The UK Church has a drastic problem. In 2014 a Church of England study showed 27% of its churches (9) are in decline. Young people especially are leaving the Church; “those aged 14-16…” at a rate of “140,000... every week” (14). How do we reverse this chronic inability to pass on our faith in Jesus effectively?

In Faith Generation: Retaining young people and growing the church, Nick Shepherd faces this issue head on and offers a potential piece of the solution. Using data from church growth research and two in-depth case studies, he attempts to demonstrate how intentional youth work is not only “strongly associated with growth” (10) but stands as a primary cause of it. Consequently, churches should make this a top priority.

Faith Generation Cover

So how do we do it? Shepherd presents his case based on the principle that Christian faith in young people must be “generated by our participation in a ‘community of persons sharing faith’” (28). He contends it has been the practice to assume that future generations will form vibrant Christian faith through a “natural process” of attending church, as opposed to receiving intentional Christian input and community that is made for them specifically to generate faith. To achieve this generation, Shepherd proposes a three-pronged approach focusing on the intentionally youth-engaging community (be that a youth group or outreach drop-in centre as in his two case studies).

Shepherd envisions the intentional community will create three main things:

  1. A space and culture that provides a plausibility structure for Christian faith which enables youth to see the daily choice to follow Christ as a workable life choice and to choose it.
  2. A place where through the Christian community faith in God is seen to make sense in real life and people can experience God, can ‘sense’ Him.
  3. A community through which a strong bond of belonging helps young people to find their identity in Christ (Shepherd's understanding of identity is that it is received as a gift from God but also must be developed and reinforced through living out that identity so community and belonging are of high importance).

Shepherd describes these three strands as “making the implausible choice, making coherent sense, and making reliable use of faith” (6). Faith Generation attempts to demonstrate what these three principles look like in on the ground in Christian youth work and how they can and should be applied to every church. His conviction is that this will not only enable the Church to save our young people and reverse decline, but to create disciples of true depth who from this place of security will impact the world for Christ while helping the Church to engage with the wider culture.

Shepherd wants
to see churches 
create disciples of true depth who will impact the world for Christ 

I really enjoyed the message and heart behind this book. I would imagine that for those studying youth work this could be a useful articulation of the broader vision and relevance of how youth work benefits the whole Church. However, I wonder if there could be some confusion as to its target audience. Faith Generation is the fruit of Shepherd's PhD thesis and reads to me as somewhere between an academic work and a vision-casting book for a wider readership. My opinion is it may be missing the mark for both. The argument for a causal link between intentional youth work and church growth is based on statistics from just two case studies, and the authority of Shepherd's over 25 years’ experience. Clearly this is not nothing, despite being a very small sample, and I found this convincing. But then I was already sold on the ideas and agree with them for my own intuitive reasons which I know do not stand up to academic scrutiny. There was no discussion of other factors of decline or other possible solutions, or other reasons to make the leap from correlation to cause. Shepherd does reference the 2014 report From Anecdote to Evidence as a basis for his conclusions and presumably there was in depth discussion of this in the PhD. At this point I acknowledge I am unequipped to comment definitively on this; several professors have endorsed the book and are confident it will have great impact. But as a layman it seems incomplete to me.

I agree with everything Faith Generation is saying and hope it has a huge impact on the Church, but I wish it was more accessible and presented with more conviction and punch

In terms of a broader readership, the tone and presentation of the book feels academic despite the front-cover hinting at wider appeal. It has the caution, reserve and inaccessibility of the academy. There are nods to sociology and the philosophy of Charles Taylor and other aspects that are beyond the average reader and even many youth workers I know. Shepherd appeals to statistics and anecdotes for his bases of persuasion. There are few specific appeals to Scripture despite clearly being based on it. I see this as a missed opportunity. This lack makes the book feel more academic and I believe reduces its use as a rallying cry for change outside of the seminary. Again, I agree with and cheer on everything Faith Generation is saying and hope it has a huge impact on the Church. Being outside the academy, however, I am struggling to think who I would be able or want to lend it to. Those who do read it will benefit from the presentation of youth work practice in the case-studies and the reasons given for emphasising youth work as a strategy for church growth. There is also some good advice on how to get started in several different church contexts towards the end.

Faith Generation may help church leaders and those studying youth work to understand the broader impact of prioritising youth work within an intentional Christian community context and consider the part it plays in church growth. As a vision-casting book, all the ideas and vision are here and I passionately agree with everything Shepherd has said. But I wish it was more accessible and presented with more conviction and punch.

Title: Faith Generation: Retaining young people and growing the church
Author: Nick Shepherd
Publisher: SPCK
Publication Date: 2016
Pages: 194
Price: £14.99

© 2016 Josh Luke