I have previously referred to the work done by sociologist, Christian Smith, in his seminal research, the National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR), conducted in 2003-2005. His book, Soul Searching, emerged from that study. Continued research produced Souls in Transition.
Kenda Creasy Dean served as one of the researchers on Smith’s team. She has written a book based on the research also, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. In her book, Dean holds local churches accountable for the disappointing condition of the spiritual lives of American teens.
A small percentage of teens confesses and demonstrates a strong commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. Dean has identified four characteristics of those teens: “they could tell a personal and powerful story about God; they belonged to a significant faith community; they exhibited a sense of vocation; and they possessed a profound sense of hope.”
The role of community in developing vital faith in teens provides an interesting commentary on Christian community, especially in light of last week’s article, “Comparing Two Communities.” Dean says, “Caring congregations help teenagers develop what social scientists call ‘connectedness,’ a developmental asset accrued from participating in the relational matrix of authoritative communities – communities that provide young people with available adults, mutual regard, boundaries, and shared long term objectives.”
This finding contests conventional wisdom on the value of adult-teen relationships. For decades the church has invested its resources in creating vital youth ministries. Conceding to the culture of teenage peer dependency, churches have sought to create a sub-culture where teens can depend upon other Christian teens more heavily than unbelieving peers.
The NSYR does not deny the significance of peer friendships for mutual encouragement and support in their faith, but it also reveals an equal importance in the role of significant adult relationships to the spiritual lives of teens. One teen commented, “I know if I couldn’t talk to my parents about something, I’m pretty comfortable with [other adults in the congregation].”
Meaningful relationships do not pop up automatically like tulips in spring. They require time and consistent personal interaction. They grow out of mutual respect and earned trust. The gap in experience and maturity between adults and teens requires intentionality in pursuing the kind of connectedness that fosters a sense of safety and value in teens.
Teens who grow up in one church have a distinct advantage over those who attend two or three churches during their spiritual development. Even this does not ensure the necessary ingredients for connections of support, because adults must actively pursue valued and nurturing relationships with the young people in their community.
Sunday School teachers and youth leaders have unique opportunities to provide the necessary connectedness that teens need for deep spiritual commitment. These adults can do much more than merely transmit the truths needed for an enduring faith. They should recognize the real potential of their position to create lasting relationships with their students that have proven essential to perpetuating the faith community.
Dean identifies ten traits of the authoritative community:
- It is a social institution that includes children and youth.
- It treats children as ends in themselves.
- It is warm and nurturing.
- It establishes clear limits and expectations.
- The core of its work is performed largely by nonspecialists.
- It is multigenerational.
- It has long-term focus.
- It reflects and transmits a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person.
- It encourages spiritual and religious development.
- It is philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all persons and to the principle of love of neighbor.
These findings should cause every local church to evaluate its core values. An environment that promotes and sustains multigenerational relationships should occur somewhere in that matrix of values. Program development should acknowledge the importance of interactions between adults and children.
Loving your neighbor is not age specific. The small multigenerational churches may play a larger role in the continuity of the faith community from one generation to the next than we have thought. Adults can make enormous investments in God’s kingdom through children and teen ministries and through the natural opportunities of church communal life – if we will.