One of the reasons I am a teacher is because I understand that making an impact on youth is one of the best ways to impact the culture at large. Though their behavior might occasionally make you twitch, youth grow up, and the best and brightest assume leadership positions of power and influence.
Many, if not most, significant cultural movements started with young twenty somethings. Just look back to the 60’s for evidence of that. Many that were college age rabble rousers back then are now deep in positions of influence in politics, media, and academia.
One conservative religious movement comes to mind off the top of my head: Campus Crusade for Christ. Even if you aren’t an evangelical, even if you despise Christianity, you have to admit that this organization has made a considerable impact on our culture.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve struggled to make sense of how to reach youth. In the church, for example, should we pander to their desire to be entertained? Should we “tone down” our teaching? Isn’t youth ministry just about loving relationships, not teaching and instruction? I see the trends, but really, I dunno.
So I did some reading.
Over the summer, one of the books I read was Soul Searching, by Christian Smith. In the book, he lays out a comprehensive research project on the spiritual lives of American teenagers. The project was, to my knowledge, the first of its kind in its breadth and depth. His organization (The National Study of Youth and Religion) surveyed over 3,000 youth via phone and conducted in-depth face-to-face interviews with 267 of those surveyed.
What did he find? Contra the stereotype of the rebellious, disaffected youth, he found that mostly (there were, of course, outliers, some of which he writes about in his book), teenagers are pretty conventional spiritually speaking. They are pretty happy to go along with the flow and follow their parents’ lead.
You might think this is a great thing, but what came next gave me (and Smith) pause. When Smith dug deeper, he found that, though the teens were happy to follow their parents’ teaching, religion wasn’t that important to the family.
How could he tell this?
What comprised the teenagers’ faith? Not much. When questioned on their beliefs, few teens could articulate their views. They articulated boredom, but not much else. Here, for example, is the response of a 15-year-old who attends church four or five times a week, when asked to articulate her faith:
I: What do you believe about God?
T: [Pause] I don’t really know how to answer that.
I: Are there any beliefs at all that are important to you? Really generally.
T: [Pause] I don’t know.
I: Take your time if you want.
T: I think that you should just, if you’re gonna do something wrong then you should always ask for forgiveness and he’s gonna forgive you no matter what, cause he gave up his only Son to take all the sins for you, so…
You might think that this was an exception to the rule, but this interview was not atypical. Of course, there were teens that did a splendid job of articulating their faith, but those were in the definite minority.
Smith coined a phrase that captures the religion of today’s typical teen: Moral Therapeutic Deism: God exists, He wants to make you happy, be nice to people. That’s about it.
Smith found that for teens like the 15-year-old described above, religions wasn’t that important to them. It wasn’t very important to their family either. Yes, they might go to church, profess faith, and answer “very important” when asked in a phone interview how important religion is to them, but there wasn’t much there upon inspection. In fact, Smith noted, a significant number of teens expressed frustration at the questions because it was *the first time ANY adult had asked them questions like that!*
Here’s the main question: what should our response as adults in the Church be to this?
I can’t answer this question fully in a paragraph, but I will mention a few things.
First, we must *teach.* Out with the entertainment based programs. When our young ones go to college, the fledgling faith they have will be assaulted from every direction. Stats show that somewhere between 60-80% (depending on the study. See here, here, and here for examples) of youth group members leave the church in college. We must give them meat…it is that simple.
Second, we must engage…ENGAGE, ENGAGE, ENGAGE!!! We cannot be content with merely “hanging out” with teens. We must be intentional in asking them the tough questions. We must teach, lead, and relate socratically, and we must do this often. By the same methods, we must teach them to evaluate the media they take in.
Thirdly, and similarly, parents: EAT DINNER WITH YOUR KIDS. At the dinner table, dig, even if that gets you the annoyed look that teens have perfected.
Fourth, youth leaders must start teaching apologetics and theology. I’m not kidding. You can blow this off, but by looking at the research, it is what they need (though not the only thing).
My friend Brett Kunkle knows this. He regularly speaks to youth groups and high school clubs in Southern California. He’s noted that when you give them reasons for why they believe, they suddenly perk up. When you teach them how to discuss deep things with another person, they come alive.
He’s led a few youth trips to Cal. Berkeley. In these trips, he and other adults teach the students theology and apologetics, then they get to apply that learning with leading atheists and agnostics at the school, as well as with the general student population at Berkeley. Afterwards, when they debrief and worship, the students are alive with fervor. He has personally noted to me that the worship sessions after those trips are some of the most vibrant he’s seen amongst youth.
I could go on, but that’s a good start. Do you see a theme running through those four recommendations?
What can you add?
Also check out this blog on Smith’s book
HT: Brett Kunkle at Stand to Reason (follow the above link)