Saturday, December 26, 2009

Soul Searching, Part 2- The Influence of Parents, Other Adults, And Relationships

A handful of interesting passages from the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton:

One of the key themes of this book is that parents are normally very important in shaping the religious and spiritual lives of their teenage children, even though they may not realize it. It seems that many parents of teens rely primarily on the immediate evidence of the overt attitudes, statements, and sometimes behaviors that their teenage children dole out to them on a daily basis in order to estimate their current level of parental influence. Many of the attitudes and statements that teenagers communicate to their parents do not exactly express great admiration and gratitude for and readiness to listen to, emulate, or freely obey their parents. Many parents therefore appear to come to the conclusion that they have lost their influence in shaping the lives of their teenage children, that they no longer make any significant difference. But for most, this conclusion is mistaken. Teenagers' attitudes, verbal utterances, and immediate behaviors are often not the best evidence with which to estimate parental influence in their lives. For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adolescents- more often than do their peers- their children's apparent resistance and lack of appreciation notwithstanding. This influence often also includes parental influence in adolescents' religious and spiritual lives. Simply by living and interacting with their children, most parents establish expectations, define normalcy, model life practices, set boundaries, and make demands- all of which cannot help but influence teenagers, for good or ill. Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people's religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.

- p. 56

Parents for whom faith is quite important are thus likely to be raising teenagers for whom faith is quite important, while parents whose faith is not important are likely to be raising teenagers for whom faith is also not important. The fit is not perfect. None of this is guaranteed or determined, and sometimes, in specific instances, things turn out otherwise. But overall positive association is clear… In sum, therefore, we think that the best general rule of thumb that parents might use to reckon their children's most likely religious outcomes is this: "We'll get what we are."

- p. 57

Large majorities of teens from all religious traditions report having nonfamily adults in their religious congregations whom they enjoy talking to and who give them lots of encouragement… The majority of teens who do not have such enjoyable and encouraging adult ties in their congregations… say that they wish they did… Religious organizations thus appear to help foster cross-generational relational ties for large numbers of US teenagers, ties we would expect to help legitimize and reinforce the religious faith and practices of those teens.

- pp. 60-61

Religious faith and practice in American teenagers' lives operate in a social and institutional environment that is highly competitive for time, attention, and energy. Religious interests and values in teens' lives typically compete against those of school, homework, television, other media, sports, romantic relationships, paid work, and more. Indeed, in many adolescents' lives, religion occupies a quite weak and often losing position among these competing influences. Those teenagers for whom religious faith and practice are important tend to have religious lives constructed relationally and institutionally to intersect and overlap with other important aspects of their lives… For American adolescents more broadly, the structure of relational networks and institutional ties of both teens and their parents seems significantly correlated with the character of their religious faith and practice.

-p. 28

Religious and nonreligious identities thus tend to cluster around and be reinforced by close friendship networks… Again, religion in the lives of teenagers appears to be not simply restricted to time spent in religious congregations, but also flows in various ways and to different degrees into and through teens' relational networks.

-p. 58

All Quotations taken from Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Soul Searching, Part I- Balancing Conservative and Mainline Emphasis

For Christmas I was given a copy of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. The book is an assessment of the data compiled in an extensive study by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill into the spiritual lives of American adolescents, and thus far it has definitely been good food for thought. I'm going to blog my way through this book a bit commenting on some interesting features. As an interesting side note, I also noticed today this poll about the religious beliefs of American in general.

I just finished reading one of the opening chapters which provides a basic overview of the data collected. The focus of the book is on all religious experience, but my particular interest as a youth director is the data concerning Conservative and Mainline Protestants. The church that I am part of is from a mainline denomination, but perhaps has a more conservative bent than many other churches in the denomination. The data collected shows some interesting divergences between the way teens view religion in these two camps that are somewhat enlightening for my experience.

First, there are some indications that teens from more "mainline" denominations feel less "spiritually vital." They are less likely to report feeling "close" to God than teens from conservative circles, significantly less likely to report feeling as though they have had a "spiritual experience," less likely to take part in "Bible studies" or "prayer groups," less active in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, less likely to strictly adhere to traditional Christian beliefs (such as the existence of angels or demons), and more likely to adopt non-traditional, occultic beliefs (such as reincarnation or communication with the dead). I don't want to exaggerate this- on a whole both conservative and mainline teens report pretty strong signs of spiritual vitality. However, this seems significantly more true of teens from a conservative background.

However, there are other signs that should make us cautious of fully embracing the conservative climate uncritically. Mainline teens are much more involved in "traditional" manifestations of the Christian faith- they are much more involved in Christian ceremonies and liturgy and much more likely to have participated in the sacraments (including public baptism). These historic aspects of the Christian experience are, it would seem, stressed much less in conservative circles, which is a somewhat ironic finding.

In terms of relationships there seems to also be a bit of a difference- Conservatives have more of a focus on the family relationship, are more prone to embracing a "Christian sub-culture" (with things such as listening to Christian music, going to Christian camps, etc.), and are more open or public in talking about their faith. More mainline Protestants tend to have more of a community focused relationship- more teens from these circles indicated that they had worked to restore a broken relationship, that they felt comfortable talking to adults in the church who were not their parents, and more teens from these communities report that they have approached their ministers for advice about serious issues in their lives. Ironically, perhaps, it is also the case that more teens from mainline denominations are willing to be critical of the adults in their churches and call them hypocritical (but still less than 10% of them say that a large portion of the adults in their church are hypocritical). Perhaps this is an indication that more involved relationships are more revealing of those adults who are authentic in what they believe.

My assessment is that there needs to be a balance here. Conservatives bring to the table a stronger emphasis on an active personal spiritual life. However, mainline groups are better at realizing that the personal spiritual life of an individual is only part of the story- there is also a significant communal aspect to the Christian faith- one that is embodied in community relationships and in partaking in traditional Christian expressions of the faith (such as the sacraments and liturgy). So as a youth director and a leader in a church that already attempts to balance these two camps, I need to set two equally important objectives: First, to foster personal spiritual growth in my youth. Second, to encourage community relationships not just among my youth but between my youth and the wider church they are a part of.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lessons From Luther for the Contemporary Church

Just finished reading an article by Carl Trueman (professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in Philly) on Martin Luther's doctrine of Justification in the book Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges edited by Bruce L. McCormack. Very insightful article that surveys the development within Luther's thought on the doctrine that became the centerpiece of his theology. The article also connects the doctrine to several other issues in Lutheran thought, especially Luther's doctrine of The Cross. Just briefly summarizing here: Luther's theology is full of paradoxes (he loved using them!) and challenges to recognize that Christian doctrine is decidedly counter to our human expectations.

Trueman closes out his discussion by addressing some ways in which Luther's theology has been misused by the contemporary Church. Top among these are an over-emphasis on "personal conversion"- Luther continued to hold a sacramental view of Baptism as the beginning of a believer's inclusion in Christ- and significantly neglecting the weight of the cross in Luther's theology and its practical significance for the Christian life- Luther strongly believed that the doctrine of the Cross implied that the Christian life would be full of suffering and be essentially "counter-cultural." With this in mind, Trueman describes how Luther serves to critique our contemporary Church environment in the States:

In giving horizons of expectation that look to suffering and servitude as providing Christian authenticity, Luther's theology also provides material for a deep critique of modern Western consumerism, where the very excess of goods and comfort generates boredom, acquisitiveness, an obsession with alleviating even the slightest discomfort, and a church that, at least in the materially more prosperous Christian suburbs of America, is often indistinguishable in attitude and posture from the wider culture to which it belongs- a cultural Protestantism of the kind that serves the purpose of baptizing the political and social aspirations of the West rather as the church of Luther's day sanctioned its own institutional greed by turning grace itself into a commodity. By placing the cross back at the center of authentic Christianity, Luther points an accusing finger at those who make too easy a marriage between the empowering ambitions of the societies in which we live and the true empowerment of Christ.

Oh, by the way, notice that entire quote is only two sentences!

Quote From: Carl Trueman, "Simul peccator et justus: Martin Luther and Justification," in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, Bruce L. McCormack, ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Prayer Reflecting Our Culture

'Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance.
We know Your Word says, 'Woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done.
We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values.
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.
We have killed our unborn and called it choice.
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self esteem.
We have abused power and called it politics.
We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition.
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.
We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.
Search us, Oh God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and Set us free. Amen!'

Thanks to Ben Witherington for posting this!

I appreciate this because it does an excellent job of pointing out that "freedom" too often becomes self-idolatry. I also appreciate it because though it comes from a conservative source and point of view, it certainly takes a few jabs at conservatives as well. Morality is not monopolized by one side of the aisle. In fact, both sides are morally bankrupt!

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