Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The kids are alright (Sunday Reflections for September 5, 2010)

 (Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!
Kids! Who can understand anything they say?
Kids! You can talk and talk till your face is blue!
Kids! But they still just do what they want to do!
Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

These lyrics (if you don’t recognize them) are from the hit musical Bye, Bye Birdie, which opened on Broadway fifty years ago in 1960. And it was fifty years before this that something called “adolescence” was discovered. For at least a century, adults—parents, educators, clergy, doctors, police, politicians—have been wondering and worrying about “kids:” those odd creatures, no longer children but not yet adults.

It’s easy to make a speech or a sermon (or a movie or a show) that gets people’s attention—and riles them up—if your subject is “the problems of American youth today.” And heaven knows adolescents have plenty of problems. Most of us remember our own vividly. The difficulty is that rarely does anyone really know what’s to be done about them. In the end, most kids muddle through and move on with their lives. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to worry.

This past week, via a couple of clergy colleagues, my attention was drawn to a piece on CNN.com provocatively titled “More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians.” The inspiration for the story is a new book by Kenda Creasy Dean called Almost Christian. Dean is a United Methodist minister and “professor of youth and church culture” at Princeton Theological Seminary (which is not a part of Princeton University).

In her book, Dean warns that teenagers are adopting an anemic form of Christianity, “a watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem.” According to CNN,

Dean drew her conclusions from what she calls one of the most depressing summers of her life. She interviewed teens about their faith after helping conduct research for a controversial study called the National Study of Youth and Religion. The study, which included in-depth interviews with at least 3,300 American teenagers between 13 and 17, found that most American teens who called themselves Christian were indifferent and inarticulate about their faith.

The study included Christians of all stripes -- from Catholics to Protestants of both conservative and liberal denominations. Though three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can't talk coherently about their beliefs, the study found. Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good—what the study's researchers called "moralistic therapeutic deism."

Again, according to CNN, Dean’s book

argues that many parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity. She says this "imposter'' faith is one reason teenagers abandon churches."If this is the God they're seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust," Dean says. "Churches don't give them enough to be passionate about."

“What's the matter with kids today?” A lot according to Prof Dean’s hand-wringing analysis. Yet looking at her statistics, the problem with kids seems to be they’re acting just like grownups! “Three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can't talk coherently about their beliefs.” Uh, Prof Dean, have you talked to any adults lately?

Teen behavior and attitudes toward Christianity and religion generally is certainly at the low end of the age-scale. Yet they seem to be right where one would expect given the steady drop in religious interest most studies find as one moves from older to younger age groups. The lack of religious passion or theological coherence Dean reports among young people is actually just a somewhat more extreme case of church trends that have been ongoing for decades. The problem isn’t the kids; it’s modern day Christianity.

There is always a tendency for adults to try to live their lives through their kids. We want them to avoid the mistakes we made and often want them to be things we aren’t but wish we were. Religious “passion” went out of mainline Christianity long ago and seems to be leaking out of most evangelical churches, as well. And the expectation that average Christians should be able to coherently articulate their beliefs has probably always been a pipe dream. In his introduction, Luther says he wrote the Small Catechism as a kind of field manual because of the “wretchedness” he found hearing the ignorance of members of local parishes he visited. That was 500 years ago!

CNN goes on to quote another author with a different perspective.

Barbara A. Lewis, author of "The Teen Guide to Global Action," says Dean is right -- more teens are embracing a nebulous belief in God. Yet there's been an "explosion" in youth service since 1995 that Lewis attributes to more schools emphasizing community service. Teens that are less religious aren't automatically less compassionate, she says. "I see an increase in youth passion to make the world a better place," she says. "I see young people reaching out to solve problems. They're not waiting for adults."

Dean dismisses teens' belief “that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good.” While that sounds like something from an “everything important I learned in kindergarten” book, many people could certainly do worse than following such a philosophy. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to the prophet Micah’s famous summation of Hebrew teaching:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

I think Prof Dean forgets something else: youth is a time for rebellion and that’s a good thing. Adolescence, as we all know, is the time when we begin to establish our own identity, independent of that of our parents and family. Yes it’s traumatic for everyone involved but it is a necessary part of becoming a full human being. It should be expected and even encouraged.

Often teens and young adults reject beliefs and practices which they come back to later. If that happens, though, it is because they have come to accept them on their own and are not just mimicking their parents or other adults. They also typically reshape them to fit their own lives, which are not the same as that of previous generations.

In that, I think, there is some hope. Dean is right in seeing a vague, passionless Christianity among the adults teens are learning from. What is the appeal of that for young people today? But Dean’s hope that they will somehow revert to the muscular Christianity of a romanticized past is a fantasy. No, Christianity’s only hope is that it can be re-invented for a world utterly changed from the one in which it began. Young people moving into adulthood, seeking to reshape the world in which they live, may well be the ones to bring about such a transformation. If Christianity has something of lasting value they, of all people, are the ones mostly likely to find it.


David Mc said...

We have a young woman in our Disciples of Christ congregation that has recently started entry into ministry. I can't wait to follow her heart. She's inspired and inspiring. We have lots of new involvement in the city (Detroit) coming up quick already. She did the "City Year" thing there.

We are mostly remnants of a very large congregation that took off to the suburbs in the 70s. Many still need reconciliation, I think. Personally, my family and I just fell into it (former Catholic-> atheist/ Episcopal). I'm so ready for this.

This is a partially relevant I suppose. We need to follow, and gently guide young inspired spirits- especially in this fast changing modern world.

David Mc said...

the kids are alright


Doug Kings said...

Thanks David. Love The Who clip--OMG do they look young! LOL