Neil O'Boyle and Garryl Willis are both involved with directing youth work and were interviewed on their vision and thoughts about the church’s involvement with young people. Neil is the UK Director for Youth for Christ. Garryl Willis is the Managing Director of Action Centres UK and manager of NAYC (Northamptonshire Association of Youth Clubs).
IS it true, that young people are leaving the churches in the UK? If this is true, what can churches do?
Neil: It’s true; there is a haemorrhaging of young people from churches, but it isn’t because they aren’t spiritual. Young people today are distrustful of institutions and therefore not looking for the answers in Christianity. We need the bridges and tools to engage with them as the church can seem a very alien culture to many. The gospel must remain the same but it needs to come in a new package to make sense to young people.
At Youth For Christ, we find that the three best ways to reach young people are through experience, being visible and community. Using these three at once is most effective. People in their late teens to mid-late twenties are going to church but not particularly to local churches. For instance, young people are travelling 50 miles to Hillsong Church in London on Sundays because their services are sharp, focussed, energetic and modern. We are not losing this age group – they are going en masse to other churches and finding a real sense of community in an increasingly digital age.
Garryl: The background and foundation of NAYC is working with youth clubs, some being church-based and others not and we have seen a drop in church-run groups in recent years. Surprisingly, some churches don’t want youth work and are resistant to invest in this area. We find time and time again that residential events are very effective whether it is a youth group, a school, a church away weekend; with many other types of groups, this experience can be life-changing. Taken away from technology, distractions and in a place where youth workers can invest in them, massive things happen in the lives of the young people. Events like Soul Survivor are also brilliant.
Neil: Yes, we are passionate about residential events. When young people come away for weekends, significant things happen.
How can we work at generational bonding so that young people are at the heart of the church family?
Neil: In society we often see the breakdown of families; dad is not around, people are having children later and there is disengagement with the older generations. We have done some research on this and found that somewhere in the region of around 80% of young people are desperately looking for grandparent figures. The church is full of them and can be a great place for young people to engage with the older generation. Some churches are amazing at this.
Garryl: We find church family weekends work really well – the church having use of the amazing facilities we have at our centres for a weekend or mid-week. The events are cross-age with a youth zone, young adult zone and adult zone. Church residential events are really good. We do lots of them.
Recently, the press has reported that the number of young women with mental health disorders has soared. (An NHS research project published in September 2016 reported that 26% of women aged 16 to 24 suffer anxiety, depression, panic disorder, phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder). Have you any comments on this?
Neil: I believe that this issue is much bigger than we think. Some of the reasons for the increase include pressures to perform at school and digital access to everything 24/7. Everything looks so appealing but is it? Why girls? We don’t really know but we see it in boys too – they just don’t declare mental health problems as readily. At Youth for Christ we are taking this issue very seriously with think-tanks of experts, including psychologists. When we hold events with a gospel message, about 20% of young people respond; when we address the issues of fear and anxiety, 80-90% of kids come forward.
Garryl: Self-esteem and lack of it are important factors. This needs addressing at a young age. Our culture plays people down, impressing on them, “you’re not very clever or very beautiful” and this needs reversing. This issue can be addressed in group work and residential events.
Neil: For females specifically, ‘the body image’ our culture gives is a terrible message. It says “you’ve got to look like this or you’re not worth anything” and media exposure is 24/7. When young people go away somewhere together, that’s a great environment for tackling these issues. We want them to go home thinking, “I am worth something”.
Garryl: Yes, it is so important to address their identity in Christ. They may not be the most beautiful person in the class but in God’s eyes they are special. Our message must be: “don’t let the world put you down; don’t conform to what the world is saying”; the important thing is: who I am in Christ – and standing firm in that.
Neil: Role models are so important here. It’s clear, though, that many in the older generation are also struggling with identity, asking: “Am I really loved and valued? Who am I? Do I matter?” As Christians, we must be firm in the knowledge that we are children of God and loved by Him – and able to model that to young people!
How do you see the future in youth work?
Neil: There is a decline, in certain quarters, of young people following Jesus but it’s not all doom and gloom. There are signs of real growth where the energy is, such as in Hillsong and Elim. We have a very bright future but we have to be proactive and put in some hard work. People won’t just walk through the church’s doors. We must work hard at making church somewhere young people want to be and somewhere they are made to feel valued. We must be seeker-friendly. We must be worthy of young people’s attention and time and ask ourselves, “how can we be accommodating and friendly to those who have never stepped into a church?” We must up our game.
Garryl: Regrettably some churches will possibly close. We will see a church that was but also a church that is. We must make church relevant, a place where people are passionate for Jesus, where church is family, where people love to connect and love to worship. Churches like this, which are exciting and vibrant, will grow and grow and grow. It’s also really vital to work as churches together. We all have one Head!
Neil: The most important thing is to keep focussed on introducing people to Jesus. We can’t sit back hoping people will figure things out; they won’t find Him themselves. We have a powerful message of transformation and can’t hold it to ourselves. We must have a strategy for taking the good news into the community.