Can the Church of England Attract Young People Again? 16 February 2015

Andrew Grey argues the Church of England should ignore gimmicks and attract the youth with its authentic message.

St Paul Cathedral, London, UK.The Church of England needs more young people. This drum has been banged on repeat for years: ‘it needs to be more relevant’; ‘young people are put off the church’ – the Archbishop of York even issued a prophetic-sounding warning in 2013 that the church is “one generation away from extinction”.

Enter Rob Popejoy: Chaplain at the City of Bath College. He’s something of a hipster: he sports a beard at the age of 30, wears beanie hats and owns a skateboard. He is also heavily tattooed, and has interests in snowboarding, football and hip-hop.

Surely this man is the answer to all our prayers? When young people see the church as stuffy and outdated, this man can bring a breath of fresh air. He embraces his students’ interests with vigour, even getting involved in one student’s project by being photographed topless, covered in paint, and wearing just a bowtie.

Oh, and he’s covered in tattoos.

But whilst Popejoy may seem original, he is in fact following an ongoing tradition of gimmicky ways to attract young people. For at least the past two decades, a growing number of churches have gone out of their way to try to convince young people that they are cool enough for us: they don’t need boring old organs when they’ve got electric guitars, or dusty old hymnbooks, when they’ve got a laptop and projector. All young people need to do is give them a try.

The problem with all of these gestures, well-intentioned as they are, is that they are superficial. Countless churches have made these transformations, and sure, maybe they attract one or two more young people than they would otherwise – but our cries of a dying church have not gone away.

These gestures are largely unsuccessful because they are often inauthentic. As a 25 year old – surely one of the Church of England’s target audience – I’ve felt extremely uncomfortable listening to middle-aged men wearing jeans demanding I lift my hands in worship as they strum their guitars. I feel much more comfortable in my current local church – a twelfth century building with an organ and pews. This isn’t just because I happen to have grown fond of that style – it’s also, and perhaps more, about the fact that it’s genuine. Neither the vicar nor the congregation pretend to be something that they’re not.

This isn’t to say that churches shouldn’t use guitars or screens. If that’s genuinely what makes the congregation comfortable, and facilitates worship most effectively, then of course a church should use this. Similarly, if a Chaplain like Rob Popejoy genuinely feels comfortable on a skateboard and wants to use it, why not? These things aren’t inherently inauthentic. But they should never be done for the purpose of simply trying to appeal to young people – because we can see through it.

Authenticity matters to people of my generation. Obviously, it isn’t just the young who appreciate it. But it has particular meaning to us. Why? Because, in truth, it’s the one thing that is a universal struggle for people of younger generations to obtain. Teenagers go out of their way to style their hair; many schoolgirls start to experiment with make-up as they learn, very quickly, that their natural face just isn’t good enough for the real world.

University students leave home and struggle to find out who they are. They try new clubs and societies, and spend a lot of time getting as drunk as possible, and/or remodelling their fashion, music taste, film taste – anything to help them develop a persona that will make people like them.

Then they leave university and find that they have to turn themselves into the ideal worker, despite having little or no experience of the working world. They have to go to job interviews and convince strangers that they’re the ideal independent worker and team-player; that their decisions are both made quickly and well thought out; that they are easy to get along with but take their work very seriously; that they will put in the hours but strike the perfect – cliché alert – “work-life balance”.

Frankly, it’s no wonder young people struggle for authenticity. We spend so much time trying to be accepted by every different person and group imaginable that we never have space to work out just who we are.

And this is where the church really should come in. Rather than trying its best to mimic young people’s transient fashions and trends, it should be offering the message that young people – indeed all people – desperately need to hear: you are accepted. More than accepted – you are loved. Your worth isn’t dependent on your academic achievements, or your job title or salary; it’s not about how cool or attractive you are; and it doesn’t matter how interesting your hobbies sound. Your worth comes from the fact that you are a human being – it is innate, and cannot be taken away. You were fearfully and wonderfully made.

Of course, one problem with this, as is often lamented, is the difficulty of telling young people that they’re accepted when there appear to be limits. It’s no good telling a young woman that she’s accepted by God but could never be a leader in the church because of her gender. Or telling her that she’s very welcome to come into the church, but her friends who are in a same-sex relationships must stay away. That’s not acceptance.

If the church is to be truly “relevant”, it should stop treating young people as naïve airheads who will gravitate towards anything that looks vaguely “young”, and realise that what it can offer us is the gospel message – in word and deed – of God’s unconditional love and acceptance.

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About Andrew Grey

Andrew Grey graduated from the University of Oxford with BA and MPhil degrees in Theology. He is a Writer and Editor at a national charity. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.

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