THE pressing question debated at the annual conference of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland yesterday was: “Where have all our young people gone?”
Representatives of the church’s Youth Assembly were granted an exceptional amount of time to address clergy and ministers from across Ireland at the General Assembly in Belfast.
It was noted that a phrase heard repeatedly during debates this week has been “the missing generation of young Presbyterians”.
Andrew Downey, of the church’s Youth Assembly, explained why so many had left the church.
“Young people long to feel valued and wanted – and not just in churches but in the world as a whole,” he said yesterday.
“Let young people engage with the world around them as they find it; let them voice their concerns and worries without fear of being judged. The world they are growing up in is changing daily at a pace unseen throughout human history.”
Graeme Thompson, of the board of Youth and Children’s Ministry, said that young people were often discouraged by the lack of prayer they see in their parents.
Former Moderator the Rev Dr Norman Hamilton noted that in emergent and independent churches the leadership is often in their thirties whereas in the Presbyterian Church leaders are more often in their fifties.
He asked if such young people in his church should not be formally treated as the succession leadership.
The debate was of such interest that its time allocation had to be extended, such were the number of ministers who wished to speak.
The Rev Peter McDowell, from Garnerville Presbyterian Church, was so concerned by the issue he had sought out highly committed young Christians outside the church.
“The disconnect between them and the church is unbearable,” he said.
“They cannot ask the questions they need to ask in church. They can’t participate in worship. They want to talk about how their faith impacts on their life.
“They feel like they are exiled in society. We seem to be talking about survival [as Presbyterians] but that is not the appropriate question.
“And if we think it is, the Presbyterian Church will end up like Israel is exile, tiny groups of believers living in isolation.”
He said the place of young people in church now was “in helping us lead”.
And he suggested that the Presbyterian Church needed to experiment in supporting the planting of new churches for such young people.
These churches would perhaps not identify with Presbyterianism directly but would identify with youth culture, he said.
Director of Youth and Children’s Ministry, Roz Stirling, made an impassioned plea to the assembly yesterday in her retirement speech.
Her ministry was described yesterday as “one of the leading youth and children’s works in Europe”.
“I beg you to get on your knees before Almighty God and ask him how you are to deliver on the mandate He has so clearly given to us as a church to pass the faith on,” she said.
She was given a rare standing ovation for her 20 years of passionate service – and an even rarer hug from the Moderator and a number of other senior clergy.