Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Spiritual Lives of America’s Young People

By Fr. Rob

Two very interesting books have been the focus of my reading recently: Soul Searching by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton (about the spiritual lives of teenagers 13-17); and Souls in Transition (about the spiritual lives of young adults, 18-27) also by Christian Smith.  These books are based on surveys done concerning the spiritual lives of young people.  I found a few surprises and a number of affirmations.  I will attempt to summarize them for you:

1.      Young people with spiritual roots and church connections statistically do better in life.  This includes such areas as social interaction, relationships, school, and general happiness.  They tend to exhibit less guilt over behavior and past wrongs, are more future oriented, and are more effectively seek meaning, purpose and productive direction for their lives.  It is clear from these studies that these life outcomes trend in the positive direction with deepening levels of faith commitment.

2.      A common perception is that there are fewer teenagers and young adults than in previous generations seeking connection with God and His Church.   These studies do not support this assumption.  While religion is definitely not a priority for most teenagers, many today are remaining in the church, usually in the faith community of their parents, and the number doing so is not significantly different from teens 40 years ago. 

3.      It is true, however, that many struggle with articulating their faith, and many simply lapse into a form of “moralistic therapeutic deism” (a faith based on God expecting them to live right but who is otherwise detached and uninvolved… In other words, they are on their own).  This displaces for many an authentic Christian experience based on a loving, growing relationship with God and neighbor, one that empowers, transforms, stabilizes life and provides purpose.

4.      We all know that the teen years involve a growing independence and an absorption into peer groups.  The message parents often get is “butt out,” and American parents are frequently willing to comply.  This is particularly true on issues of spiritual growth.  As a pastor, I have often heard as a pastor something like this:     “My teenager doesn’t want to come to church or be part of the youth group, and I think he should make up his own mind.”  The result is that many younger teenagers find themselves uncomfortably on their own with some of life’s toughest and most basic questions, such as their true identity and what is real, true, valuable and morally right.  Studies show that most teenagers very badly want loving input (after all, it’s a scary world out there), but they want input and engagement on re-negotiated grounds that take into account their growing maturity and desired independence.  This is when the art of parenting can be its most challenging, but also its most rewarding.

For us as a church family this means that we need to engage teens and young adults wherever and whenever we can.  We need to help them bring faith issues out of the background of their lives and find a Faith that can positively shape their lives.  We need to encourage young people to respect the faith of others but move beyond the modern cultural distortion that it is necessary to water down their own faith convictions in the process.  Finally, knowing that parents are and have always been the key to the spiritual development of young people, we need to bring parents into our church fellowship and talk about the criticality of faith development along side physical and mental development in the life of their teens.

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