They shall run and not be weary …

‘Bishop – what we really need is to get the age of this congregation down a bit …’ I’m almost certainly not the only bishop to whom that was said this morning. It was said in the context of a faithful congregation, a church lovingly restored … So I said what I always say when I want to be reassuring: ‘But, of course, you have to remember that the average age of people in a rural community is significantly higher than it is in the cities …’ True. But not as high as that of the average rural congregation. So, to go one layer further down …. I might have said, ‘The age profile of the congregation is unlikely to change unless you review the way in which you worship.’ But then I should also have said what I also know to be true, ‘Even if you alter the way you worship, that will not of itself draw younger people into active membership of your congregation.’ It just isn’t as easy as that. There is no single answer. It is partly to do with a new kind of authenticity and integrity in church communities – so that their roots go down deeper into the realities of both life and spirituality. It involves new ways of forming relationships and building networks in this very secular society. There is a need for a sort of entrepreneurial spirit which sees opportunities of growth and grasps them with both hands. If only I could describe that in a way which would answer the question, ‘So what should we actually do?’


  1. I agree; I had variations on `faith for the thinking person’ in mind as well. However, one gap between consolation and contentment might be that, while thinking-person is entirely right and proper, one also cannot go out and tell teenagers how to worship; it seems a bit dualist to boil it down to “either you settle for an older congregation, or you change large parts of your style and get younger folks in”, too. Then it becomes a question of degree of specialisation (on a near-denominational scale). In some cases, while there might be a slot in the calendar for an evening service aimed more towards younger folks, there’s also the question of how you’d organize a leadership rota and how to bootstrap it.

  2. Yes – I recognise the parallel. In congregational terms, the question is whether organic growth into being an ‘all-age’ congregation can be achieved when most of the existing members are 65 and over. Your parallel suggests [I think correctly] that this is an unrealistic expectation. And the research also suggests that there is a correlation between the age of clergy and the age of a congregation – we work best with people who are 10 years either side of our own age. I also read the implication in your comment that, since the SEC in particular represents a ‘thinking person’s approach to faith’, it will not find it easy to draw teenagers and young adults who tend to see things in very black and white terms. But, having come from a parish with enormous numbers of children and teenagers, I think that children are an almost essential ingredient in a church community – ‘whoever does not receive the kingdom like a child …’ And as I get older myself, I recognise afresh the astonishing energy which younger adults bring to things. So, if I am consoled by what you say, I am still not content!

  3. Your observation reminds me of what is called, in the secular world of the Scottish media, ‘Sunday Post Syndrome’. The Sunday Post was once the biggest-selling Sunday newpaper in Scotland and had a place in the Guinness Book of Records as having the closest to saturation circulation of any newspaper in the world. From the mid-1970s onwards, the paper progressively lost ground to rivals, particularly the Sunday Mail. Research showed that the Post had predominantly an older readership and, as the older generation passed away, they were not being replaced by younger readers. The editorial staff then found themselves in a classic dilemma. Every attempt to reposition the paper by appealing to a younger readership brought strong and heartfelt protests from their long-established older readers. The editors have achieved a gradual modernisation, but latest figures show that 41% of Sunday Post readers are aged 65+, compared with 16% of Sunday Mail readers (see ABC, D. C. Thomson and Trinity Mirror websites). However, the Sunday Post still has the second-largest Sunday circulation in Scotland and may be attracting new readers in mid-life, who then remain with the paper into late maturity. It isn’t always appropriate to apply commercial examples to the church – we don’t abandon core principles to capture ‘market share’, but neither did the Sunday Post (that is, it didn’t try to emulate more populist titles). The lesson may be that we need to appeal more to people in mid-life – people who have sampled most of the things that modern life has to offer and who are entering a more thoughtful, reflective stage in their lives. Some will not have been to church since childhood, some will have adhered to other Christian traditions in the past and some will never have been to church at all. Many will have life experiences and skills that they can bring to church life. The problem is reaching these people, ensuring that church is as welcoming and barrier-free as possible and providing an environment in which they can grow spiritually. Youth work is important, but our style of prayer and worship tends to be thoughtful and reflective – especially satisfying, I think, for people in mid-life and onwards. Something to ponder.

  4. At least the sermon stirred her to some passion – rather than reducing her to a catatonic condition. As always, it is the details which are interesting. Glad to see that it was a folding stool which she threw – the Brompton concept before its time, I think.

  5. Bring back Jenny Geddes – she could liven up a sermon.

  6. Interesting comments – and Hi-Oh Silver! to my friend Hamish. Tim makes me nostalgic for the moments in black communities in America and in South Africa when I have preached with a supporting chorus of ‘Amen, brother – Hallelujah!’ It’s very empowering. I shall listen out for it next time I am in St John’s. I’ve always wanted to try the dialogue sermon as well – any offers? But, to go back to young people and the church, I don’t think there can be any single answer. The catholic tradition of worship is quite helpful – lots of room for crucifers and servers. I’m all for a mixed economy in music – the tradition and majestic mixed with music from instruments and solo voice. In the parish, we had a band, largely of teenagers. One always felt that they were pretending that they had only come to play the instrument – it became a sort of foil but it served them well enough. As to the integrity and authenticity debate – I have no problem with the idea that the church stands in a tradition. But what kills it is the moment when its raison d’etre becomes the defence of any particular tradition. It lives with integrity when it attempts to refashion and rekindle faith in fresh words, expression and action for new times.

  7. Spending time over in Uncle Jimmy’s country. Can’t wait to get back for a “Wahey” and “Right On” during your next exegesis. Hamish

  8. I would point out I’m not the only one in my 30s to appreciate the sense of majesty that organ-accompaniment brings, or the musicality of a certain group of hymns. I would hate for the mid-morning service at my church to become some guitar+”music”-group-lead affair just because it’s “modern”. Besides, such a thing strikes me as superficial anyway; I think Bishop David and Sarah are searching for a substantial method: perhaps one (if not the) problem could be the perception of dryness when Scriptural exposition gets named “exegesis” and “theology” rather than “bringing the Word to life” (a phrase with multiple semantics)?
    Invent a more interactive seminar-style sermon, where rather than (at most) mumbling `mmm’, or `amen’, one yells “Wahey! Right on!” instead 🙂

    You could even encourage the congregation to take notes, too…

  9. I know that other churches, ie..the Gospel Church and the Methodist Church all have a very encouraging number of “young” worshippers. How do they achieve this? Perhaps it is because they provide a type of service and feeling of belonging to a community that actively appreciates and helps eachother in times of need. Youngsters dont want to sit about for an hour singing hymns that bear a resemblance to that of a dirge and they certainly dont want to be glowered at by the older members of the congregation if they dare to utter a word during the service. The way forward for any church is to embrace its young and keep them spritually entertained and give them a yearning to know more. I know different approaches have been tried in many churches and many times these new approaches have failed due to the pressure from the older members of the congregations and the clergy not wanting to offend them.

    Music is a wonderful tool to relate the scriptures and this field should be pursued more often using not only the “typical organ and hymns” approach.

  10. I have been thinking a lot about this recently, having fairly recently come to realise myself how much christianity and the church has to offer someone who is ‘searching spiritually’. However obvious it may be to older people I think the vast majority of people of my age (early 40’s) and younger have no idea that church and a deep spiritual life- or the possiblity of following a path that is life-transforming have anything to do with each other. I’m not sure what the answers are but I do think there is a yearning and strong need for a spiritual life among younger people.The integrity and authenticity you mention where it is obvious to people that our faith has a deep impact on all aspects of our lives sounds a good place to start. Sarah

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