Thursday, February 24, 2005

Why they leave, update

AP Wire (via WorldNetDaily): Though the phone survey depicted broad affinity with religion, the face-to-face interviews found that many teens' religious knowledge was "'meager, nebulous and often fallacious" and engagement with the substance of their traditions remarkably shallow. Most seemed hard put to express coherently their beliefs and what difference they make.

Many were so detached from the traditions of their faith, says the report, that they're virtually following a different creed in which an undemanding God exists mostly to solve problems and make people feel good. Truth in any absolute, theological sense, takes a back seat.

"God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist" who's on call as needed, Smith writes. He says the trend reflects tendencies among teens' Baby Boomer parents. The report speculates that poor educational and youth programs, and competition for teens' time from school, sports, friends and entertainment also are part of the picture.

Last week I shared some thoughts on the phenomenon of teenagers leaving church as soon as they had the freedom to do so. Now this survey provides some insight, but I guess you have to buy the book to get the breakdown even among broad outlines. One detail that was given was that

Mormon youths - whose church runs daily high school religion classes - were the most engaged in practicing their faith, followed in order by evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

It would have been nice if they had controlled for choice in teens' involement in their respective religion (for example, the seminary classes for Mormon teens are not exactly optional), but still, broadly speaking, this seems to mirror parents' priorities as well. For instance, I have encountered mainline Protestants who seem quite proud of being too sophisticated to take historic, orthodox Christianity seriously, leaving me wondering what they do take seriously. To the extent I was able to deduce anything, it seems to be this:

"God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist" who's on call as needed, Smith writes. He says the trend reflects tendencies among teens' Baby Boomer parents.

This dovetails with my own hypothesis that a lot of kids find role models in their parents, not so much in respect to the content of belief that parents profess belief in, as what parents really believe and consider important as reflected in the choices they make day-to-day in their lives.

Of course, I am not suggesting that it's unimportant for evangelical teens to learn the content of their faith and and the basis and significance of what what they believe; only that head knowledge by itself is insufficient. One of the things that gets lost in our English Bible translations is that there are different Greek words that are translated as the English word "mind". One of these words denotes the intellect, but another word denotes the will, and the issue of the will seems to me extremely underrated in contemporary, Western concepts of thought. The difference between knowing someting abstractly and acting upon it was illustrated by the apostle James:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? James 2:19-20

To put it another way, we evangelicals can sometimes inadvertently assume that postmodern relativism is something that others engage in: that truth, especially "religious truth" is separated from "real life" and not common to, or independent of, all of humanity. But if we think that religious education in the form of family devotionals, Sunday School, good expository preaching from the pulpit, or even Christian schools or homeschooling, are sufficient to ensure that our kids truly embrace the gospel themselves, then I think we are misguided. Having recently lived in "Mormondom" for several years I can attest to this. Mormon doctrine seems to make its adherents holier, but only on Sunday. The Monday-through-Saturday difference that it makes in their lives seems to be only a cultural one: not drinking coffee or alcohol (while anyone is watching), use of alternate cuss words, choice of friends, etc. If we as evangelicals are "holy" only on Sunday -and being holy is different than being sanctimonious-- then we are in our own way being relativists.

In contrast, if teens do indeed often tend to follow the pattern of their parents, we need to avoid "Sunday truth" and the temptation to let the difference in our lives be a cultural one (Christian radio, Christian books, Christian schools, sanitized movies etc.) and instead embrace what Francis Schaeffer referred to as "true truth": that which is expresses in our daily decision making.

Other ways that we can either counter the idea that "religious truth" is separated from "real life" include taking on the hard questions about life, reasons for belief down to and including the level of epistemology, and resisting the urge to make culture and politics the primary avenues for expressing our faith. This in turn involves saying no to the professional demagogues in the church, whose level of influence is out of all proportion and contrary to the biblical model of leadership in the church. Again, this is not to say we shouldn't vote pro-life or we should spend our money on mindless garbage that passes as art, but these sorts of things should only be part of a much bigger picture than they often are.

Now, I fear that on the whole the multimillion-dollar Christian publishing and entertainment industry is more a hindrance than a help in these regards, but that's another subject.