Monday, January 16, 2006

Are Our Churchgoing Youth Falling Away from the Faith? (Long)

Several years ago, my wife and I taught Sunday School at our old parish. We went into it with a set of expectations about what kids of a certain age would know about the faith, and were absolutely stunned at how little they knew or understood. I think that, as adults who had grown up in the USA of the 50’s and 60’s, we were exposed to a certain cultural background understanding of Christianity, and a certain default cultural set of Christian expectations. Going to church was something you simply did, and understanding of the faith came through lifelong exposure. And we were face to face with the fact that that cultural background simply didn’t exist anymore.

Sunday school programs were set up with the expectation that Christianity was the default background religion of America, and that was no longer true. Not only was the cultural support lacking, but the active voices of a zillion different competing philosophies and religions were all echoing through the marketplace of ideas. Couple that with the theological floundering of many a church itself, and the result was a generation of kids who were largely clueless.

The effect seems to have been greatest in those mainline Protestant churches–that-nobody-goes-to-anymore where theological meat was hard to come by anyway, but I have heard the same sorts of concerns more and more from Catholics and from Evangelicals. The gap between what we try to teach our kids and what they actually believe gets bigger and bigger. An article from Agape Press, which I excerpt below, really analyzes the problem in some detail.

[…] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, sociologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, began with data gleaned from the largest and most detailed study of teenagers and religion ever undertaken, the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) ... then distilled the results in their riveting book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

What Soul Searching reveals is a generation of kids who claim to be Christian, but many of whose beliefs are not even remotely orthodox … “Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith."

[…] George Barna, whose Barna Research Group follows religious and spiritual trends in America, summed up that "different religious faith" in a single word: "Whatever.”

[…] In trying to characterize what churchgoing kids actually believe, Smith and Denton coined the phrase "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Each word presents a core facet of what is becoming the dominant religious view among the nation's youth.

First, they explained, the religious beliefs of many teens are moralistic because they see faith as being essentially related to mere human goodness. In other words, kids believe "that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person"

[…] But that's just the problem. Many religious teens do not hold to an orthodox Christian belief concerning goodness and salvation. Barna noted from his research: "Amazingly, even though they have personally prayed to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, half of all born-again teenagers believe that a person can earn his or her way into heaven."

[…] If religion is important only to help people live good lives, might it not also be true that the definition of a "good" life would differ from individual to individual?

In fact, that is what the majority of youth believe. "In this context ... the very idea of religious truth is attenuated," Soul Searching said, "shifted from older realist and universalist notions of convictions about objective Truth to more personalized and relative versions of 'truth for me' and 'truth for you.'"

This rigidly individualistic view of religion "is not a contested orthodoxy for teenagers," the book said. "It is an invisible and pervasive doxa, that is, an unrecognized, unquestioned, invisible premise or presupposition."
Having completely digested the doctrine of inclusivity and diversity, it is no surprise that typical responses in the Smith and Denton interviews were statements like, "Who am I to judge?," "If that's what they choose, whatever," "Each person decides for himself," and "If it works for them, fine."

[…] The second facet of Smith and Denton's portrait of dominant religion in America is that it is therapeutic. That is, faith is meant to make a person happy, and help him get through life - much as a therapist does.

This means that concepts like repentance from sin, praying for God's mercy and grace, or faithfully "living as a servant of a sovereign divine" are absent from the religious lives of many teens, and even many so-called Christian teens.

"Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people."

[…] Smith and Denton said: "What our interviews almost never uncovered among teens was a view that religion summons people to embrace an obedience to truth regardless of the personal consequences or rewards."

The final characteristic of the prevailing religious view among American teens was deism. It is "about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one's affairs - especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance. He is often described by teens as 'watching over everything from above.'"

In fact, most teenagers' beliefs about God and their own religious faith were so vague as to be almost incomprehensible. Smith and Denton found "the vast majority of [teens] to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives." The vast majority of these churchgoing youth, they said, "simply could not express themselves on matters of God, faith, religion, or spiritual life."

[…] a 17-year-old Presbyterian boy was asked to describe his Christian beliefs: "Um [pause], I don't know, I just, uh, just like anybody else I guess. There's nothing really to say, I don't know, just the Presbyterian beliefs. Just like I believe in all the sin and stuff and going to heaven and stuff, life after life."

Or this 13-year-old Catholic girl: "I'm not sure, not sure, I can't remember what I believe. Oh, mm-mm, yeah, like Jesus and God and them guys. That he is alive and watching over us."

Smith and Denton reminded the readers of Soul Searching that "these were not throw-away comments of teens, these were their main answers to our key questions about their basic personal religious beliefs."

Some parents might be tempted to think, "Well, my teenager can't articulate much of anything at his age." But Soul Searching insisted that the problem was not related to their age. "Many of the youth we interviewed were quite conversant when it came to their views on salient issues in their lives about which they had been educated and had practice discussing, such as the dangers of drug abuse and [sexually transmitted diseases]."

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism "is simply colonizing many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States," and "becoming the new spirit living in the old body. Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical, and tacit, not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion."

Thus it operates as "a parasitic faith. It cannot sustain its own integral, independent life; rather it must attach itself like an incubus to established historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image."

This is why religious teenagers can remain happily within their original faith traditions, while believing in things diametrically opposed to the actual tenets of that religion.

[…] In what was perhaps the saddest comment in the entire 300-pages plus of Soul Searching, the researchers said: "Indeed, it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life" (emphasis in original).

There’s the rub. In some churches, Sunday school is more of a holding tank than an process of Christian formation. Just keep the little nippers entertained, teach them how to spout Christian jargon, and maybe put on a performance for the adults a few times a year. Some other mainline congregations were more concerned with making faith “relevant and meaningful” to their youth, which usually involved stripping it of all meaning and relevance into a creed of simply being “nice” – the same process that was slowly stripping meaning and relevance from the faith of the adults as well. And lots of congregations were full of well meaning people who didn’t have a clue of what they were up against, or simply didn’t know how to present the truth claims of Christianity in the face of a hostile world. We will be reaping this harvest for generations.

Thank God, through no merit of my own, my daughter got a solid education at a Christian school. The churches I attend today put a premium on orthodox Christian teaching in their children’s classes. The current move towards more and more home schooling also makes a big difference. You don’t build a boat in the water; you get the hull put together so it will float, then you launch it. If you get your kids assembled before you throw them into the public square, then - whatever they choose in life – at least they have the background to make sound decisions. (I don’t remember where I got that metaphor, but it’s not original.)

And, amazingly, it’s not really that hard. My personal experience is limited, but a lot of kids seem to be thirsting for doctrine and history – for reasons to believe. They live in a world devoid of the concept of absolute truth. They know inside there’s something wrong, even if they can’t quite put their fingers on it – being immature isn’t the same as being stupid! They haven’t developed the adult capacity for invincible self-delusion that is driving so many historic denominations onto the rubbish heap of history. Our kids need to be challenged with the gospel, not placated with babble. They’ll respond.