Children disengaged from church during lockdowns

An international study of the effect of the pandemic on the faith of young people and families has found widespread disengagement and disconnection, and that many failed to return to church after lockdowns eased.

The study, based on research carried out in the UK, United States, Brazil, and Canada in June, suggests that children felt marginalised by online worship and that parents felt that they were treated as “conduits” to pass on resources to their children instead of being offered support to nurture their children’s faith.

Despite the diversity of churches in the four countries, researchers found the same challenges and issues reported during the pandemic.

The study, Do We Need a New Plan for Children’s Ministry?, published at the end of last month, was written by a team of researchers from the four countries, including academics and theologians. They drew on an online survey of the views and experiences of 139 church leaders, 16 schools, and 113 Christian parents during the pandemic, as well as country-specific surveys and detailed interviews.

Children’s ministry was affected particularly badly by the restrictions imposed as result of the pandemic, they discovered.

The study says: “The scale of the situation was captured by the Canadian research, revealing that 63% of churches cancelled or suspended Sunday School, 43% of churches cancelled or suspended midweek clubs and Vacation Bible Schools, and 35% cancelled or suspended camps.”

The shift to online provision for children and young people did not work for many families, researchers found.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said that they felt disappointed or frustrated by the online provision, which often replicated what might have been provided in church, without allowing for a different setting at home.

“Comments illuminating this included: ‘I had to remind them to remember the children,’ ‘it was easier to connect with parents than children,’ ‘they did not take children seriously,’ ‘the kids were left behind,’ and ‘the children disengaged.’

These comments revealed an overriding sense that often pandemic ministry was more adult-focused, resulting in the exclusion of children,” researchers said.

One survey of UK church activity during lockdown failed to ask a single question about children’s or families ministry.

Collaboration between home, school, and church to support and nurture children’s faith was lacking, and parents felt disempowered by the existing church culture to nurture their children’s faith themselves.

Churches were often viewed as a “service provider” rather than a collaborator when it came to nurturing children’s faith.

Researchers heard stories of how, even though the restrictions imposed by Covid were easing in some countries, children and families were not returning to church.

“As the pandemic restrictions ease, these impacts seem to continue, as many anecdotal reports in each of these nations indicate that children and families are not returning to pre-pandemic levels of attendance in church activities or programs.”

When asked what their families’ spiritual needs were, only one per cent of parents wanted their church to return to its pre-pandemic ministry; 97 per cent said that they wanted the church to offer more support to parents to help to nurture children’s faith.

The report said that there was an “urgent” need for churches and church organisations to prioritise children’s ministry, setting a clear strategy and prioritising “greater relational connection, rather than being primarily content or program-driven”, the study concludes.

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