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Planting youth-focused churches on estates

When most teens don’t attend church or know the Christian story, how can we engage and help them discover God’s love? Andy Milne, Team Leader of Missional Youth Church Network, shares his insights.

Jade was 13 when she began attending a youth church two years ago. After getting to know the youth worker at a school lunch club, she began attending a Friday night drop-in group. Soon going regularly, she was also curious about the group that explored faith on Sunday nights. On trying this out, she found she loved the prayer times and Bible discussions. Jade now tells her friends and peers about this group ‘where we pray to God…,’ and is bringing a stream of other unchurched young people into the group! Jade’s faith in Jesus is growing and so is her passion to tell others!

Did you know that two thirds of people who become Christians do so before they hit 18?  So much of a teenager’s life is in a critical stage of development, causing them to form lifelong values and habits in these years. If young people don’t find faith in their teens, the odds of them ever finding faith decrease rapidly as they enter adulthood – showing how vital Christian youth work is.

According to the 2021 census, nearly two thirds (62.14%) of under-19’s in England live in estates or parishes which include areas of deprivation. That’s a lot of young people! 

In one of these estates in South London, Church Army Evangelist Karen Saunders connects with young people in secondary schools around Thamesmead and Abbeywood. A youth church emerged, called TYM, which young people describe as ‘family.’ It’s a Friday night drop-in session with fun activities chosen by the young people. On Tuesdays, there are small groups for practising prayer and Bible discussion. 

It’s extraordinary that young, unchurched teens are finding faith at TYM, but that hasn’t come without its challenges. Knife crime is rife in the area, so those caught up in gang culture are asked to put aside their knives and balaclavas when joining Bible study and prayer. It is a constant battle, but Karen has seen incredible moments of transformation as the Spirit works in young people’s lives.

We’ve found it’s crucial that adult Christians show genuine love, care, and give time to really listen to young people. Creating a safe and encouraging environment where they can freely express their ideas and opinions and have these valued, gives young people a sense of self-worth and ownership, and they start to flourish and gain confidence.  

Connecting the unchanging gospel to their changing culture:

Across the country we see a lack of confidence in sharing the gospel with unchurched teens in many churches and even among some youth leaders. But we know what works. It’s about finding ways to build relationships and community authentically, and then sharing faith in natural ways, rather than being pushy, which damages trust. In Luke 10, Jesus says to look for people of peace, raising the question – do we have any young people of peace? Can we build a small group with them so they and their peers can explore faith? Working with young people’s curiosity, and their questions, offering opportunities to experiment with prayer and elements of discipleship are so important. When starting to explore faith, we ask ourselves, what interests and issues from the young people can we use to relate the gospel message? 

Can things like TYM happen on other estates and in deprived areas beyond South London? Yes! Missional Youth Church Network (MYCN is part of Church Army UK) has been given Church of England funding to help churches and dioceses in England kickstart pioneering youth work with a focus on deprived communities. We run national learning communities, share resources and journey with over 30 projects and churches who want to reach unchurched teens. If you would like to know more, please get in touch.

This article was printed in Multiply 2024: The Manual, a publication that accompanied the programme of Multiply 2024, which explored multiplying a younger church. You can find related content below.