Faith, Culture, and Youth

by Adam Francisco


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Much could be said about the age in which we live. Some describe it as an age of global instability. Others view things a bit more optimistically, calling it the new era of global responsibility. Still others characterize it as the age of information. For the Church and Christianity in the West, however, one thing is pretty clear. We live in what many are now calling a post-church or post-Christian era.

The influence and, in many respects, the authority the Church and classic Christian beliefs once exerted on individuals and the broader culture has dwindled to the point of insignificance.

This may seem odd, for national surveys suggest that the strong majority of Americans—about 76 percent—identify themselves as Christian. How can it be, then, that Christianity is on the decline?

Probing the content of our religious beliefs, several recent studies indicate that, while professing to be Christian, a majority of Americans maintain beliefs inconsistent with Christianity. For example, the Pew Forum found that 65 percent of Americans believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” Although more eastern in its theological orientation, over half of these individuals also identified themselves as Christian.

Nowhere is the erosion of classic Christian beliefs and values more evident than amongst our nation’s youth. The Barna Group recently found, after more than a decade of research, that very few kids from the mosaic generation (those born between 1984 and 2002) even have what one might call a Christian or biblical worldview. Few believe there are fixed moral truths, the Bible is totally authoritative, salvation is through faith in Christ, and God is omniscient and omnipotent.

This and other comparable studies all illustrate an alarming trend: While younger kids largely assume the beliefs of their parents, the older they become, the more inclined they are to embrace ideas at odds with Christian beliefs. The Barna research even suggests that by their late teens and early twenties less than 1 percent of youth actually maintain basic biblical beliefs.

So, what are kids thinking these days? And why are they thinking the way they do?

A ‘Map of the World’

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One way to understand the way a person thinks is to examine their worldview. Worldviews are conceptual maps that purport to explain the true nature of the universe and life within it, either by a story or in a set of propositions. More important, perhaps, they also help one interpret and explain one’s place in and relationship to God, the world, and other people.

As theoretical as all this sounds, one should not think that worldviews are irrelevant when discerning how kids think. It is true that few young people (or adults) can articulate every aspect of their worldview. But they—like all people—still think and act in light of it.

One of the most influential worldviews that predominates youth—and broader American—culture is post-modernism. Although it is notoriously difficult to define, one of its main features is its rejection of any worldview as the true one. And any worldview or person claiming to have a corner on the truth is typically viewed with suspicion and cynicism.

Postmodernism has, in many ways, led youth, while wanting to keep up religious appearances, to think about God and religion in a unique and ambivalent way. Survey responses indicate they largely see God as a distant being. They may acknowledge that He created the universe in one way or another. He can intervene in human affairs, and even be reached through prayer. Yet, He mostly remains aloof and disinterested. Also, according to this worldview, the highest goal in life for humans is happiness. This, along with being nice and kind, is what defines a moral person. And since morality is found in all religions, this view puts most if not all religions on an equal footing.

In this way of framing reality, religion and spirituality provide an escape, or therapy, for the individual and his quest—a quest, not for truth, but happiness. Jesus may figure into this worldview; however, He is largely regarded as a great moral example, or perhaps as a personal spiritual confidant, but not as the one and only Son of God whose death paid for the sins of humankind. It is presumed that all moral people will be saved.

Specialists in youth culture from the National Study of Youth and Religion have labeled this worldview, in the award-winning Soul Searching: The Religion and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Interestingly, a more recent follow-up study, entitled Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, has found that the views of God and religion of the youth studied in Soul Searching grow even more ambivalent and complacent as they get older. What is most unsettling about this and other comparable studies is that they indicate many young adults who are ambiguous and uncommitted to any religious convictions were at one time during their youth active in church.

Addressing Challenges

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What happened? There is no single discernable cause. A number of factors have contributed to the decline in Christian beliefs amongst youth. But perhaps the most startling one is detailed in Britt Beemer and Ken Ham’s Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do to Stop It. This study found that many formerly churched youth and young adults were active in youth group, Bible study, and worship. Somewhere along the line, though, their faith was challenged by the claims of evolutionary science, revisionist history, and various worldly philosophies in the classroom, on the Internet, in their social circle, and elsewhere. Over time, unequipped for such challenges, they grew complacent and, in some cases, rejected the faith of their childhood.

The studies referred to above were all nationwide surveys. They do not speak for youth everywhere. Yet, they are a cause for concern, for there are a number of ideologies competing for young minds. Postmodern indifference toward religion is just one of them. Analysts also have noticed a rise in an aggressive and assertive form of atheism. Buddhism, paganism, and other world religions and philosophies also purport to offer equally viable spiritual alternatives to Christianity.

What this suggests is the need for a more robust approach to Christian education. In addition to teaching youth the content of the Christian faith, it also is necessary to devote time to equipping youth in the task of defending their faith. Are youth capable of this? Spend some time with them, and you will find out that our church is filled with remarkable kids who have tremendous intellectual abilities. Likewise, we have outstanding schools, youth ministries, and, of course, congregations where exceptional catechesis and Christian education takes place. Yet, the further we make our way into this post-Christian or post-church era, the more it will be necessary to address specific challenges of the age, to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5 ESV). The apostle Peter likewise enjoins Christians to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

There is indeed much work to be done. From the beginning, however, it is important to remember that the formation of the Christian mind is from beginning to end the work of God working through means. The Christian life begins, is nurtured, and sustained in, through, and by Baptism, the hearing, receiving, and learning of the Word of God, and the reception of the Lord’s Supper. Kids these days, just like adults, need to be daily reminded of this as they navigate the age in which we live.

About the Author: Dr. Adam Francisco is assistant professor of historical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Thoughts on Youth Ministry in a Postmodern Culture

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by Dr. Craig S. Oldenburg

Our postmodern culture is not limited to the youthful generation; however, it is more likely that youth and young adults have grown up in this transitional culture—a culture Dr. Adam Francisco says often “maintains beliefs inconsistent with Christianity.”

It sometimes is said that postmodern culture is neither good nor evil—it just is. But regardless of what one thinks about that, what really matters is how we choose to be the Church within that culture. What might we hear if we gather a group of young people together and ask them how the Christian Church could be more effective within this culture? Consider these six possible responses.

    1. Please ask pastor to ‘get real.’Will you please talk to the pastor for me? I can’t understand his messages when he talks about the pastors’ conference he went to, or says things like, “You know we are all good Germans . . .” I’m not German. Never have been. I’m wondering how to make it through life and how to have an identity. Can he teach me this? I need to see my congregation engaging the community I live in and not just Pastor caring for the “big givers” of the congregation. I’m not sure my pastor believes youth are important. His stories and examples talk to the older adults. He rarely looks in my eyes when he speaks. Please help him to know us—help him to get to know me—the kid who lives with his mom, doesn’t really know his dad, and wonders if God shows up in places besides the church building.
    2. Youth workers, please stop entertaining us. 

      Why does the youth minister call herself “professional”? What does that mean? She is very smart, but all I do is sit and listen. Can you help me? I attended a friend’s church—it was Lutheran—and the youth there were involved in planning for ministry. Not just youth ministry, either. They were being challenged and equipped to live their faith with adult advocates—like you. Several of the adults of the congregation were involved. It didn’t seem like a youth program but more like a movement of the whole congregation.

    3. Please close the youth room. 

      I know you mean well by spending money on a special place for us; but when you put me in the youth room, you forget about me. We are herded into the room like cattle, and the congregation only sees us when we come out for fundraising. The room seems like a symbol of youth ministry—but it adds to my isolation and my belief that this is not a real community of believers. So, what might youth ministry look like? In my opinion, it would be every believing adult in the congregation knowing and advocating for two to four of us. Knowing us by name and greeting us by name in and out of the church building—in the community—at our events. Knowing our hurts and pains—our joys and celebrations. Standing by us in crisis. Please know me.

    4. Don’t be afraid of ministry outside the church walls. 

      Please quit thinking in terms of “Youth Group” as the young people in our church. Our “Youth Group” is the entire community. It is not the 12 of us associated with the families of our congregation. My friends and I need to know Jesus’ forgiveness. I’ve heard that some congregations say they don’t have a youth ministry because they don’t have any youth. That’s foolish. I am that one “member” youth that is connected to 10 others in the community. I am that one youth walking past the church building, wondering what goes on inside. I am that one youth you pass on the road every day, while I’m wondering if life has any meaning.

    5. Experience faith with us. 

      I want to see your faith in action. I don’t want you to just talk about it. Invite me into your life. My dad is the biggest influencer of my faith—but he needs your support and encouragement. He needs you to take him out for breakfast, and to just listen to him. He needs you to take both of us to a baseball game and laugh together—so that we can cry together later on.

    6. About the ‘old liturgy . . .’I may or may not be connected to your church the way you are connected. I might wander in some day to experience church. But I will not stay unless you satisfy two things: First, I need a relationship with you. Don’t wait for me to come to you. Come to me and ask questions about me—about my life. Let me tell you what I believe without judging the content. Don’t tell me what to believe or how to worship. Let me watch you. I am actually pretty smart. If you have a relationship with me, I will begin to ask you questions. Second, I need to be able to use the skills God has given me—just as they are. Don’t assume your “old liturgy” will be enough. You are being told youth my age like the ancient liturgy—the more transcendent feel; but please remember, I am also a person gifted. Remember that you can adapt liturgy so that I can experience God with you (experience is my language). You might need to let me draw or paint during the pastor’s message—and then we can discuss what I drew. Realize that God might be working through me and I might—I just might—be realizing that God is real. Very real.
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And so go the responses, which may be true for only a few youth you know, or perhaps many, but they all reflect a need for faith to be experienced through a relationship with you. “Perfect love casts our fear,” John wrote to his readers. Each of you probably has children, grandchildren, grandnieces or nephews who have not maintained a relationship with a Christian community of believers—a church. It is not that they have walked away; often, it is that they have been forgotten.

None of us should be standing alone in fear, wondering what to do. We, the “church,” need to be standing at your side when times are tough, and their side, too—standing next to every youth in the community. Yes, certainly on our knees praying for them, but then on our feet investing in them as a believing church community. It begins with your pastor and elders (it is OK to remind them). It extends through every adult member of your congregation. Its ultimate conclusion being that God is real, and He is known in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Regardless of what one thinks about postmodern culture, what matters is how we choose to be the Church within that culture.

About the Author: A teacher and DCE, Dr. Craig S. Oldenburg is executive director of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries of Northern California, Ben Lomond, Calif. With Dr. Adam Francisco, he participated in “What’s Your Worldview?”—the 2010 LCMS Youth Ministry Symposium Jan. 8–10 in Houston, Texas.

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