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/ 17 July 2019

Urban life for young people and the church’s role

Sam Donoghue shares his experience of joining the Bishop of London on a visit to a youth centre in Islington.

The Diocese of London is currently engaging in a huge listening exercise as we seek to develop a plan that takes us forward to 2030. To help with this, Capital Youth invited the Bishop of London to meet a group of young people from Cannonsbury in Islington. They attend Urban Hope, which runs regular youth groups for young people who are not part of the church community.

Board games with a Bishop-turned-sous-chef

We wanted to ensure that we went to listen to young people that we don’t often hear from, who don’t attend our schools and for whom church is little more than old building that looms next to the station. The young people we met were around 15-20 years old. They come regularly for pool or board games, followed by a meal together that some of them cook for the group.

On our arrival, the universal language of board games allowed us to quickly get involved. I was treated to a rather surreal experience of playing Dobble with two young men from the group and the third most senior cleric in the Church of England (who correctly called me out for cheating when I picked up two cards, rather than one). I then retreated to the pool table and the Bishop joined in with the kitchen duties – chopping mushrooms, I believe.

The church’s role in young people’s lives

Over the course of the meal, we asked the young people for their thoughts on how the Church of England in London should be thinking for the future. What they had to say was hugely challenging, but not perhaps for the reasons I had hoped.

They had strong views of what the church should be doing that contradicted what we think now, but the challenging fact was that for those young people – who were fairly representative of most young people growing up in inner cities – church was not something they had ever thought about. It wasn’t on their radar at all.

Some of them had been in a church before. Others shared positive experiences with the church; one young woman attended a church on Sundays for a few weeks at a time when her mental health was a struggle. But for the vast majority, you felt that church had a slim chance of consideration.

This shouldn’t have surprised us. Andrew Root describes exactly this; young people growing up in an age of secularism are, he says, not engaged at all in faith. Until something (often a crisis) causes them to think again. Youthscape’s “No Questions Asked” research highlights similar experiences. They spent time with a group of young people to explore their questions about faith. They found predominantly they didn’t really have any questions!

This is not to say that young people are not spiritual; they have a deep and profound spirituality. The issue we face, is the language of faith and practices of the church are no longer instinctively linked with spirituality like they have been in the past.

So what did the young people have to say?

Returning to our young people in Islington: what they did have to say about church was that it shouldn’t change. They liked the idea of it “just being there” and they didn’t want the church to try and be cool, or relevant to them. They liked its timelessness and permanence. They didn’t want to come to church, but they liked the idea of it being there in case they did!

The youth we talked with were also clear on the issues facing them growing up and seemed pretty resigned to them. They didn’t see that the church could help and didn’t even think it should try; it was just the reality of their lives. When we asked if they felt safe in their communities, they laughed. To them that was a stupid question; of course, they didn’t feel safe, but that was just the way it was. Another key thought that emerged, was that they all knew that living in the place they grew up in would eventually become impossible due to the cost of housing.

Neither of these issues felt like a big revelation to us. What was interesting, was hearing the young people being so matter of fact about it. Although it might shock us, for them it was a reality they have grown up with and will continue to face in the future.

About Sam Donoghue

Sam Donoghue is Head of Children and Youth for the Diocese of London, a keen cyclist and a supporter of Everton FC.

Read more from Sam Donoghue

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