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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.

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 ?? ?? Below: a crowd watches a screen broadcasti­ng from a chapel at Asbury University, Kentucky, February; Ed Sheeran at St John at Hackney, 2021
Below: a crowd watches a screen broadcasti­ng from a chapel at Asbury University, Kentucky, February; Ed Sheeran at St John at Hackney, 2021

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