The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - The Telegraph Magazine
Gen Z-ers have ‘an allergy to the wrong kind of power’
many younger people are attracted to the quiet ritual of traditional Anglocatholic services – smells, bells and all.’
Holy Trinity Brompton in west London – the Anglican megachurch which founded Alpha, an 11-week evangelistic course about the basics of Christianity – ‘planted’ 21 new churches across the UK in 2021 alone. In 2022, it launched new churches in Bristol, Basingstoke and Leatherhead.
In fact, the Alpha course – arguably Britain’s biggest success story when it comes to attracting people to Christianity – has been taken by nearly five million people in the UK, the majority under 35. It poses questions including ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Is there more to life than this?’, and mentions charismatic expressions of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, which has proved controversial. But it is exactly this kind of experiential and sometimes experimental ‘encounter’ that Gen
Z-ers are seeking, says Gordon, as they want the ‘real thing’ more than liturgy and an exercise in box-ticking. ‘That’s a big change we’ve noticed in people.’
Gas Street, a similarly popular evangelical church in Birmingham, has grown by 30 per cent compared with pre-pandemic numbers. ‘The pandemic was very much a shock, but looking back, I’d say it’s been the making of us as a church,’ says pastor Tim Hughes. ‘Moving online was an opportunity for people who might have found coming into a church building a bit overwhelming or intimidating. This guy watched weekly and then when [the] doors opened up, he started coming and was recently baptised. We’ve seen quite a bit of that.’
Seventy per cent of the church’s congregation is under 35. ‘Young people are very passionate about issues surrounding justice and the environment… there’s a deep longing for a sense of purpose. I think many rejected religion with a capital “R” and rejected the Church, but actually they’re longing to understand what life is about.’
The ‘cool’ churches that are attracting and retaining young people against a backdrop of decline have many of the
same distinctive features: youthful pastors, swish branding and loud music that proves you can be both hip and holy. Beginning in 2018, Saint’s Hackney building, St John at Hackney, underwent a multimillion-pound restoration with a design team that included renowned British architect John Pawson and Es Devlin, stage designer for Beyoncé, Adele and U2. The result is a new kind of secular and sacred space; a ‘cathedral of creativity’ that hosts gigs as well as Sunday services. Turn up one day and contemporary Christian worship will be echoing around the building over a sea of people with arms raised and palms outstretched. Turn up the next, and you could find Florence and the Machine, Jamie xx (both played St John at Hackney before the refurb) or Ed Sheeran, who performed there in 2021.
At Hackney Church Brew Co, its neighbouring microbrewery, you can get a craft beer after Holy Communion. Most young professionals at inner-city churches go to an informal evening service and then head to the pub.
This all helps attract young people. But ‘I cringe at the thought of being “cool”’, says Gordon. Saint’s growth isn’t down to ‘clever social media or marketing or a shiny building… that’s just pointless. If you look at the data of people who’ve come in the last year, they’re typically people who don’t really have much of a faith background. They’re probably the [religious] “nones” in the census data, typical Gen Z. But there’s a deep spiritual hunger in people.’
This is partly due to the legacy of the pandemic: ‘We’ve seen so much pain that has been brought to the surface,’ he says. As a result, ‘people coming along are so open to faith… really incredible young people who are open to asking these deep questions.’
It is also due to the nature of Gen Z, who, Gordon says, ‘aren’t afraid to stand up for causes they believe in’.
Traditional Judeo-christian values of compassion, personal responsibility and loving thy neighbour resonate with cause-driven Gen Z-ers. ‘It’s quite cool to do something that’s counter-cultural,’ he says, arguing that Gen Z-ers don’t want ‘big organised religion, flexing its muscles’. They have ‘an allergy to the wrong kind of power’.
‘The tide has felt for a long time in this country like it’s going out, but what I feel – and I might be wrong, and we’ll know in 100 years’ time – is our feet are starting to get wet again.’
Can the Church bounce back? Stranger things have happened. After all, it’s in the business of resurrection.