Mission and Young People: the easier we make it the less attractive it is

In Understanding How We Learn, the authors spend some time showing how our intuitions about learning are often, perhaps usually, wrong. They explain that one of the reasons for this is that almost everyone has many years experience of education before they become teachers and that misunderstandings become habits that it is hard to break. They list a number of common misunderstandings, all of which have been shown to be untrue, and the percentage of teachers and educators who continue to believe them:

There are many cross-overs between the two worlds in which I work, church and education. Partly because so much of what church leaders do is teaching, partly because through our church schools many clergy and others in the church are involved in the life of schools and also because so many clergy are former teachers. I often hear ‘learning styles’ mentioned in church contexts and sometimes manage to bite my tongue and don’t point out the substantial research base proving this misunderstanding to be just that.

The sweep of educational change in the west to ‘child-centred’, progressive, discovery based methods and now the emergence of knowledge-based learning and more didactic styles of teaching are referred to in links and references in the previous posts on mission in this series of posts. I don’t think, that I am yet seeing the move away to knowledge-based, didactic methods much influencing the church so far.

In all of the contexts where I have worked as a priest and teacher I have been struck by the apparent mismatch of Anglican church culture and the needs of children for something that they could take more seriously. The attraction of some young people to Islam and the popularity of the writer Jordan Peterson among white working class men are phenomena that are making me wonder about the need for greater seriousness in our teaching, and living, of the faith. Whenever I take young people to Taizé I can be certain that the biggest impact on them is the seriousness of the brothers, committing themselves for life to this way of living. Many people are deeply critical of the emerging knowledge based, didactive methods of education and often claim that children will be unhappy or less creative as a result. Our intuition is that making things easier, more entertaining is what will make children more successful. In fact, the evidence, and my experience is quite the opposite. In schools like Michaela Community School, or St Martin’s Academy I see children challenged to levels of work that would have been inconceivable 15 years ago. And they love it. There is a seriousness about these schools, but it is a happy, healthy seriousness that is deeply inspiring.

One of the most damaging phrases in schools has been “child-centred education”, first used, I think, in the Plowden Report of 1967 and deriving I suspect, from the “person-centred” counselling of Carl Rogers. I could not disagree more with this model of education. We human beings only make sense when we are God-centred. That’s what worship reminds us of and what we rehearse in worship. The following six areas are ones which I have been developing thoughts around on seriousness if our Mission is to be successful in bringing more people to know Jesus.


Our expectations of what children should learn and know about their faith intellectually should be the same as those now being in schools in equivalent areas of the curriculum. Colouring in, glueing and sticking are not educational activities, they are time-fillers. Our teaching and activities with children need to demand the highest they can give and leave them exhausted with exhilaration at their learning. It needs to be content heavy and involve much repetition and memorisation. At the back of Understanding How We Learn, are sections for Teachers, Parents and Students. These sections would be a great starting place for training sessions with youth leaders and Sunday school teachers. The whole of this methodology applies equally to adults. As should our expectation that they will be as challenged intellectually by what we teach as by anything else in their lives.


Children are natural pray-ers, just as they naturally do all sorts of things. But it often feels like prayer is the only area where we leave them to work things out for themselves. And most don’t. Teaching technologies of prayer, techniques that Christians have developed and used often over centuries is essential. Much memorisation will be involved. There are methods in both the Catholic and Evangelical streams of the church that we could use. Memorisation of the Bible and psalms will be part of this too. Mindfulness is a really good way into this and can begin in the Nursery. I have taught lectiodivina to children from 4-18 years old, not to mention the Jesus Prayer, the Rosary and the Office. This applies equally to adults. People want to be taught how to pray, what the experience of prayer will be like and what they should expect to experience in prayer.


Many children and young people like to belong to things, to join, to wear a badge or a uniform. As a Secondary Head teacher I used badges all the time, to communicate key messages and to reward achievement. Adults mocked when I told them that we were introducing coloured, ranked academic gowns of pupil leaders. But the children loved them, longed to wear them and were mortified if they were “de-gowned” for a period for any reason. Sometimes exclusiveness is as important as inclusion. It is hugely encouraging to see Rules of Life, new expressions of community and other ways of belonging springing up in the church.

Spiritual Direction

Far too much direction is actually non-directive person-centred counselling. The Director who will not name sin, or point out the danger of the opportunities for sin is dangerous to souls. But so is the one who won’t push the directee further, to demand more, to question motives and point out patterns of behaviour. Much of the current literature on direction is lamentable, weak on theology, and low in its expectations for spiritual growth and change. There is an unhealthy mystique about Spiritual Direction, mystical experiences are not necessary. Anyone seriously living a Christian life is capable of helping others to do so.


Mixing with Pentecostal Christians and Muslims made me ashamed of my weak efforts at fasting. This is such a biblical spiritual discipline, tied so closely to prayer throughout the Bible that our failure to fast must surely be a substantial part of our failure in mission.

Everydayness of prayer and Eucharist

One of the reasons sometimes given for our failures in mission is that children, young people and families are so busy with other hobbies and interests. I am not entirely sure this is true. But if we ourselves act as if our faith is one more leisure choice among many then it will appear that way. From a Catholic-Anglican perspective the importance of the daily Mass, seven days a week, was fundamental to slum ministry. Few of our churches now maintain this. Even where they do the Mass is at times that only the retired or unemployed could attend. When I was at St Andrew’s, Earlsfield, I started a 6:30am Mass on weekdays before I went to school. I was told by some that no one would come. I never celebrated alone. Again, for Catholic Anglicans the Daily Office, seven days a week, for many seven times a day, was at the heart of their ministry. If we think we are too ‘busy’, it is simply because we have lost control of our diaries.

“Young people want more commitment not less.” Wrote the Bishop of Chelmsford (my former pastoral tutor at Theological College). It feels counter intuitive, it is. In education intuition has not served us well. Perhaps we need to be less intuitive in our church life too. The easier we make it, the less important, the less significant it looks. If that is the case why bother?


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