to 23 per cent.

“Oh when the saints…”

I create a forum for cross-generational family learning with an afternoon service for young people who play football on Sunday mornings. The young people are already in the process of transitioning between schools. I don’t want them also to have to choose between church and football on Sunday morning. There is no reason why they should not do both: one on Sunday mornings and one in the afternoon. Parents and young people come to our football-service together and meet in a 45-minute slot in between the end of their match and their return home. Sport is a natural point of family kinship with parents supporting and children playing and the same exuberance spills easily over into our time together.

The young people arrive bursting with energy and swapping stories about their game that morning; one young person comments: “It’s wicked! You can play football and have your own service.” Another says: “I can really learn here. It’s not like at church where people are going on and on and on.”

We work with the parents rather than for the parents. The parents drive the arrangements, publicising the service themselves through a parent mail that goes out to everyone involved with the football matches. It happens in my home rather than in the church. It has more the flavour of a house group than a church service. I am not following a set week-by-week programme, but plan for repetition with variety. For the young people to be relaxed they need to know what to expect. They want to be interested but not to be taken by surprise. Our times together have a regular pattern that make up our session together consisting of: juice and biscuits (informality), video-based teaching clips (accessibility) and prayer and shared concerns (authenticity).

I am equipping the parents with the type of relationship they need to help their children to go from one school to another and to continue to grow in faith while doing so. Parents and their children get used to praying together out loud, reading scripture together as equals and sharing their concerns for the week ahead.

The family is the natural place for children to be discipled. My own and other’s research has established that the most significant community of which the young people are a part is their family. The (extended) family is as, or in some instances more, important than friends to young people. Friends might be the new family but family are now also the new friends. A friendship style of parenting has left young people comfortable relating across the generations. Young people are willing to form friendships across the generations and to learn from the experience and life stories of others.

Young people approaching secondary school are learning to negotiate a whole new set of social situations and adults can help them in this process. Kit (10) speaks thus of his friendship groups in his school: he tells me that if you work hard to be popular you will need to work hard to stay popular and that is not always the best thing. If you are the most popular you will want to stay that way. If you are number two then you will want to become number one and so you are best off being third most popular.

Church members take on parenting roles. Child protection issues notwithstanding, a primary resource that the Church can offer to young people is the opportunity for them to build nurturing and supportive relationships with adults. The traditional African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” signifies that parents and children need a network of friends and family to offer support and direction. Likewise it takes a whole church to raise a child in the Christian faith.

Jesus was an advocate for cross-generational learning (Matthew 19:14) and a church is a multi-generational learning community. Young people are helped to appreciate the social rules and values of the adults, with whom they will interact in the community. Older people have the opportunity to hear the hopes and aspirations of young people whom, without the church, they would never otherwise have met. A church with healthy relationships with young people is a church comfortable with herself.

  1. Who are the silver haired youth workers in your church? The best youth workers are those who will listen and older members of the congregation will often do this best. Grandmothers make good youth workers. They only need to be asked.
  2. Who in your congregation would make a good mentor for a young person? A mentor is a member of the congregation, charged with responsibility for children and young people in the congregation, who agrees to listen, ask questions, challenge and encourage.
  3. How might you pray for young people at the start of each term? God of all beginnings and endings, help us at the start of a new term. Help us to return to school with a good heart. Help us to learn well, play hard and care for others. Amen.