A few decades ago, the ‘day of rest’ would have been taken very seriously by most young Christians in the UK.
Communities would gather together wearing their “Sunday best” as they strolled down to their local church service for a morning of song and prayer, in worship of Jesus Christ.
A study undertaken by Brierley Consultancy shows that church attendances in Britain have fallen from 11.8% in 1980, to only 5% of the population in 2015. Almost 6.5 million people attended church in 1980, but nowadays more than half of that figure are choosing not to attend at all.
Instead of spending quality time with loved-ones over a Sunday feast, many 18-29 year olds find themselves spending Sunday working long shifts in retail or instead, devoting a full day to surfing through Instagram and Twitter.
According to a 2018 study by St Mary’s University, more than two-thirds of young people in the UK identify as having ‘no-religion’.
“There seems to be some sort of disconnect, if you like, in what young people are looking for and how it is they can read what the church has to offer,” said Paul Zaphiriou, the vicar of Hope Church in Islington, North London.
This raises questions around why younger generations in particular are feeling separated from the church. There are many reasons why this is happening but young people being made to feel uncomfortable about their own identity seems the most prominent.
Some young people have experienced issues around sexuality and feel like areas of their culture would not be accepted within the Christian community.
Hans Rossbach, a 23-year-old gay actor from South West London has memories of attending church with his father throughout his childhood years. As he got older, he felt that areas of his sexuality were deemed as “wrong” because he doesn’t fall in love with the opposite sex.
“I see the Bible as a sort of instruction manual of how to live your life and I feel that we are evolving past its norms and values.” Although Hans admits that not all parts of Christianity were judgmental of his sexuality, he prefers to have complete freedom over the choices he makes about how to live his life.
Prejudice in the place of worship might sound familiar to the many people that once considered themselves as a Christian; until for whatever reason, they came to realise that it was no longer in their interests.
“You would never get a Christian or a Muslim on Thought for the Day saying, ‘my way is correct’ or ‘my way is true’. But since you are a Christian or a Muslim, then that is what you think.”
– Tom Holland
Gus Gordon, a 22-year-old drama school graduate from Cornwall, couldn’t escape the homophobic comments being blared through a microphone on his daily commute through Brixton, South London.
Although he does not consider himself as homosexual, it bothered him to witness Christians isolating the LGBT+ community by shouting in the streets: “Being gay is tainted and is a sin. You must be saved!”
“I was forced to go [to church] as a child to keep up with the family tradition of going on a Sunday, having a roast etc,” said Gus. “When I got to the age of 11 or 12, I refused to put myself through the torture. I found it a chore more than my actual beliefs.”
Issues around alienating certain identities within the church seem to be the primary factor of why most young people are losing faith in Christianity. Some people in modern society believe it is used as a way of subjugating people of colour.
Dorcas Onabanjo, a 24-year-old administrator is a dedicated churchgoer and considers herself as Christian. However, she felt that the colour of her skin was seen as a problem within the church.
“As a black female, the church can be very white and it’s known that Christianity has been used as a tool to oppress black people,” Dorcas told us.
In response to the statistics on young people who attend church in the UK, Dorcas blames the declining figures on parenting.
“I was forced to go to church at a young age and became disillusioned with it. The way it was conducted and the blatant hypocrisy of the actions of the leaders and the words they were teaching.” It is refreshing to learn that a devoted churchgoer like Dorcas, can be openly critical of a culture she identifies herself with.
“I have experienced it my whole life – people that are obnoxious and rude. Christians who would not accept me as a Christian because of my dress sense,” said Billie Sylvain, a graphic designer based in West London.
During her time spent at a Catholic secondary school, Billie suffered a “tough” time when gothic-style clothing became part of her identity. Unless she changed the style of clothing she wore to meet the expectations of the mainstream church, she realised that she would always be ill-treated by that community.
“It is no wonder that people think badly of Christians sometimes because they don’t always act in a Christ-like way,” she told us. Unsurprisingly, Billy became an atheist for a few years following verbal abuse she received, until one day she became determined not to let the hypocritical engagements of “so-called Christians” damage the relationship she longed to have with God.
A few weeks later, Asylum was born. Billy had set up the Christianity group based in West London for subcultures that have not felt accepted in the mainstream church. Determined to tackle the misconceptions that exist around the church through discussion and music, Billie ensures that everyone is welcomed with open arms.
“God says [in the Bible] that he doesn’t look at outward appearance – he looks at the heart.” Creating a safe space for subcultures that have been affected by insensitive comments made by certain Christians has meant that young people could continue to practise their relationship with God, without feeling judged.
Dorcas expresses her awareness of wrongdoing in certain areas of the church, yet she still explains the motions of Christianity like an unconditional love story.
“Church isn’t a private members club. It is about love and it’s about acceptance and if you believe that Jesus loves you and that he is your saviour then you should be able to go into His house, as it were, and spend time with Him.”
She is extremely knowledgeable and honest when it come to sharing her views on Christianity. Her words could empower any young person in our society today – Christian or not.
“Jesus said ‘before you talk about the speck in someone’s eye, take out the plank in your own’… church is [supposed to be] a place of love and acceptance”. It is clear that through Dorcas’s eyes, Christianity is far from untainted, yet like any relationship worthwhile; sometimes it needs work.
“I’m a better person because of it. I’m more at peace, I strive to be better and I do it because of the immense love I know God has for me, a love that I didn’t earn, nor do I have to try,” she says.
Mental health and human rights campaigner Nikki Mattocks grew up in a church where she believed they were dismissive of issues that young people are more open to, like LGBTQ+ and sex.
However, this was not enough to break her bond with Christ.“I enforce that above all Jesus tells us to love each other. And they can’t disagree.”
Nikki decided to distance herself from the church attended as a child, and instead, she found one near her University that suited her better.
“I have tried to take my own life a few times because I have suffered from trauma and mental illness… He [God] saved me when I shouldn’t have been here and I am grateful for that,” said Nikki.
Following Christianity has given Nikki a sense of purpose that she felt was missing from her life, and she has gained lifelong friends through the church community. “People there are my family. I pray and my church family pray for me”.
“I have experienced it my whole life – people that are obnoxious and rude. Christians who would not accept me as a Christian because of my dress sense.”
– Billie Sylvain
After 12 years as the vicar of Hope Church, Paul Zaphiriou admits that it is still a matter of “trial and error” when it comes to discovering what works best, so that everyone feels welcomed when going to practise at his Church.
“I wonder whether young people feel that the model of church that they witness is not something that reflects them and therefore, they feel that they can’t easily belong there,” said Paul.
British best-selling historian and BBC documentary-maker Tom Holland has recently undertaken extensive research around the history of Christianity to support the new book he is writing.
Taking all of his findings into account, he believes that young people “need” Christianity, but it is education that is failing them. “Oddly, I think one of the main reasons why in Britain, people who are brought up with a religious background seem to lose any sense of faith at secondary school is because of the way that GCSE’s are structured,” said Tom.
“I have two daughters, and within about three weeks of doing religious studies in secondary school, both of them just said ‘what’s the point?’, because it’s all randomised. Instead of studying St John’s Gospel, you study what Muslims, Hindus, and Christians think about smoking or something.”
Andy Scott-Evans, headteacher of Becket Keys Church of England secondary school said he felt “saddened” in response to the statistics that represent the decline in young people losing faith in the church. Andy confirms that religious studies covers both Christianity and Islam at his school.
Nonetheless, he disagrees that teaching religion in schools is randomised; “I think that the new GCSE is excellent in giving students an excellent grounding in two of the world’s main religions, our staff enjoy teaching the course and students rise to the challenge of it as well.”
In 2010, Essex County Council warned the school that there was no longer any demand for Church of England schools, but Becket Keys say they are oversubscribed every year. Last year, Andy saw more than 600 applications pour in, yet they were restricted to only 150 places.
“We avoid pushing students to believe that the Gospel requires them to be perfect or to live up to an unrealistic set of rules and regulations. It is not about attending church, singing hymns or saying certain words at particular times of the day. The Gospel is simple: love and acceptance,” said Andy.
It is sometimes a struggle for young people when suddenly being faced with life’s most complex questions and Andy is convinced that is where religion can play a relevant role in the lives of young people in the UK:
“Where churches are doing what they did in the past they are dwindling and dying. Where churches are looking to the society around them and engaging with what they see, they are flourishing. Our school is a good example of this.”
Reflective of this increasingly popular modern approach to teaching religion is how pastors of Hope Church educate the people whom attend their services: “Part of the vows and promises one makes before they become a priest is to bring the gospel of good news fresh to every generation”, said Paul.
One way that Hope Church practise this is by getting teenagers off the streets and supporting young people who suffer from mental illness. They allow the charity Spear to use St David’s Church building as a place to provide young people with employment training and opportunities.
“I think that the Church of England has massively lost confidence because they worry that Christianity has been hegemonic, but it’s been a tool of European power and they are worried that it might seem racist or that it might appear imperialist,” said Tom Holland.
Expressing his views in such an honest, yet intellectual manner almost feels incredibly brave of him in our society that often feels as though we are becoming obsessed with political correctness. “For the Christian reason, they don’t force Christianity on people. There is a cultural assumption that it is bad form to force it on people.”
“You would never get a Christian or a Muslim on Thought for the Day (a daily BBC Radio 4 segment and podcast) saying, ‘my way is correct’ or ‘my way is true’. But since you are a Christian or a Muslim, then that is what you think,” Holland says.
“You think ‘I am the way of the truth of life, there is no way to heaven but me’, that is the essence of Christianity, but nobody in Britain pushes that.” A problematic “widening split” seems to be forming in Britain between people who know nothing at all about Christianity and those who are still living an “old Catholic dream.”
Inevitably, the extending gap between these two extremes is creating tensions within the church. Our society is evidentially failing to educate the younger generations on the core understanding of Christianity. It is clear that conflicts around religion are rising, while numbers of young Christians are falling.
“I see the Bible as a sort of instruction manual of how to live your life and I feel that we are evolving past its norms and values.”
– Hans Rossbach
“People on the street have less knowledge of Christianity than they did decades before. I don’t want to blame anyone because there is so much more material that is being taught now because of the multicultural nature of our country,” said Paul.
One would imagine that a multi-cultural society is something worth celebrating in 21st century Britain. But for this to happen, it is crucial that schools, churches, and parents pay a duty to break down negative stigmas around what it means to follow Christianity.
Speaking to a variety of Christians has disapproved the popular stereotypes amongst atheists; in fact, not all church-goers are judgmental and hypocritical.
Unearthing the core issues behind why less young people are going to church has shone a light on what the future holds for religion with generations to come.
At the moment, life is so full of distractions and we are evolving into a consumerist society where everything is at the tip of our fingers and there are endless things to do. Therefore, the idea of going to church does not even enter the minds of many 18-29 year olds.
“If you live in Britain, you need to have some knowledge of Christian culture, it is like having knowledge of Greek mythology or Shakespeare’s plays, it’s just fundamental understanding of the country,” said Tom Holland.
He thinks that Christianity amongst young people will continue to decline.“I think that if it turns out that Christian values are unsustainable without Christian belief, then I would regret the decline of Christian belief very much.”
When it comes to faith, it is impossible to know all of the answers – even for a priest: “Christianity is radical and young people are radical. Centuries ago those things used to come together but recently it doesn’t seem that way anymore. I am passionate and determined to see that happen again,” said Paul.
“It is unfair to blame one area – If I knew all of the answers, I would be doing that.”
Featured image by Brandon Morgan via Unsplash