... and send a few to church, too

The young are not unspiritual; it's mainstream religion that is failing them. By Louise Jury
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Young people are abandoning the Church of England in droves, and raves in naves look unlikely to stem the exodus. This week the Church unveiled the results of three years of research which showed that numbers at services have dropped by a third in seven years. Since 1987, attendance among those aged 14 to 17 has fallen by nearly 35 per cent to 60,739 and by 34.1 per cent among 18- to 21-year-olds.

The report, Youth A Part, also highlights hitherto unrecognised pockets of youth activity in churches across the country which give cause for hope. But the Rt Rev Ian Harland, Bishop of Carlisle, who chaired the investigation, describes the overall situation as "bleak".

Without fundamental change, youngsters will continue to be alienated, he says, and it is going to take more than better guitar-playing to tempt them through the doors.

The report says it is the Church's failure to get youngsters involved that is the problem, not a lack of faith. The Nine O'Clock Services of the Rev Chris Brain, who resigned after admitting sexual liaisons with members of his congregation, should have been better supervised but they did show that young people were keen to participate. Yet only 1 per cent of those serving on parochial church councils are aged under 25; the Church is always "one generation away from extinction", says Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There appears to be a need to make the Church "relevant". The reports suggests more attention should be paid to concerns such as unemployment, drugs, family breakdown and sexual issues. The Methodist Church, which carried out its own investigation last year, drew the same conclusion. Martin Drewry, 37, says that the need for high-profile action on social issues was high on the list of demands when the Methodists questioned their 60,000 youth members.

"They want to see the Church doing something to change the causes of injustice," he says. "They see people sleeping on the streets and they want the Church to do more than just produce reports."

They also want "radical, creative and relevant worship", but this does not mean throwing out all that is old. "They do want passion but they don't want to kick out all the Wesley," Mr Drewry says. And they need to be integrated with the rest of the church. More than 9,000 packed into the Royal Albert Hall in May last year for a "mega-experience" of worship but found a major generation gap when they returned to their home congregations.

Yet Martin Drewry believes there will be change. "Everyone knows the church will die unless there is change. It's a very exciting time. Funnily enough, I'm quite optimistic."

Maxine Green, one of the Church of England's two national youth officers, agrees. Attendance figures are alarming, but "there are a tremendous number of faithful, committed young people putting in phenomenal amounts of their time in small parishes and churches," she says.

There are probably two main ways of attracting new people, she says. The first is quietly, by example, through faith in action. In one scheme in Forest Gate, east London, church workers raised pounds 36,000 to take 13 disadvantaged young people to Kenya to help build build water storage tanks and a dam. Many became involved in the church on their return. The second is through the kind of radical evangelical faith which has revitalised parishes like Holy Trinity, Brompton, in west London, epitomised by "happy- clappy" services and a "go out and get them" approach.

As many young people turn their backs on traditions and institutions, as the membership of all youth organisations declines, there is a sense that the Church is Canute-like in trying to turn the tide. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury refuses to admit defeat.

"Young people are not unspiritual," he says. "We are called upon as a Church to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation. My hope is that this report will stimulate us to do precisely that."