'Church evangelism and its young people' in Forster, P. G. (ed.) (1995), Contemporary Mainstream Christianity, Aldershot: Avebury, 34-45. by Adrian Worsfold
This study is based on my participation in and observation of an Anglican church-based teenage group in East Hull. Most of the events reported took place in the early 1980s. I had already had close contact with a Methodist group, and, having obtained some sociological training, I was interested in studying an Anglican group or comparative purposes. I disclosed my intention at the beginning if my work with the Anglican group; I was of local origin and my link with the Methodist group would have been easily discovered if had not revealed it. From the beginning, therefore, I made public my research role, and I took notes on what I saw. However, sustained contact led me to develop a greater sociological awareness of religion which led me to postgraduate studies in that field, though these eventually had little to do with youth groups (See Worsfold, 1989). The group which is being considered here is found in an area of private housing which adjoins a much larger council estate. The minister involved in the group was evangelical in outlook, and served as a member of a team ministry where this outlook was not universally shared. However, this study will how the impact of evangelical Christianity in a small youth group whose activities were secular as well as religious. It will be suggested that evangelical Christianity maintained a high profile in such a situation, but that proposals to evangelize outsiders met with hostility even from most of the religiously committed members of the group. Thus it appears that a strong norm exists to the effect that outside display of religious commitment is to be avoided. A further point of interest will be shown to be clashes between teenagers' sexuality and the norms of conduct expected by the church.
The group, which met regularly on Sunday evenings, provided both religious and recreational activities. Initially there had been a coffee bar in the main church hail, available to anyone. This had no religious content except that an epilogue was said before closure for the night (this attracted little interest, except in one case, as will be seen). The youth club itself had 11 as the minimum age of attendance, so as to attract members of the Boys' Brigade. Most of the key actors in the present study were however in their mid-teens. The younger members (mostly boys) had separate provision made for them in respect of religious activities. For the older teenagers, there was an hour-long religious activity for those who had been confirmed (referred to here as 'religious youth'); this was followed by recreation, which began earlier for the unconfirmed (referred to here as 'non-religious youth'). Sometimes friction between the religious and the non-religious was evident during the shared recreation period. The religious tended to see themselves as the 'insiders'. Religion was part of their identity: it gave them a right to be inside the church, a place to meet that was theirs. In turn, the religious viewed the non-religious (who were much more numerous) as outsiders'. Recreational activities provided included skipping, 'keep fit', netball, table tennis, weightlifting, and some more cerebral pursuits. The leaders saw the provision of such facilities to the non-religious as an important form of community outreach. However the males in particular sometimes engaged in disruptive activity and on one occasion noted, the minister had to be called and they were told to leave. The unruly behaviour engaged in by the non-religious was an indication that the church was not theirs. Occasionally some of the insiders also engaged in unruly behaviour but to a much lesser degree. Sexual talk and actions (e.g. dirty jokes and mild genital stimulation over clothes) were engaged in by both the religious and non-religious; but whereas the religious were concerned to ensure that such activity was not indulged in inside the church building, the outsiders had fewer such inhibitions and were on occasions ejected as a consequence.
The focus of this research will be mainly upon the religious youth. My concern is to examine the response to evangelical Christianity and especially to the expectation that members of the group should evangelize friends. My role was initially somewhat suspect. It was known that I was writing things down, that I had some connection with the Methodists, and that my views were agnostic and humanistic. I thus came to be seen as 'argumentative'. Initially there were attempts to exclude me from certain sessions, but rapport improved considerably with time. Twenty people figure in the activities of the religious part of the youth group. Six of these, including the minister, could be regarded as leaders; there were then a core of seven teenagers (two male and seven female) and a periphery of six teenagers (four male and six female). Nearly all had churchgoing parents (although not always Anglican). The two who did not have churchgoing parents were one of the leaders (Gerald, age 17) and Leila (also 17). All of the girls except one attended the same single-sex secondary school outside the area. The minister was a creationist, supporting an evangelical, fundamentalist approach to Christianity. His evangelical outlook was opposed by the rector, and was not shared in the same way by others in the team ministry. He had unsuccessfully sought greater autonomy for his own church with a view to giving evangelicalism a higher profile.
Evangelism and the youth group
The evangelical approach was supported particularly strongly by Jack (age about 33), who was mostly in charge of the religious activity for those who were already confirmed. This was seen as the centre piece of the teenage group's activities. While the non-religious youth engaged in recreation, the religious youth followed a course. Jack decided that this should be based on a pamphlet How to share Jesus with your Friends (Smith, 1981). This used bold cartoons including teenage faces, a big fist and a motorcycle to get its message across. It was written in simple language and used the Good News Bible. The text began with a section 'Know what you believe', which explained that 'God was the boss', in charge of everything, but that because of the Fall people's life was unsatisfactory. This section goes on to explain that sin makes people the enemies of God, and prevents man from knowing God. However, the pamphlet continues, the remedy lies through Jesus. Jesus is presented as being alive today, and able to change people's lives.
Particularly important for the present discussion is the section of Smith's pamphlet called 'Know how to share it'. The reader is invited to reflect upon how he or she came to know Jesus, and to think about God and the difference to life that resulted. This should be written down by the reader, who is then expected to put it in a safe place for a few days and 'go out and play football or something'. After looking at it again, the reader is expected to learn what he or she has written by heart. The account of this conversion experience is to be known as a lifeline. The reader is then asked to try to read it to a friend and elicit comments. If this proves too difficult, the pamphlet gives further advice as to how to lead into a discussion of Christian faith with friends, as follows:
After a time of general chat you might ask...
What d'you usually do in your spare time?
I usually go out on a Friday night and play football on a Saturday.
What do you do?
Normally on a Friday I go to our church youth club.
Yes. Can I tell you why?
You follow with your lifeline (Smith, 1981, p. 9).
The next step is that the evangelized teenager, if positive in response, is encouraged to pray, to meet someone who can lead him or her to Jesus, or to go to an evangelistic night. The teenager is offered a system known as A, B, C, R, which means as follows:
Admit that you are a wrong doer.
Believe everything I have told you about Jesus is true.
Count the cost of reading the Bible, going to church and of being made fun of.
Receive Jesus and the Holy Spirit with forgiveness.
The next step is to read the Good News Bible, and to attend a Christian Youth Fellowship Group.
Jack was concerned to facilitate this process by conducting 'lifeline interviews', which involved statements of personal faith and responses to the notion of evangelizing friends. Each teenager was expected to talk to Jack in a closed room. Not all, however, agreed to do this. Jack regarded regular attendance for the course as very important, and provided each member with two types of card to sign. The first was to accept the faith, the second to agree to support friends.
This method met with some resistance. Judith (age 19) initially refused because she saw the interviews as an invasion of privacy, though she maintained that she did not dislike Jack personally. But the main opposition came from Leila. When the cards that members were expected to sign had been distributed, Leila threw them in, saying 'thats my decision'. Others seemed in agreement, and Leila commented that there had been a similar awful course before, called Know Jesus. In another case, Jacks course had discouraged a potential member from attending. Around this time I discussed my involvement with the group with the minister's wife. She commented about her daughter, that she 'loved the Lord', but doubted evangelizing friends. For this reason she had decided to join the younger group instead, although she was around 14 years old.
Jack responded to the resistance at a later meeting, saying that the aim of the course was to help Christians to spread their faith to others, because this was often found difficult. He continued to take the group, but sessions based on the Smith pamphlet tended to be greeted with sullen resistance. Judith was eventually pressurized into giving an interview with Jack, and reported resentment about invasion of privacy. Leila emerged as a rebel against the idea of evangelizing friends. She was regarded as 'argumentative' by some fellow-teenagers, but she felt that argument was one of the purposes of the group. She also felt that she had a serious interest in Christianity, but was uncomfortable with what Jack put forward. She did not object to explaining about her faith to outsiders if this were asked for, but objected to being expected to do so even if people did not ask. She challenged Jack on this issue, and he replied to the effect that Christians needed help since they often gave garbled information when the opportunity arose to say something. There were more general complaints from other members of the group about lack of consultation regarding the content of meetings, and about being challenged even if they refused to say anything.
Heidi was another member of the group who expressed dissent, but the response to her was different. She was 16, and had been recruited to the group by a school friend. She tended to have moods where she debunked even some key elements of Christian doctrine. Yet it was noteworthy that Jack distinguished between her attitude and that of Leila. Whereas Jack saw Heidi as 'asking deep questions' but basically loyal, he saw Leila's open rebellion as a threat to authority. Leila eventually left the group after starting to go out with a non-religious boyfriend; but Heidi was one of the few older teenagers who remained in the group till the meetings were suspended.
These developments eventually led to a crisis meeting (I was excluded because Jack felt he could 'bawl at them better' without me). The details of what went on were not therefore observed first-hand; but it emerged that there had been much resistance to Jack, but Jack in turn thought that the course had succeeded because it had shaken people. None the less, he now spoke in terms of 'quiet Christian growth' as the appropriate strategy - a major change in orientation. He asked for topics for future meetings; one girl suggested contraception, abortion and nuclear disarmament; but these topics, of definite interest to teenagers, were rejected. Jack still supported the approach adopted in the Smith pamphlet, and maintained that no sincere Christian could oppose evangelizing. But he began to tone down the idea that the approach in the Smith pamphlet was the only appropriate method. Before long a new course began, on the subject of Revelations. This was led by Brian (age about 33). He had taken a leadership role previously, sometimes alternating with Jack. He sympathized with the evangelical approach to some extent; however, he was employed in a laboratory, and felt that as a scientist he wanted to know the 'facts'. On one occasion however this course was taken by Jack: this session seemed to frighten some people and shortly afterwards the course collapsed. It was replaced by another one on the subject of cults, and the younger people were also admitted this time. Jack was again involved in teaching this course; interest in the subject had been stimulated by an article by the minister in the Parish Magazine, which Jack said had been 'twisted' in an article in the Hull Daily Mail.
In the study of cults, one problem that arose was that they were viewed critically, yet some comparisons could be drawn with conversionist Christian groups. Jack was aware of this possibility, and said that, like the cult members, Christians should be totally committed. But he maintained that cults were also different since they were secretive, deceitful and evasive, sometimes 'nasty', and that they adopted unacceptable psychological pressures.
Attendances began to drop, and after the course on cults had come to an end, Brian began a new approach stressing 'Christian character'; he had a book on this subject, and this was supplemented by Bible readings. A few weeks later a six-week suspension of meetings was announced; this had been implemented because of poor attendance. Participant observation did not continue; it is understood that eventually the group was restarted but that in 1987 it succumbed to a centralization policy successfully implemented by the rector, in which worship ceased except in the main parish church. However, worship has now recommenced again in the church; there is also a 'Youth Fellowship', though this is now no longer open to outsiders because of fear of disruption.
Whoever was taking the group, the emphasis was clearly on the leaders authority. Jack was concerned to 'bawl at' the teenagers; he also rejected some discussion topics of clear interest to teenagers. Brian, for his part, saw it as inappropriate for a mere mortal to argue with God; and he also mentioned the importance of discipline and stressed the need to avoid backsliding. The teenagers themselves complained that it was 'always must', and 'they never ask us'. There was also a taboo against arguing in the group. For the leaders, religion could in no way be seen as metaphor and ritual; rather they thought in terms of a soteriology of concrete words that a credal system offers.
Thus the research demonstrates that the dominant approach that came through in the group was what Towler has described as conversionism (Towler, 1984, Ch. 3). This emphasizes the idea that human nature is corrupt, but that an experience of being born again is possible, leading to freedom from the weight of sin. As Towler suggests (1984, p. 39),
it is based on a real and immediate experience, rather than on a hope or an aspiration: the experience of having been set free from the weight of sin, released from a burden, and alive in an entirely new way.
There is a clear boundary drawn in conversionism between those who have and those who have not received the Spirit. The Church is the community of those who have been born again; those who are merely church members or attenders, but who have not had this experience, are excluded. At the same time, the Church as a community of believers is indispensable, since the conversionist stresses fellowship with others who are living the new life. The boundary between the earlier sinful life, and the subsequent life after accepting the Lord Jesus, is also important. It is marked by constant retelling of one's life history, showing how things changed after conversion.
Both these boundaries are reflected in the youth group under consideration. There was a clear distinction between the religious insiders and the 'non-religious' (?sinful) outsiders; and even among the insiders, a conversion experience was necessary to qualify fully for insider status. The emphasis placed by Jack upon 'lifelines' was also consistent with the conversionist orientation of the group. Such boundaries did however make matters difficult for those who were seriously interested in Christian commitment, but who lacked the 'conversion' experience.
This approach is closely linked to, but does not automatically imply, fundamentalism. Likewise it is close to but not the same as evangelicalism. A conversion experience is important, but it can be felt in different degrees. The conversionist approach bears some similarity to sectarianism, but there is an important distinction in that for the sect the organizational boundaries are clear, whereas conversionism is compatible with a variety of denominational allegiances.
Thus for teenagers like Leila, difficulties were evident. She was the only member of the group to have crossed the line from the purely recreational 'non-religious' to the 'religious. She had been a member of the youth group when there had been a religious epilogue, and had been attracted by this to the religious side of its activities. She was serious in her religious interests, but her Christianity was unacceptable as it stood because a subjective experience of 'conversion' was expected in order to acquire 'insider' status. Both Brian and Jack had even been known to speak of death to the unconverted. Leila was not alone in her lack of conversion experience; but those who were oriented to Christianity in this way became marginal to the church, often simply ceasing to attend the group. This did not mean that their Christianity was not serious; indeed one peripheral member of the group was intending to study theology at university and was eventually ordained.
The problem of sexuality
The Christian church has always trodden warily on the matter of support for sexual activity between the unmarried. Fundamentalists in particular have continued to regard sex between unmarried people as sinful. None the less, sin can be forgiven when admitted to be such. In the group in question, one leader (Gerald) was an unmarried father, while one eighteen year old girl (on the periphery of the group) was an unmarried mother. The question arises as to how the issue of sexual relations is handled in a group of unmarried teenagers of this kind, which is expected to profess fundamentalist Christianity. The matter was complicated by the fact that search for a fundamentalist partner could hardly be discouraged by the church. It emerges that religious motives were sometimes mixed with the aim of seeking such a partner. Thus Gerald was very interested in Leila, and maintained that his faith was close to hers; Leila, by contrast, was not interested in Gerald or in any of the group members as a potential partner. It is significant that when she met a partner from outside the group, she stopped attending. She reappeared only once, this time with her boyfriend; they came only for part of the recreational period, and then went off to see a film (Friday the 13th, a semi-Satanic horror film). She did eventually continue her religious interests, but not in relation to this particular group. Gerald, by contrast, later married the daughter of a minister in an evangelical house-church elsewhere. It is clear that while members were inside the church building, any suggestion of physical sexuality was taboo. Brian's course on Christian character was concerned to downplay the idea of 'eros' and to concentrate upon other definitions of love. Proposals to discuss abortion and contraception were rejected by Jack. Some non-religious youths were ejected by Brian for putting their hands up a girl's skirt while in the church building (the girl herself did not offer resistance). One of the religious males sometimes told risque jokes while in the church, but made sure that he was out of the leaders' earshot (but did not mind if the other religious teenagers heard). Pop music was acceptable, for the religious as well as the non-religious, and it could be harnessed for religious purposes. There was in fact a musical connection, since two members of the group had been involved in playing rock gospel music. A safe hero was Cliff Richard. He was a conversionist, part of the pop culture but also an icon of public virginity. The girls would drool over his photographs in the church, and one of them was reading his biography.
Outside the church, however, matters were somewhat different. Many of the group visited the nearby public house after the meetings, and sexual matters formed part of the conversation here and on the way home afterwards. Conversations arose on issues such as size of breasts (of the barmaid and of a member of the group), risque photographs were shown, and other sexual matters were discussed: there was also action concerning with exploring potential partners. On the walk home, females sometimes put their hands in the males' pockets to 'feel the trouser lining'. The clash between the church and sexuality was perceived but the matter was resolved by keeping the two separate. This was a matter of pride for the religious insiders, who looked down on the non-religious outsiders for their failure to observe such a taboo.
The church and the wider society
Francis (1984, p. 11) has suggested that the church tends to be less attractive to teenagers than it is to young children and that as a consequence it is particularly interesting to look at those teenagers who do engage in some religious activity. For this reason the findings are of special interest. It is noteworthy that to a large extent recruitment to this group has been through autogenous growth (Currie, Gilbert and Horsley, 1977, p. 44); that is to say, the majority (all but two) had churchgoing parents. Currie and his colleagues also go on to state that the teenage period is one in which decisions are made either to join or to stop attending church (Currie, Gilbert and Horsley, 1977, pp. 90-1). There can well be a link to parental faith but also some differentiation from it, and this is found to be so with the teenagers in this study. For instance, two members of the youth group in question came from Methodist backgrounds. Francis (1984, p. 51) also shows that religious teenagers are very unenthusiastic in taking part in local evangelism: only 14 per cent of his sample were prepared to do this. Again, this finding is corroborated by the present study.
One of the intended aims of the church was outreach into the community. This reflects an Anglican concern to be some kind of guardian of the people. At the same time, some interest in religion is fostered. This is handled by associating religion with activities which are popular with teenagers and to which the church has no objection: sporting activities and pop music. This is not a new policy; as Springhall has shown (1977, p. 22; Springhall, Fraser and Hoare, 1983, p. 25), the Boys' Brigade sought to demonstrate a positive link between Christianity and activities which were popular with the age-group in question: this was by 'associating Christianity with all that was most noble and manly in a boy's sight' (Springhall, 1977, p. 22).
The link between Christianity and teenage culture is however nowadays put over in a context where religion is seen as irrelevant. Teenagers had on the whole no social reason for attending church. Some who were uninterested in religion did as has been shown participate in the secular activities of the group, but clearly rejected the religious side. If they showed any interest at all in this, it was often with the intention of engaging in disruptive behaviour. Once they attacked the symbols of the religious group, by scattering the hymn books twice in one day.
A further barrier for anyone who did show interest would in any case be the conversionist ethos of the religious activities of the group. Conversionism has difficulty in accommodating to tenuous allegiance, and presumes a much higher level of commitment. Not even all who attend church will qualify; even some of those who are ordained in the church (such as the Bishop of Durham at the time of the study) might fail to pass muster as 'Christian' by conversionist standards. Active laity, such as youth group leaders, are by contrast much more likely to be conversionist (see Towler and Coxon, 1979, p. 165, for comments on the outlook of the laity). However, this orientation is very difficult to reconcile with outreach in the indifferent wider society. As Wilson suggests:
Those who, on the basis of a distinctive set of beliefs, hold themselves apart from the generality of people face periodic censure and contempt (Wilson, 1990, p. 26).
The leaders, especially Jack, realized this, and were concerned to prepare members of the group for such difficulties. But although membership of the group was small, even this small remnant could not be seen as attracted to the conversionist outlook. Those teenagers who showed some interest in religion wanted to see it as part of leisure and entertainment. Faith was wanted but as part of a package involving other aspects of personal relationships. It was also felt to be a mark of superior social status, especially in relation to the non-religious outsiders. The leaders, however, wanted all-or-nothing commitment. This was seen by teenagers as threatening in respect of relationships with the wider society. It involved an invasion of privacy, both of the members of the youth group and of those whom they were expected to evangelize. This could damage relationships including those with members of the opposite sex. There was no debate in the church over the rightness of the conversionist approach: the only debate was as to whether aggressive evangelism was the best way of going about this. It should be remembered that the youth group under consideration was within the Anglican church - the Established Church of England. As such it could be expected to be quite different from an organization forming part of a small sect which explicitly acknowledged that a sharp break with the wider society was expected. That the conversionist message was to dominate in a small youth group of this nature serves to emphasize that the old church/denomination/sect continuum is meaningless. The divisions lie rather within the mainstream churches, with the modern dynamic in local urban churches themselves promoting conversionism - something once thought to be particular to the sect.
Currie, R., Gilbert, A. and Horsley, L. (1977), Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Francis, L. J. (1984), Teenagers and the Church: A Profile of Churchgoing Youth in the 1980s, Collins, London.
Hull Daily Mail, 1, 9 April 1984.
Smith, J. (1981), How to share Jesus with your Friends, Pathfinders-CYFA, London.
Springhall, J. (1977), Youth, Empire and Society: British Youth Movements 1883-1940, Croom Helm, London.
Springhall, J., Fraser, B. and Hoare, M. (1983), Sure and Steadfast: A History of the Boys' Brigade, 1883 to 1983, Collins, London.
Towler, R. (1984), The Need for Certainty: A Sociological Study of Conventional Religion, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Towler, R. and Coxon, A. P. M. (1979), The Fate of the Anglican Clergy: A Sociological Study, Macmillan, London.
Wilson, B.R. (1990), The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Worsfold, A.J. (1989), 'New Denominationalism: Tendencies towards a New Reformation of English Christianity', Hull, University PhD.