Last week, I took part in a lively conversation on Twitter about childhood memories of cringe-worthy praise songs at church or in school assembly. Turns out those clapping rhythms and scripted whooping cheers never quite leave you.

The three of us in the Twitter chat are still active in church life, and in that regard we are quite unusual. Less than half (46%) of those brought up in families with two parenting adults who share the same faith will go on themselves to identify with that religious tradition.

It’s a topic exercising the minds of the Church of England General Synod, who meet this week in London. Their data, due to be scrutinised and discussed on Wednesday, indicates that fewer children and young people are attending Anglican churches than ever before. They note that in 2018 we reached a new stage where, nationally, Sunday attendance for 0-16s dropped below 100,000 for the first time ever.

They are right to be concerned. Time and again, studies indicate that childhood is crucial for faith formation. The most recent, which we at Savanta ComRes carried out in 2017 for the Church of England and their partners in the Talking Jesus coalition, found that 40% of Britain’s practising Christians (those who say they attend church at least monthly, pray at least weekly and also read or listen to the Bible at least weekly) said they came to faith before the age of five years old. Three quarters (76%) say they came to faith before the age of 18.

It’s striking that so many say this. Only 13% say they became a Christian after the age of 25. Those stories of adult conversions to Christianity which many churches celebrate are memorable because they are unusual. They are certainly not the norm.

In fact, it’s much more common to walk away. Professor Stephen Bullivant’s analysis of 2012-14 British Social Attitudes data found that:

“For every one Catholic convert there are 10 cradle Catholics who no longer regard themselves to be Catholic. For every one Anglican convert there are 12 cradle Anglicans who no longer regard themselves to be Anglican.”

So, most worshipping adults in British churches found faith early in life. And, of those brought up in Christian families, fewer than half are likely to stick with it. This is a bigger conversation than choosing the best children’s songs: essentially, Synod will discuss the future of Christian worship in this country.

According to the data, there are some clear priorities for them to consider.

A crowd attracts a crowd

Families with children are more likely to attend a church regularly if there are other families there. The Synod paper explains that under-16s are not distributed evenly across the Church of England. Of the attendance returns submitted to Church House, 38% of these churches have no 0-16s and 68% of them have 5 or fewer 0-16s.

A local church which is ill-equipped to welcome children will find that families vote with their feet. For some highly practising Christians, finding a church where their children will be supported in their spiritual growth is crucial, and will be very high on the list of church selection criteria. And even in less zealous families, a morning spent with distracted and disgruntled children is no aid to worship – for themselves and for others attending the service. If the children don’t enjoy church, no-one will.

Home is where the start is

While there has been an enormous amount of investment, energy, prayer and time given to developing children’s ministry activities, these will only be effective if they reinforce habits being developed at home. Messy Church, holiday clubs and Christingle services are highly successful at bringing children into church and providing a rhythm of age-appropriate worship throughout the year. They offer religious practice in a format and scale which parents and grandparents can’t provide at home, and an opportunity to gather with others in the body of Christ.

But children primarily receive their spiritual guidance from their families. When we at Savanta ComRes studied 11-18 year olds in Britain, we found that of the young people who identified as Christians, 45% said growing up in a Christian family was a primary reason for their religious affiliation. This was by far the top of the list. Attending a religious school came in at 17% and Sunday school 15%.

Synod will hear stories this week of churches and their leaders working extremely hard to engage with children and young people, and doubtless some people will question the data because their own experience is of a local church with thriving children’s and youth ministries, packed with enthusiastic worshipping families. They will do well to remember that this is unusual. The Church of England have identified a vital question; this country may not have so many churches in a few years’ time if they do not take it seriously.

Katie Harrison is Director of the Savanta ComRes Faith Research Centre