The Last Waltz:
how the Church never made it past 1967 [part 4]
Because the problem of major cultural change was located in youth in the 1960s, the Church has continued to see the problem of cultural engagement as one of youth ever since, and has structured itself to deliver culturally engaged youthwork.
But the cultural boundary symbolised by 1967 has moved up through the population over the years. It is currently located round about the age of 50. The cultural shift has been misread as a problem of youth that each generation will grow out of; the real nature of the problem has been masked by use of the term 'youth culture'. But so-called 'youth culture' is now the culture of most people under the age of 50, hence the recent term 'middle youth' to describe the continuing engagement of people with 'youth culture' far beyond the years of their actual youth. It's time we understood that this was only a youth culture when it began 40 years ago. It is better understood, perhaps, as a culture of identity through consumption, which includes the consumption of music as one of its key markers.
So by defining cultural engagement as a problem of youth, the Church has failed to tackle the problem of cultural engagement for adults. The much-lamented 'missing generation' actually comprises most people who have reached adulthood since the 60s. These are the people that have power in our culture, politics and media, and by failing to create an adequate form of Christianity for younger adults the church has ensured its irrelevance or worse in the eyes of those who form the new culture. And one of the effects of a 'missing generation' has been that power in churches remains, even now, with those who were formed before the new culture, or who are refugees from it, thus compounding the problem of change.
Still there is the concentration on teenagers as the source of renewal, and still there are few adequate places for those who have passed through that brief phase of life into adulthood, other than conform to an older culture or leave. We forget how fast 'young people' grow up. It's symptomatic that the so-called 'Generation X' are still widely thought of as 'young people' when many are now in their 30s, with soon-to-be-teenage kids! The age profiles of many churches add their own twist to this problem. To a congregation of 60-year-olds, 30-year-olds are still 'young people', are still 'our children', rather than equal adults.
Youthwork was well established before the 1960s. It inevitably became the Church's ground of engagement with the cultural changes of that decade. Youthwork then became the only part of the Church allowed to engage fully with the emerging culture, initially in the hope that the storm would blow over, that 'normal service' would be resumed. Now that hope is over. It's clear that the storm has completely altered the landscape, that there is no going back, and that the Church, by failing to adapt, has imperilled its own survival.
In view of the 'missing generation', in view of the widespread failure to create an adequate culturally engaged adult church, the question must be asked: has the concentration on youthwork as the growth point for the Church actually been responsible for the decline in church membership? In pouring resources into work with young people, has the Church neglected to create churches that they could move on to? Has the concentration on youthwork and youth mission prevented the Church from engaging effectively with the most culturally important and influential group in society, the 25-45s? Is the idea that 'young people', per se, are important a Sixties hangover that bears no relation to the cultural realities anymore? Has the Church deceived itself that it is engaging with culture, while actually failing to engage where it really matters for long term survival?