Is the future of American Christianity in the hands of perpetual children?
Jessica Prol brought my attention to an upcoming conference, “Religious Practice and the Family: What the Research Says,” on Thursday, October 29 in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C (for details or to register, click here). Prol highlights the work of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, who writes:
“Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers’ benign ‘whateverism.’ Huge numbers of U.S. teenagers are currently in congregations, feel okay about them, mostly plan to continue to stay involved at some level, and generally feel fine about the adults in their congregations. But the congregation simply does not mean that much or make much sense to many of them.”
But I think Smith’s critique of religion could be even harsher than he makes it. More Christian sects suffer from this malaise than Smith indicates, and the problem of teenagers is the same in all of them: they don’t want to grow up, and nobody is asking them to.
The Cause: Fake Christians, or Fake Christianity?
I’ll explain. Elsewhere, Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center interviewed Smith. A highlight on the same subject:
There is good news for the church in your study. But there is plenty of bad news as well. For example, you found in your in-depth interviews with teens that a vast majority of them are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices.” You found very few teens from any religious background who are able to articulate clearly their religious beliefs and explain how those beliefs connect to the rest of their lives.
One way to frame this problem is to think of the language of faith as something like a second language in our culture. And how do you learn a second language? You learn a second language by listening to others who know how to speak it well, and having a chance to practice it yourself. I don’t know how much teens are hearing other people speak the language well, and it really struck us in our research that very few teens are getting a chance to practice talking about their faith. We were dumbfounded by the number of teens who told us we were the first adults who had asked them what they believed. One said: “I do not know. No one has ever asked me that before.”
Smith focuses his criticism on what seem to be mainline Protestant churches where the religion being practiced is arguably a form of Deism, rather than Trinitarian Christianity. But in my (fairly extensive) experience with young Christians who practice the latter religion, I often found the same problem. It seemed to me that many young men at Christian colleges want to be youth pastors (anecdotal experience from Pepperdine, Wheaton, and Grove City College comes to mind). Conversations with dozens of serious Christians at Princeton found the students quick to affirm the Bible and the Trinity, but cowering in fear at the idea that such things might have implications in public morality or religious practice. They were enthusiastic for God—as long as God was the Best Friend who listened to cool Christian rock with them.
This is interesting from a sociological perspective, because thus far, their problem was not that they were not Christians (as Smith emphasizes), but that the Christianity they had been fed was barely even a religion.
Peter Pan Christians
I’ll use a friend as an example (name changed of course). Steve, from his many hours spent in an affirming, firmly Christian college ministry, has picked up the idea that the only legitimate “Christian” occupation is that of explicit, vocational ministry. However, being a pastor requires years in seminary, lots of money to pay for them, and the mentorship of other pastors. It requires a lot of work and knowledge that he doesn’t have—and specifically, knowledge that doesn’t interest him, like Greek and Hebrew and fancy theology. He’d rather read Shane Claiborne and Donald Miller than Augustine and Aquinas. On the other hand, to be a youth pastor, all he needs to do is shave his head, buy a guitar, and act less mature than the kids. So, he decides, really by process of elimination, that “I feel God is calling me to youth ministry.”
Now, I do not mean to impugn the motives of everybody who wants to work with kids. But youth ministry and adult ministry have one crucial difference in most Protestant churches: entrance into youth ministry does not require the “pastor” to be any more than he already is.
Steve’s Jesus is an unthreatening character who “feels” his way through things, “feels” for people, and demands little of his followers. He “meets people where they are.” He is comfortable, he is sympathetic, he doesn’t like legalistic rules. He likes to be worshiped in a way that is eerily similar to the rock concerts Steve likes. His relationship to his follower is that of a friend to a friend.
In contrast, C.S. Lewis sometimes spoke of the need for “muscular Christianity.” His Jesus was a king, a sovereign, a warrior—Christ’s very significance as a humble human on a donkey was in the fact that it was a surrender of his rightful place. His relationship to his follower was that of the benevolent lord to the devoted servant—and thus, he demanded not merely feeling, nor merely ritual, but everything.
These two gods result in two kinds of followers: the second is a man seeking to be more like God, but the first is a child content to remain a child. It is the difference between Shakespeare’s Henry V and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. (James Bowman beautifully illustrated this a few months ago in The New Criterion, by talking of the difference between Cary Grant and Tom Cruise.)
“No One Has Ever Asked Me That Before”
The background significance of this is that C.S. Lewis was a member of a religion, and Steve is not. The origin of the word “religion” is a Latin word meaning “to bind fast;” it referred to obligations to a superior being. Steve doesn’t mind obligations in the abstract (he believes in right and wrong), but start telling him that Christianity demands that he do anything “uncomfortable,” and he starts getting, well, uncomfortable. Put him in a worship service that shows reverence for God, or tell him one of his political beliefs is fundamentally anti-Christian, or show him a pastor that calls him out on a sin, and he says defensively, “I’m not religious—I just love Jesus.”
The most basic reason for this response is actually fairly straightforward—such intrusive demands would be new to him. He grew up with youth pastors and Christian youth culture, both of which had the primary goal of making him think Christianity was “cool.” And “cool” was defined as whatever the prevailing teen culture was at the time. Rather than conform the people to the religion, it tried to conform the religion to the people. It did not involve rigorous teaching (though it probably did involve “how to get your friends to come to youth group with you,” the answer being “tell them we’re going to Six Flags”). Unlike most other major world religions, the focus was the worshiper, rather than the worshiped. That’s not how Islamic madrassas work, it’s not how historical Christian instruction worked—but it is how teen culture works.
That is the practical significance of Smith’s insight: the form of Christianity he interacted with was not a religion, where adults seek to be more in conformity with divine standards; it was a therapeutic belief system where children remain children. And the fault, in Smith’s view, lies not with the children but with the adults.
In the circles Smith witnessed, “youth” ministry was seen as separate from adult ministry, and the adults were not teaching the children what adult Christianity looks like. In a unique phenomenon in the history of world religions, the “religion” Smith saw has no sense of a past, and no sense of a future. It lies entirely in the present, in childhood. Peter Pan is god. And of course, when Peter Pan is god, his followers never grow up.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.