There’s one more buzzword that we often talk about in evangelical circles, and it’s one that belies our current sense of limited success in evangelising the youth of the nation. The word is ‘revival’ - describing the idea that huge swathes of our young people will suddenly change the course of their lives, dedicate everything to Jesus, and overwhelm the culture with acts of kindness and a renewed demand for Christian music events.


We still dare to hope, in spite of the state of youth culture, that revival might come, perhaps heralded by some sort of heavenly bugle. But if we’re honest, the evidence suggests it isn’t coming any time soon. Broadly speaking, our youth groups are significantly smaller than they were 20 years ago, and many no longer exist at all. There are fewer employed church youth workers and a smaller Christian subculture for teenagers to plug into. In 1995, a church connected with 80 teenagers was considered normal; now it’s an exceptional beacon of youth ministry.

Which is why recent statistics from Hope Together and the Church of England were puzzling to so many. Surveying 2,000 teenagers through reputable research firm ComRes, they found that 13 per cent of respondents described themselves as “practising Christians”. Thirteen per cent. Thir. Teen. Per. Cent. In a town like Luton, where I work is based, that means roughly 2,860 of our 22,000 local young people would describe themselves as such. The church youth groups - and most of our staff who meet them in schools and the community each week - would beg to differ. But perhaps that stat can be explained away as a misunderstanding on the respondents’ part, where they’re conflating ‘practising’ with ‘nominal’ on the basis of their family or ethnic heritage.

A second stat is much more difficult to dismiss however. The study also discovered that a massive 21 per cent of young people called themselves an “active follower of Jesus”. To again put that into context, that’s 4,620 of Luton’s teenagers actively pursuing the Christian God. The long-term evangelical youth worker in me asks where on Earth they’ve been hiding. Why aren’t they in our churches, attending our Bible study groups and prayer meetings, or filling up half a week of Soul Survivor all on their own? If they’re actively pursuing Jesus, they’re doing so in secret.

Many people, myself included, dismissed the survey at first as flawed. Like a dud second-hand car, we couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with it, but it certainly wasn’t roadworthy. These figures just do not match up with our experience of youth ministry in 2017. There simply aren’t all these Christian teenagers hiding away in plain sight.

Youth ministry isn’t about targeting, strategising and executing the evangelism and discipleship of teenagers, but simply joining in with what God is already doing among the young people of our communities


Except… what if their definition of ‘following Jesus’ is different from mine? What if there are young people - loads of them, right across the nation - who are pursuing Jesus, but just not in the way we thought they would or should? What if they really are doing it in secret?

Here’s what that might look like. A young person, disenfranchised by the prevailing secular worldview, is trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. They somehow come across this person, this idea of Jesus - this great teacher, selfless saviour and ultimate cosmic symbol of love, peace and goodness - and they’re attracted to him. They don’t buy into church; they’ve little interest in reading the Bible. But Jesus is strangely and continually compelling. They think about him. They Google him. They end up talking to him. Over time, to them this becomes an authentic, but very private faith in Christ. And when they meet with a researcher, they confess that yes, they’d describe their worldview as such.

This Christianity is an uncomfortable leap away from what we’ve been modelling - and, of course, from what I think the Bible teaches. But is it possible that this new strain of faith, which is more a private connection with an invisible spirit guide than a version of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism spoken about by Kenda Creasy Dean and others, is not only real but increasingly prevalent?

That’s my best guess at making sense of these staggering figures: that many, many young people are encountering the name, then the ideas, and then the presence of Jesus, but that they don’t see the connection with joining the Christian tribe. And if that is true - and it’s a big if - then it has profound implications for the way we do ministry.


For a start, if young people don’t believe they’ll meet Jesus at church, then it’s a fairly restrictive place for us to base ourselves as youth leaders. Instead we should be investing our time in the spaces that they occupy every day, from schools to town centres to online gaming worlds, and seeking to illuminate and explore how God is present in those places. The end game of evangelical youth ministry has long been to get young people from the schools and the street corners (both real and virtual), and into the church. What if, in fact, we should have been trying all along to turn those settings into sacred spaces or, more accurately, to demonstrate to young people that every space is already sacred?

Even more significantly, this idea emphasises a mindset shift that many have already begun to make: that youth ministry isn’t so much about targeting, strategising and executing the evangelism and discipleship of teenagers, but simply joining in with what God is already doing among the young people of our communities. So many of us feel the pressure - partly because it’s coming from those above us in the church food chain - to make things happen, even though our theology tells us that it’s God who changes hearts. What might happen if we all relaxed a bit and saw our role as just looking out for where God is at work in the lives of teenagers, and offering a helping hand?


Of course that’s all deeply challenging and conflicting to those of us who’ve grown up with the soul-winning, Bible-quoting, spirit-filling approach to youth work. And I’m not in any way suggesting it’s time to throw away all or any of those things. Jesus calls us to make disciples (Matthew 28:19), and that they should be part of his church (John 13:35), receive his Spirit (John 16:7) and importantly turn from sin toward repentance (Matthew 4:17). But perhaps that’s not the place to start if we want to make sense of these statistics and begin to engage with ten times the number of teenagers we currently do.

If these young people exist - and I accept it’s a big ‘if’ - then I’m still feeling evangelical enough to believe that they need our help. They’ve got a part of the picture, but there’s much more to offer them: the liberation that comes from embracing both forgiveness and repentance; the Holy Spirit and his gifts; the richness of scripture and the power of spiritual disciplines. But I want to suggest we put the brakes on all of that. Initially, our role would simply be to join the dots for these young people - to help them understand (as crazy as this may sound) that the Jesus they’ve met in the silence of their bedrooms is the same Jesus we talk about in the Christian Church.

What if this generation’s definition of ‘following Jesus’ is different from ours?

In the Gospels, Jesus started simply with a call to his first followers, which was always along the lines of: “Come, follow me.” This research might make no sense, but perhaps if we interpret it through that lens, it starts to reveal something different. What if God is at work in the lives of hundreds of thousands of teenagers, right across the UK and beyond, quietly whispering those words, and gently enticing their hearts towards him? It might be a deeply uncomfortable challenge to evangelical youth work, but what if a very different kind of revival - more spiritual awakening than rallying movement - is taking place right under our noses? I don’t know if I believe that’s really happening, but if it is, the possibilities for the next ten years of Christian youth work are extraordinary, and endless.