New research has identified five types of churches which are bucking the trend in reaching and discipling the 'missing generation' of people in their 20s and 30s.
They include some larger churches, with young adult congregations, that are contemporary in style yet with more traditional practices. These are reaching middle class, well educated young adults, who previously attended church as children.
However more modern expressions of church, with very different traits and practices, are those which are managing to reach young adults with no prior faith or church experience, and from a broader socio-economic background.
These expressions of church are 'reflecting the wide-ranging ways in which churches are tackling the fact that only 11 per cent of regular churchgoers are between the ages of 25 and 34', said Beth Keith, a tutor at Church Army in Sheffield, who conducted the research on behalf of Church Army and Fresh Expressions. Her findings are documented in her report authentic faith: fresh expressions of church amongst young adults.
In the past 12 months, Beth has surveyed leaders of parish churches, traditional church plants and fresh expressions of church. The aim was to look at churches based in different contexts reaching young adults from a range of socio-economic and religious backgrounds - rather than simply tracking large student churches.
The research found:
*Some larger churches, with young adult congregations gathering for a Sunday service alongside midweek groups, are effectively reaching middle class, well-educated young adults who previously attended church as children
*Churches managing to reach young adults with no previous church experience - and from a broader socio-economic background - will more often see their young adults meeting around a dining table than in a church building because the getting together for a meal is very important in creating community
Beth said, 'The first group of churches act as gathering points, and are highly effective in attracting, retaining and discipling Christian young adults for a vocational life of mission in the world and ministry in the church. These young adults tend to move on to family-based congregations as they grow up.
'The second group exhibit very different traits and practices; these are churches where eating together is the new "Sunday service." 'For these small communities, access to communal spaces, such as cafes, large vicarages and community houses, can make a crucial difference to their growth and sustainability.
'Young adults attending these types of churches may struggle to make the leap to more traditional forms of church as they get older.
'This suggests the determining factor here is not their age or life stage, and that these new forms of church will continue to grow and develop. The recognition of these small sacramental communities as church is vital, both for the sustainability of these fledgling churches and for the building up of the wider church.'
The five distinct types of young adults' church Beth has identified are:
Church planting hubs
Churches identifies as planting hubs were defined by questions on how to retain, disciple and attract more young adults. They are contemporary in style, and with a specific service or congregation for young adults. The church life is organised around a Sunday service alongside other community based activities. The young adults meet in midweek. They are part of a large church body, and benefit from the resource of buildings, church governance and accountability.
Youth church grown up
these churches began life as youth ministries or youth churches. Ten years on, with members growing up and out of the youth church, but not connecting to other expressions of church, they began considering how their church could become a place for young adults. Similar to hubs, but different history.
These churches were defined and shaped by questions such as 'What is church?' They tended to be influenced by Christians who had previous church experience and did not want to go back. shaped by their willingness to dismantle what church is, in order to find authenticity. Meet regularly but without the normal Sunday service features. Meet around a specific task or project, or around the table. These churches placed a high value on community
Church on the margins
Two of the churches studied were reaching young adults marginalised by wider society. They were being shaped by issues associated with deprivation and poverty, and raising questions more defined by levels of deprivation than age group context, such as 'What is the gospel for the poor?'
The focus here is on transforming the lives of the young adults; One of the leaders interviewed raised questions about whether this was actually church. His intention was to eventually develop Christian communities of faith and he identified steps towards this
Context shaped church
Whilst each of the churches in the research were aware of their context, the churches which were defined as context shaped churches developed and were intentionally shaped through direct interaction with their context. They asked questions such as, 'What is the gospel here?' and 'What is church here?' These churches had a range of connecting points through cafes, projects, and discussion groups, through which people could link up, get involved and explore faith. The emphasis in these groups tended to be more on community and mission as starting places from which worship could develop.
The report makes a number of recommendations, encouraging the wider church to understand and recognise these new types of church. It states they are greatly affected by the level of support and connection with the wider church. 'More can and should be done to encourage open and supportive connections between the wider church and these fledgling communities.'
Commenting on the report, Rachel Jordan, Church of England National Mission and Evangelism Adviser said, 'Beth's research is insightful and timely. Her findings will help shape future pioneering work in the church as we grapple with reaching the missing generations.'
Zoe Hart, practitioner and Fresh Expressions Associate Missioner, added, 'For the majority of young adults in this country, any form of church is simply off the radar. This research brings together stories that are full of hope and describes a necessary move of the spirit to be nurtured and encouraged.
The 36-page report authentic faith: fresh expressions of church amongst young adults is available now from http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/resources/authenticfaith - both as a booklet and a downloadable PDF.