When an ‘absolute priority’ really isn’t!

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s task group on evangelism has just published its report in time for debate at the next General Synod. Already the Church Times has picked out the appropriate call to prayer and the proposal for a week of prayer before Pentecost 2016. It also lists some of the other projects and plans that were outlined at a press launch. I really hope this will be a report that will be implemented and not left to gather dust – it is timely and really important.

However I am also disappointed at a missed opportunity to tackle the key question of evangelism amongst children, youth and young adults. I was encouraged to read in the introduction that there would be,

“A sustained and well-resourced follow-up to the clear findings of “From Anecdote to Evidence” on the absolute priority of evangelism among younger people.

The report highlights the fact that most people come to faith while they are young and that evangelism is much harder once people pass their 20’s.

So that’s clear, evangelism is most effective and easiest with young people; furthermore the church is failing to connect with young people in any significant way and so “the future health of the Church of England depends on a renewed sense of urgency to engage with children and young people.”   

It would follow then that the following proposals for action  will reflect this top priority across the board – sadly no! There are some proposals in this section of the report that may start to tackle the problem (but don’t go very far as I’ll explain later) and the rest of the report seems oblivious to this conclusion. It doesn’t look like a sustained response, nor any sign of resourcing let alone how it is the ‘absolute priority’.

Yet again children and young people are left in their own compartment, like the small room at the back of the church, being taught and discipled by a few committed adults while the rest of the church gets on with the grown-up stuff. It would have been good to see some analysis of the impact of the other proposals on this ‘absolute priority’, to know that the new project worker will be seeking to include this age group in the specific projects, that training clergy needs to include work with children and young people, that chaplaincy in schools in one of the most effective ways of reaching young people, that youth work on urban estates is already effectively reaching young people (but I wonder if any youth workers will be invited to the planned conference on this topic). We need a more holistic and joined-up approach whereby the whole church takes responsibility for children and young people. This report could have shown a way towards that.

It would have been good too if I’d read somewhere that the task group had taken time to consult young people themselves, to give them a voice and to hear their ideas and suggestions. Given there is already a group set up for this purpose, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to achieve! (Church of England Youth Council – CEYC).

And so to the specific proposals related to young people. Before I comment maybe I should confess my irritation that there has been no involvement of Diocesan Youth Officers in the task group process and no mention of their role in the report or in implementing the planned actions. Yet most DYO’s are already doing what is suggested – we already spend hours encouraging the appointment of full-time workers,. we already work with Deaneries to plan youth work and with mission teams to include youth and children in mission action plans, we already try out new ideas for outreach and pass on best practice where we can. We don’t need people telling us to do what we already do but we need some help to do it! What is needed is bigger structural changes that mean youth and children’s workers can be paid a decent salary and have job security for longer than 2-3 years; that gives them professional development equivalent to that received by their clergy colleagues and that offers initial training without the burden of student debt. The report notes the need to sort out licensing and maybe this will make a start in giving youth ministers some recognition for the important role they play but they will need much, much more if we are to change the culture that sees children’s and youth ministries as ‘stepping stones to other forms of ministry’.

Justin Welby’s sermon on evangelism is the final part of the report and a positive note on which to end; it is an excellent explanation of evangelism and a reminder call to the task of being faithful witnesses sharing in the work of Christ,

“Jesus involves us in his work of calling people to follow him. This is the work of evangelism. He calls us to extend our hands and our hearts, use our words and lives to echo his call to every person to follow him.”

I hope and pray that this report and the decisions of synod will enable more children and young people to discover that call and decide to follow Him. That is the absolute priority.

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