This article in the NY Times is going to get a lot of play, I think, in the Christian blogosphere. The article highlights concerns among evangelical leaders about the spiritual state of evangelical youth, something that I am very much in tune with and likewise am quite concerned about.
There are several issues here. First, is there just cause to be concerned? The article begins with the alarmist side of things, citing a (rather dubious) statistic “that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults.” Christian Smith, author of the authoritative analysis of Christian youth culture, Soul Surviving, casts doubt on the validity of the statistic:
Mr. Smith said he was skeptical about the 4 percent statistic. He said the figure was from a footnote in a book and was inconsistent with research he had conducted and reviewed, which has found that evangelical teenagers are more likely to remain involved with their faith than are mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews and teenagers of almost every other religion.
“A lot of the goals I’m very supportive of,” Mr. Smith said of the new evangelical youth campaign, “but it just kills me that it’s framed in such apocalyptic terms that couldn’t possibly hold up under half a second of scrutiny. It’s just self-defeating.”
What’s interesting about the article, and about the phenomenon, are not the validity of the statistics, but the perception of the youth leaders. These men, if nothing else, spend much of their time interacting with Christian youth–their finger, in other words, is close to the pulse of American youth. It’s difficult to not appreciate the candid assessment of Ron Luce, founder of Teen Mania ministries: “We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing.”
There is, I think, good reason to be concerned. While teaching Christian homeschoolers for two years, I was apalled at their lack of basic Bible knowledge, even blogging about it on occasion. The fact that Ron Luce is concerned enough to point out his own failures is to me more telling than the statistics. Even if the 4% number 1/10th of the reality (40%), I would continue to be concerned.
The second main issue is the cause of the problem: why would evangelical Christian youth become stagnant or leave the faith? The article provides several clues:
Over and over in interviews, evangelical teenagers said they felt like a tiny, beleaguered minority in their schools and neighborhoods. They said they often felt alone in their struggles to live by their “Biblical values” by avoiding casual sex, risqué music and videos, Internet pornography, alcohol and drugs.
When Eric Soto, 18, transferred from a small charter school to a large public high school in Chicago, he said he was disappointed to find that an extracurricular Bible study attracted only five to eight students. “When we brought food, we thought we could get a better turnout,” he said. They got 12.
Chelsea Dunford, a 17-year old from Canton, Conn., said, “At school I don’t have a lot of friends who are Christians.”
It is interesting that they highlight both the isolation that many Christian youth feel in their struggles, and the lack of motivation on behalf of Christian youth to engage in Bible study in community. What seems to be missing are genuine friendships, genuine communities, where Christian youth can gather to connect on deeper and more meaningful levels. The article later takes back with the left what it gave us with the right:
Contradicting the sense of isolation expressed by some evangelical teenagers, Ms. Sandler said, “I met plenty of kids who told me over and over that if you’re not Christian in your high school, you’re not cool — kids with Mohawks, with indie rock bands who feel peer pressure to be Christian.”
It’s hard to see how ‘coolness,’ though, translates into authentic Christianity. Being a Christian because it’s “cool” will only last so long. When it is no longer cool to be cool, when it is cool to be rich or successful, Christianity would then be superfluous.
Ironically and somewhat painfully, the good work of Teen Mania, it seems fails to address the isolation of Christian youth. Instead, it turns Christianity into something to be “branded” and consumed.
Outside the arena in Amherst, the teenagers at Mr. Luce’s Acquire the Fire extravaganza mobbed the tables hawking T-shirts and CD’s stamped: “Branded by God.” Mr. Luce’s strategy is to replace MTV’s wares with those of an alternative Christian culture, so teenagers will link their identity to Christ and not to the latest flesh-baring pop star.
I blogged last night about disposable Ipods. I fail to see how subordinating Christianity to a culture of consumption can be good or produce long lasting, deep relationships with God. Unfortunately and perhaps for lack of a better strategy, Teen Mania has adopted this consumerist, entertainment oriented mindset to reach youth. Not surprisingly, the results have been less than they desired.
What the article doesn’t address, of course, is the solution to this problem. Ben Witherington, the New Testament and a smarter man than I, appeals for substance and better education. I quote at length:
My word today to Youth Ministers is this— one key to retaining the youth is this— have they been captivated, caught up in love, wonder and praise of the Lord, or have they merely been entertained? There is a difference. Does the event not merely make them dance but make them kneel and confess their sins and pray? Does the event not merely move their emotions but challenge their thinking? Does it bring them to repentance, or are you offering some kind of forgiveness without repentance, crown without a cross, encounter without commitment? And are you integrating them into a caring Christian community where they will be planted deeply, richly in God’s Word? The key to retention is surrounding a new Christian with a caring, supportive and yes challenging Christian environment that involves more than just worship. It also needs to involve some profound Christian education, as our youth will never get that from our culture these days. Youth ministry is often failing because in general the Church’s Christian education is failing. Less than a third, on average, of people who go to worship stay for Sunday school or Bible study or its equivalent. We should have noticed this warning sign a long time ago.
I would point out that much of Christian youth education–including worldview education–is oriented around teaching students what to think. We are very good at helping them become aware of the issues they will face. But what we are not good at is teaching students how to think, a skill that is necessary not only to face intellectual and cultural challenges, but to confidently face intellectual and cultural challenges. Replacing a secular consumer mindset with a Christian consumer mindset is not an improvement. Replacing a secular consumer mindset with a creative and questioning Christian mindset is. The challenge for Christian educators is to move beyond stuffing information in the heads of students (consumption), to training the mental muscles God has given young people to think on their own. If Christianity is true, as we think it is, then there is nothing to be afraid of.
But that type of Christian education is no good if done outside vibrant Christian communities. Christian education is not supplemental to authentic Christian relationships, but intrinsic. We must learn and grow, and do so together.
This is a topic on which I feel no small amount of passion. For the last two years, I have worked hard to help high school Christians learn how to think, with a small degree of success. I have recently taken a position with Wheatstone Academy, a weeklong summer camp designed to address these exact problems. To shamelessly plug my program, Wheatstone engages students minds through a discussion based curriculum where students are forced to articulate and defend their thoughts on the spot. There is no time to go find someone else to answer the questions for them–students must think or sink. We are interested in training them how to think, and doing so within the context of robust Christian relationships and community, which is why small groups will never be larger than six students and conferences never larger than sixty students. We are moving in the opposite direction from Teen Mania: serious engagement in small communities, rather than entertaining in sports arenas.
Wheatstone, though, is only one piece in a much larger puzzle. We will not reach every student, which means other programs must reach students as well. The NY Times article makes me giddy–I am glad Ron Luce and others recognize the problem, and I am curious to see how they continue to devote their massive resources to solve it.