Friday, December 30, 2005

Church-Shopping Teens

The New York Times reports on the church-attending habits of American teenagers. According to the article, the practice of attending multiple churches is "particularly pronounced among young people" who, while they may go to church with their families, also participate in youth programs offered by other congregations. The article cites a survey conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion under the leadership of Christian Smith, author of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (about which I blogged here and here).

Many parents are enthused that their children want to participate in religious services even if at another congregation.

Parents also want their children to have an "authentic" relationship to faith, and "if you don't choose it, it's not authentic for you," said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina and director of the survey on youth and religion.  Emily and her parents, who are evangelical Christians, say her decision to attend the megachurch, New Life, reveals the strength of her faith and the profoundly individual spiritual course each believer follows.
"I saw that my parents' relationship to Christ and my relationship to Jesus Christ were different, and my kids aren't going to relate to Jesus Christ the same way we do," said Emily's mother, Tracy Hoogenboom, 49. "And that's to be expected because Jesus Christ is your own personal lord and savior."
Focus on the Family's director of teenage evangelism, Jose Zayas, also expresses approval for the trend: "[Teenagers] gravitate to where they feel a connection. They're more pragmatic than their parents' generation. They look at what works for them. I think it's healthy."

I have to count myself among those who, according to the article, decry this approach as consumeristic. I wouldn't expect the Times to cover this aspect but something I'm concerned about is how this growing trend might adversely affect teens' ability to construct coherent biblical/theological frameworks. When I was a new believer, eager to learn all I could about the faith, I listened to Christian radio every chance I could, sometimes for hours on end. I listened to teaching from a variety of conflicting theological perspectives and wondered how they fit together. I eventually came to realize that such integration was not always possible because the assumed theological systems (which are inevitable) were contradictory in many points. I fear that in many cases, participation in multiple congregations will only contribute to further splintering young minds that are already fragmented.  I'd be interested in hearing others' reactions to the article so if you read it please share your thoughts.

1 comment:

Mark Pettigrew said...

Coherence is indeed important, when it comes to theology. But it does not follow from the fact that a person has only encountered the theological perspectives to be found in one particular faith tradition that that person will wind up with an intellectually coherent system of belief. Many of our churches embrace theological beliefs which are themselves incoherent, at least in terms of the extent to which they accurately reflect the truth of the scriptures in which they claim to believe.

Exposure to multiple theological traditions encourages people to use their minds and exercise discernment by going to the only truly authoritative source, that is, to the Bible, in order to discover the authentic Christian position on any given subject.

It is often said, rather flippantly, that there is no such thing as the perfect church. That statement, on its face, is indisputably true. But I find it abominable when such a truth is abused in order to discourage people from criticizing the flaws they find in their local churches. On the contrary, it is precisely because the church is imperfect that we as Christians should be involved in a constant ongoing process of reevaluating our beliefs in the light of the scriptures.

Our ability to objectively assess the legitimacy of any given teaching heard from the pulpit is hindered when we artificially shelter ourselves from contrary views. Our goal should not be to formulate a system of theological beliefs which is consistent with the teachings of any given denomination, or to define ourselves primarily in terms of our relationship with any particular church body, but rather, to be in complete and total submission to Christ and to God's word, even if that puts us in conflict, in some respects, with the people with whom we share the Lord's Supper on a regular basis.

When we base our beliefs on our own thoughtful study of the scriptures --- instead of mindlessly adopting the beliefs of our fellow Christians just because we value unity above truth, and because we're too lazy to do the work which is necessary for such analysis --- we will ultimately arrive at a system of belief which is both internally coherent (because the Bible, properly understood, is internally coherent) and true. There is nothing "splintered" about that.