Sydney
9 February 2003

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Church? It's about people who care

By Johanna Bennett

Part of my job involves reading overseas Church news and this week a new British survey caught my eye because, much to the researchers' surprise, it found that two out of three youngsters who go to church love it!

The survey, by the Christian Research Group, focused on 10 to 14-year-olds, now dubbed 'tweenagers'.

Leaving aside the issue of what this wince-making new word does to a writer's sensibilities, what was even more interesting was the reason the kids liked going to church: it was because they met old and new friends and because of the caring people they came across at church.

I almost laughed; this is so perfectly consistent with the old idea that it is not what you say but what you do that matters when it comes to convincing others that Christianity is a good idea.

Preaching is good, but being a decent person is way better. I also found it quite wonderful that the churches these youngsters attend are obviously so caring, and so true to Jesus, who implores us to treat others well and take good care of them.

As the mother of two girls in this 'tweenager' age group - my daughters are aged 10 and just 13 - I have found my experience here in Australia to be largely similar. The girls moan about having to get up for Mass rather than sleeping-in on Sunday, but they usually don't mind once they get there.

And after Mass they enjoy the morning tea the parish always puts on - not because of the tea, but because they meet their friends. They invariably can't be found at going-home time because they have run off. And we often end up taking at least one extra child home with us.

All this may sound rather boring and domestic, but happiness can be like that - boring and domestic. It is about home and caring and community; about cups of weak parish tea rather than café lattes, about wading through a scrum of kids in the vain hope of getting a nice biscuit to go with your tea, although you know you're more likely to find a few grubby, child-handled broken bits of biscuit, but somehow it doesn't matter.

The UK survey goes on to to say that nine out of 10 youngsters who have stopped going to church still attend a church-based youth activity. I find this encouraging, too, as, like the cup of tea after Mass, we need as many ways of encouraging community as possible in our increasingly lonely communities.

Just ask Vinnies about all the lonely people they visit.

I believe such initiatives bear long-term fruit and mean we need to stay with even not-so-hot parish youth groups and other activities.

My husband recently provided me with an anecdotal reason illustrating why.

As a teenager he used to go to an Anglican youth group in his English home village. He's a smart boy and he told me with a grin he had figured out early this was where all the nicest girls went.

But, it was also where you made friends of the 'friends for life' variety, he said.

I believe him. I still send Christmas cards to one of them some 17 years after leaving the UK. You know how men are with Christmas cards; they never get sent unless the wife sends them.

So there you have it. If you want to encourage the kind of Christian community and society this century sorely needs, just tell the kids church is where the nicest kids hang out and, yes (sigh), they can have Rebecca, Louise or James home to play.

Involvement in the choir, altar serving or, indeed, with anything churchy at all helps keep them interested, too.

Johanna Bennett is editor of The Catholic Weekly and mother of two over-active girls who think that church is OK and that sometimes Fr Carmello's homilies are interesting, too.