Young People and Church Since 1900

Engagement and Exclusion

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Naomi Thompson
AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     206 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In her monograph Young People and Church Since 1900: Engagement and Exclusion, Naomi Thompson “explores young people’s engagement with organized Christianity in England from the early twentieth century up to the present day” by focusing on “the Sunday School movement’s peak at the start of the twentieth century, its virtual demise in the mid-century, and the growth of Christian youth work in recent years” (1). Thompson focuses on the following three time periods: 1900-1910 (peak), 1955-1972 (decline), and 2008 to the present (focusing on Christian youth work). She discusses young people aged thirteen to twenty-one using narrative-based qualitative methods that include both historical research and contemporary fieldwork with the former providing key factors contributing to the decline of the Sunday School movement and the latter tracing the presence of these factors in present-day Christian youth work. Thompson states, “the research makes a contribution to debates about Christianity, decline, and secularization in the UK and beyond” (1). 

Chapter 1 outlines the methods used in the research, namely archival data, consisting primarily of the records of the Birmingham Sunday School Union, and interview data consisting of an opportunity sample comprised of young people and their youth workers who are engaging with Christianity. The chapter continues with a look at the postmodern approach of epistemes (particularly Foucault’s theory about the changing periods of time when a particular philosophical manner of thinking was dominant in society), discourses, and narratives that underpin the research. Thompson discusses the concepts of social and spiritual currencies based on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social capital indicating that initially the Sunday School movement tapped into the social currency of providing basic educational skills, and that spiritual capital is comprised of three forms: embodied, objectified, and institutionalized. She continues by considering the changing context of Christianity in 20th century England that includes a mid-century decline of institutional Christianity, the growth of charismatic and evangelical Christianity, and the face of English Christianity in the new millennium. Three key themes emerge in the research: institutionalization, social currencies, and discourses on Christian decline.

Chapter 2 considers the origins of the Sunday School movement prior to the three time periods selected for research, indicating that it started with providing basic education and skills to young people on their day off from work—Sundays. Reasons provided for the movement’s decline by means of a relevant literature review include “the decline in recreational and social services provided by Sunday Schools and the growth of other ‘distractions’; the institutionalisation of Sunday Schools; and the move to a new model [‘family church’] of Sunday School provision in the mid-century” (39). 

Chapter 3 offers a case study of Sunday Schools in Birmingham based on the historical research findings emphasizing the institutionalization of the union as well as a negative attitude towards its affiliated teachers. Sub-themes contributing to the main themes include recruitment and decline of church attendance; scripture exams as a measure of success; changing methods that included a change to the “family church” model; criticism of teachers and teacher training, often regarding teachers as scapegoats for the decline; an increase in the importance and role of the union; evidence of a church-union conflict; and gender, listing women’s voices as being mostly silent. 

Chapter 4 delineates the move from outreach to Christian nurture after the decline of Sunday Schools. Thompson reviews young people and their faith development considering Westerhoff’s four stages: experienced faith, affiliative faith, searching faith, and owned faith (99), and Fowler’s six stages: (pre-stage) infancy and undifferentiated faith, stage one intuitive-projective faith, stage two mythical-literal faith, stage three synthetic-conventional faith, stage four individuative-reflective faith, stage five conjunctive faith, and stage six universalizing faith (100-101), and argues for a more fluid and personal faith development. 

Chapter 5 considers the challenge of churches’ retention of young people and the purpose of Christian youth work. Thompson asserts that young people are not consumers but desire to participate in church life. They seek engagement (belonging as well as expressing their “voice” and “choice”) and not exclusion. Thompson proposes a model for youth work comprising three domains: a social club for non-churchgoers, a cell group for those showing an interest in church, and a Sunday service for churchgoers. 

Chapter 6 offers a comparison between the Birmingham study and interviews with Christian workers in Minnesota as well as reasons why Christianity continues to thrive in the US. Thompson considers America and secularization, religion and nationalism, religion and politics, and the religious open market. She continues by focusing on the Sunday School movement in the US, discussing issues such as class and poverty, education (religious and secular), morality and capitalism, gender and race, and Sunday School’s transition from movement to institution. 

Chapter 7 concludes by revisiting the main findings of social currencies, institutionalization, and discourses of decline. It also challenges the secularization discourse and lists three lessons from the youth work model: “meeting community needs; allowing people to engage with faith on their terms; and integration with the rituals and practices of a specific church/organization” (189). 

Thompson provides solid engagement with her subject matter as evidenced by her thorough research and detailed analysis. Her stated aim was to explore “young people’s engagement with organised Christianity in England from the early twentieth century up to the present day” (1) and she argues that “the discourse of activity or passivity adopted by individual churches affects their growth or decline, particularly in relation to engaging young people” (192). The book succeeds in accomplishing its intended goal and is recommended to scholars and lay readers alike, particularly in the field of youth, young adults, and community work. In conclusion, Thompson should consider expanding future research to include commonwealth countries, especially from the perspective of the global south—for example South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Guyana—thus comparing more contexts for confirming and/or discovering newly emerging themes and patterns.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun Joynt is a postdoctoral fellow at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Naomi Thompson is lecturer in youth and community work at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has experience of research relating to young people and youth work. She specialises in young people and Christianity, with her PhD exploring the peak and decline of the Sunday School movement and the growth of Christian youth work. She has published on young people, youth work, and religion.



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