Saturday, December 26, 2009

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.

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