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What can the Victorians teach us about how to engage with Gen Z?

Young people are desperately seeking real, authentic relationships and are wide-open to spiritual conversations. We can learn from Scripture Union founder Josiah Spiers about how to reach them. By Myles MacBean 


SU The Maze

What can the Victorians – a generation associated with high moral standards, formal parenting and religiosity – teach us about how to connect with young people in this digitally-immersed age? Can we really learn anything meaningful about mission from them?

I believe we can.

In 1868, 31-year old Josiah Spiers was on holiday in Llandudno, Wales. He watched children building sandcastles and swimming in the sea and wondered how he could share the gospel with them. He knelt down and began etching out the words “God is love” in the sand. Soon, a crowd of curious children gathered around him and he took the opportunity to tell them about Jesus.


SU Josiah Spiers organising th

Josiah Spiers organising the writing of the Bible verse

But this wasn’t Josiah’s first attempt to connect with children and young people in a radically counter-cultural way. The previous year Josiah and a supportive neighbouring couple had invited 14 children into the neighbours' home in Islington to share their lives and the gospel with them.  In a society where Sunday School usually took place inside church buildings, this was a creative new way to build relationships with young people in a more informal setting and in language they understood.

Soon, a grassroots movement of volunteers, inspired by Josiah’s vision, began to grow and the Children’s Special Service Mission, later becoming Scripture Union, was formed.

What I love about Josiah Spiers’ approach is that he recognised that children could and should be able to explore the Bible, ask questions and respond to Jesus on their own terms. Other missionaries began travelling around on a horse and cart, visiting villages and engaging children with games and choruses. They didn’t wait for the children to come to them in the confines of their church, they took church to the children, wherever they were.   

This compulsion to go where the children are but the gospel isn’t, still underpins all that we do in Scripture Union today.

Challenge our worldview of church activity

Jesus says in Mark 10:14 “let the little children come to me”. We don’t need to force them, we just need to let them come. But sometimes we can hinder them through our cultural expectation of what ‘church’ should look like. We need to liberate ourselves from our inherited worldview of church activity being confined to a church building or even what constitutes success – it’s not about the number of children coming through our doors on a Sunday morning but about a new generation coming to a vibrant, personal faith in Jesus.

Today, it is estimated that 95 per cent of children and young people are not in church. This is a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. A huge challenge because as Christians we struggle to connect in our increasingly secular society with a generation (Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2015) living in a very different culture to the one many of us grew up in – where many of them are wrestling with their identity, perpetually connected, ‘pornified’, rejecting of authority, and mistrusting of the establishment. Many of them will never own homes or have secure jobs. Indeed, a recent study reported that 18 per cent of children and young people don’t think life is “really worth living”, a number that has doubled in 10 years.

And yet this generation is potentially the most fertile soil for the gospel in generations. In that same study, for example, more than 75 per cent of the young people questioned about what made them happy said it was “spending time with family and friends”. In the midst of their struggles, today’s generation are desperately seeking real, authentic relationships and, from our experience, they are wide-open to spiritual conversations.

Meet young people in the places they love to hang out

So what is the main lesson we can learn from Josiah Spiers and his friends? It’s that we, the local church, have to learn anew how to ‘get out of the box’ – both physically and metaphorically – if we are to successfully get alongside this generation of individualistic and inquisitive young people.

In Birmingham, Isaac, one of our Scripture Union workers, works alongside a local church youth minister to run a pop-up sports club in an inner-city estate. Each week the team arrive early to clear the glass off the grass square, children with no church background flood in, and the leaders use informal football training to help these young people begin to explore the difference Jesus can make to their lives. Not through some five-minute God-slot at the end - instead they weave God-talk into everything that happens during the game; if someone gets fouled, that’s an opportunity to talk about justice and grace.

We need to meet our young people in the places where they love to hang out. Without losing the focus on the individual, we need to learn to create a bridge to this post-Christendom generation, a generation that largely doesn’t believe in absolute truth and sees the church as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, hypocritical, judgemental and homophobic.

SU Sports

Present an accurate picture of Jesus - the radical Jesus of the gospels 

And sometimes, as disciples of Jesus, we have not been very good at presenting an accurate picture of who Jesus is. We need to point to the radical Jesus of the gospels, the definitively authentic Jesus, the Jesus who is justice-minded, a friend to those who feel lonely and outcast, the one who challenged the religious and administrative authorities of his day.

And, above all, the one who, through a vibrant personal faith in him, wants to turn lives upside down one heart at a time.

It’s only as we willingly step outside of our comfort zones and the limitations of our thinking about what a worshiping community looks like, as Josiah Spiers did, and build authentic relationships with young people on their own turf that we will earn the privilege of speaking into their lives and sharing the love of Jesus with them.   

Ellie grew up in a family antagonistic to matters of faith. Then, when she was 14, a boy at school invited her to church. She went along but found it too formal. But she did start attending the more lively youth fellowship and was invited to a go on an SU holiday. During that week away in Wales, Ellie became a Christian. Back home, family life means she can’t get to church every week, but she stays in touch with her friends online: “I’ve got church on my phone wherever I am!” she says. “I can ask questions and get to know God better.”

I love this story because it gives a good example of how a generation, uncontaminated by religiosity, can connect with other Christians and be discipled in a way that makes sense to them.  

How Scripture Union can help local churches

But where do we start? Scripture Union wants to partner even more with churches all over the country to explore innovative ways of reaching young people through the ministry of local volunteers. We have regional staff that can support new initiatives and offer advice. Each year, thousands of children attend our holidays and missions run by hundreds of volunteers. Many respond to Jesus but, like Ellie, when they go home they need help to navigate their new-found faith in tailor-made ways.

We don’t have all the answers, but we are passionate about building relationships with local churches to equip them to work out the best way we can connect with this new generation of spiritually-hungry young people. Let’s work together to reach the 95 per cent who are keenly seeking a fundamental identity that can only truly be found in a vibrant, personal relationship with Jesus.

Images | Scripture Union 

Myles MacBean is the National Director of Scripture Union. Find out how your church can partner with Scripture Union here.


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