‘What can the Church do now?’

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Graeme Duncan asks how the Church can engage with young people, and suggests by recent example, that it may not be as difficult as we may think…

In London alone 37 people have been stabbed to death since the beginning of this year. At one stage, 10 people a day were being treated in hospital for the effects of knife crime.

Just like many towns and cities right across the UK, Ipswich is also suffering from a growing number of knife attacks, and gang crime amongst mainly young people. The recent incident in which a 17 year old lad was knifed to death has mobilised the local community where the incident took place into a vociferous outcry for something to be done for the youth of the town. Many have called on the council and various agencies to take action and invest more in young people. Concerns have also been raised about the lack of availability of activities for youngsters.

The council run youth clubs have, for the most part, closed in recent years, owing to a lack of funding. Teenagers have largely been left with nowhere to network with their peers, other than through social media. Their clubs where they could meet with friends and engage in social activities, or obtain support and advice from staff have been locked up, sold off, or had a change of use. For youngsters without a stable home life, the local youth club could offer a ‘bolt hole’ where they could find support.

Over the years the Church and the various youth organisations springing out from it, have been known for their work amongst young people. In recent history, with a rapid decline in church attendance, especially amongst teenagers, there has generally been a downturn in youth work. Many Churches know they are struggling with their youth work but don’t know how to address the problem. For the most part, the Church is failing to connect with those youngsters outside of its immediate sphere of influence.

The Church cannot just stand still and try to engage with young people by just asking, and expecting, them to ‘come to church’. The operative word in the gospels is ‘go’, not ‘come’.

As Christians we desperately need to go to where the young people are and engage with them. After all that is what Jesus did. He went to where the people in need were, and because of his relevant message and the miracles he performed, people began to follow him, and search him out to hear what he had to say.

In going to where the young people are and engaging with them bridges can be built, and relationships established, which can lead on to offering help and advice, and most importantly a sharing of the good news of the Christian message.

Maybe now is the time for our churches to reassess as to how they can engage with and help young people, and meet them where they are?

Skate boarding evangelist

In the summer of 2016 our Church decided to engage in some outreach to young people. We invited the internationally known Christian skateboarder, Brian Sumner, from California over to Ipswich. Our plan was to take Brian around the local skate parks and engage with the young people there in skateboarding alongside them, doing demonstrations, holding competitions with prizes, and then chatting to them about the Christian message. We partnered in the project with another Church whose minister I discovered was an ex UK skateboarding champion! He was already engaging with local skateboarders and saw this project as a great outreach opportunity. He cleared his diary for the week of Brian’s stay to take him around the skate parks and also made his two church mini buses available for this.

On the Sunday before Brian’s visit to the Ipswich skatepark near Stoke Bridge, I went there to put up a poster informing of his visit. As I walked into the skatepark I was confronted by a young lad walking towards me. Being an ‘oldie’ I thought this was going to be ‘kick off’ time with me invading their territory. The lad said: ‘What do you want mister?’ I said that I had come to tell them about a world famous skateboarder who would be there the following weekend, but I thought he would be too young to know of Brian. ‘Who is it mate then?’, he asked. ‘Brian Sumner’, I replied. ‘Oh’, came the reply, ‘I know him alright mate……he’s the business.’ Suddenly the tension lifted and it was a case of ‘where shall we fix up your poster mate?’

During the week Brian was here numerous local skateparks and a few further afield were visited. Sometimes, if possible, a barbecue was provided, but food and drink of some sort was always provided for the skateboarders. Brian skateboarded with the youngsters. He did demonstrations and held competitions amongst them where skateboards, hats and tee shirts etc. were given out as prizes. We had a special gospel tract printed which used skateboarding terminology to put the Christian message across and these were widely distributed. Most importantly of all Brian was able to speak to the groups as a whole and also in smaller groups about the Christian message. They were always ready to listen. There was no antagonism or heckling at all. Sometimes a few were chatting and asking questions until the early hours of the morning. Their main question seemed to have moved on from that of the back end of the last century of ‘Does God exist ?’ to ‘Which god is real?’ Relationships were forged and to this day Brian is still in contact with some of those he met via Facebook and Twitter.

‘Church in the park’

Another project which I know of but have not personally been involved with has been very successful in engaging with young people. A few years ago a youth worker in Norwich was concerned as to how the Church could engage with the young people of a troublesome estate in the city. Truancy from school, anti-social behaviour and crime were prevalent. He had the idea of using the local park to start ‘Church in the park’. It began in a modest way with him organising football matches in the park for the youngsters. This steadily began to grow as more and more youngsters became involved. Now they had something to engage with and occupy their free time. Gradually more sporting activities were added and various gazebo ‘stations’ were set up where they could have refreshments, or have questions answered, or receive advice as to problems they were encountering.

As the project grew and the young people of the estate became more and more involved, so their behaviour both at school and at home was noticeably improving, and the crime rate on the estate began to drop too, as did the anti-social behaviour. The improvement in their children’s behaviour made the parents sit up and want to get involved with the project, and in that way it grew and became very successful indeed. The police were so impressed with the scheme that the youth worker who started it all was awarded the Norfolk Constabulary’s ‘Citizen of the year’ award.

Where now?

So where to now in Ipswich ? Maybe ideas such as these are just some ways in which the church can invest in our young people and be an influence for the good in their lives…… and maybe churches can begin to network more with each other and work together to provide such activities?

What do you think? Contact us with your reactions to the issues raised in this article at editor@networksuffolk.org.uk

Graeme attends Melton Chapel. He has a passion for connectivity and networking within the Christian church, and has been involved in communication and many outreach evangelistic projects since his late teens.

The thoughts expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of ‘Network Suffolk’.