Rare Breeds and Endangered Species in Church
Young people are not in church in the numbers they used to be, and atheism is growing. What can we do? By Paul Poulton
We are told that “lesser-spotted woodpeckers” reside in the UK all year round, but they have declined in numbers and are becoming quite rare in certain places. We are also told that “people under the age of 30” reside in the UK all year round but they too are becoming lesser-spotted and quite rare in certain places.
There are two ways of looking at the phrase “lesser-spotted”:
1 Not seen very often.
2 Having spots of a small dimension.
When I minister in churches around the UK I have not noticed that young people’s problems with acne have lessened to any great degree, but I have noticed a shortage of young people themselves. I’ve heard that there are statistics confirming the fact that young people are not in church in the numbers they used to be some years ago.
The lack of people under 30 in church may not be so easy for us to recognise as we think. We can liken it to a person suffering from glaucoma where peripheral vision is slowly lost. The person living with the condition doesn’t necessarily notice that the edges of their vision have started to disappear because they get use to accommodating the narrowing visual field in their demanding and encompassing daily life.
Church itself can become a little demanding at times and a few people may find themselves engrossed in the affairs of church. People assigned to the task of some sort of leadership within the body of Christ have to apply themselves to organising and coordinating the multi-faceted mechanisms of what we know as the local church. And may God bless them all, because we need those people.
Those of us who work (in some capacity) with church, do need to take care that the church doesn’t become all-consuming—our relationship is with God, not with church affairs. Church members who may not hold a particular office but are faithful attendants at services and house-groups etc. can also find themselves pre-occupied with the life of their church. This situation can, if we’re not alert, affect our peripheral vision leading us to becoming slightly blinkered and failing to notice the slow haemorrhaging of young people from the body.
But thankfully, where we may fail, the members of the British Humanist Association are happy to help us out. They write on their website that,
“Religiosity is particularly on the wane amongst young people. A 2013 YouGov poll found that only 25 per cent of 16-24 year olds believe in God, whilst 38 per cent do not believe in either God or a greater spiritual power. The same study found that only 12 per cent of young people pronounced themselves as being influenced by religious leaders.”
Why young people are happy to proclaim their atheism may have a number of answers, and one of them is probably that some influential atheists are funny, witty, knowledgeable, excellent communicators and enjoy celebrity status. They are also not shy in proclaiming their philosophy; being able to make the church look like a heavy leaden weight, whilst portraying atheism as having the capability to set its adherents free.
Atheism is in fact, quite cool at the moment, so why not join in the fun? Perhaps it’s a bit like smoking: Young people sometimes meet together outside school for a cigarette. They may not, at first, particularly enjoy the sensation of smoking, but because it gives them a sense of independence whilst looking smart among their peers, they continue to smoke. Some young people get through that stage and make changes before smoking becomes an ingrained pattern in their lives, other young people will develop a life-long habit that may have serious consequences.
Some young people who now call themselves unbelievers will, by God’s grace, change their stance. But there will be other young people for whom unbelief is a life-long journey.
What can we do to stem the flow of youth leaving the church? Happily we don’t have to do anything that God hasn’t already called us to do. However, if we are caught up with church politics, in-fighting, personal advancement within the church, proving theological positions or arguing about points of doctrine, we find the job we are actually called to do is left undone.
But if we communicate the message of Jesus well, and reach-out to the people around us, faith will ensue. “Faith comes by hearing!” Jesus put some thought into communicating his message to the people in front of him and he told them interesting stories that would engender faith in his hearers. We cannot conjure faith up within people but we can all do something to encourage the seed of faith that the Holy Spirit has placed in someone’s heart.
"Faith" is like music. Technically speaking, music is a series of repetitious noise. But put a human soul on the receiving end of that noise and it makes perfect sense. God’s love and heaven's music will continue to touch people, as it always has done. People’s lives will continue to be changed by the touch of God. Taking an interest in young people, making friends with them, showing love and bearing with them through their problems and waywardness will help stimulate faith within them.
Atheism is trending at the moment, but that will pass, as all trends pass. But while it is here with our generation, and taking place on our watch, we are called to stand fast and proclaim in word and deed the good news that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son and that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Paul Poulton is a writer, speaker and singer-songwriter. He talks about life, human idiosyncrasies, his Christian faith and philosophy, sometimes seasoning his discourses with humour. Paul is a member of his local Baptist church in Staffordshire.