I have taught for nearly twenty years in public middle school, high school, community college, and university classrooms. I have worked with children and teenagers in various church youth programs. I can also testify that these researchers are right on the money. I have heard students express not only their belief in these five tenets, but their belief in them over and against the traditionally expressed beliefs of Christianity and Judaism.
Here are just a few citations from the article that I have witnessed among my students on many occasions:
- "To the extent that the teens we interviewed did manage to articulate what they understood and believed religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it."
- "[I]it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions, or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both."
- "[M]ost religious teenager's opinions and views--one can hardly call them worldviews--are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion."
- "[T]his study indicates that American teenagers are heavily influenced by the ideology of individualism that has so profoundly shaped the larger culture. This bleeds over into a reflexive non-judgmentalism and a reluctance to suggest that anyone might actually be wrong in matters of faith and belief."
- "These individuals, whatever their age, believe that religion should be centered in being 'nice'--a posture that many believe is directly violated by assertions of strong theological conviction."
David Werling at Ars Orandi has this to say about the piece. "Catholic teenagers are also learning from the juvenilism of their pastors and adult youth 'ministers', who attempt and ultimately fail to pass off religion as 'hip', 'with it', and 'fun.'" I could not agree more. Children and older students have a well-tuned B.S. meter. They know when some "Pastor Strum-a-Long" is trying to play it cute and cool. They also know when someone is treating them with respect by honoring their God-given ability to plumb the depths of truly important matters.
Werling continues, "Young people know a disingenuous adult when they see one, and they realize the mockery these adults make of our Catholic religion.... What is the use of involvement in an exercise that makes fools of priests and other adults, and makes a mockery of our august religion?" As an educator who has taught in multiple levels and in varied environments, including inner-city, suburban, and college-town, I have to ask why we believe believe that students can read and discuss Beowulf, calculus, the Monroe Doctrine, subjunctive mood in conditional sentences, and the epistemology of the natural sciences during the day, but then cannot handle the same kind of reading and discussion about grace, justification, sanctification, the distinction between homoousios and homoiousios, and the Trinity at youth group or on the weekend.
As a response to this cult of Hebe (I love his phrase here), Werling states, "It is the responsibility of the parent to above all guide and rule the child through childhood with the goal that the child grows up. The parent hasn't been granted the paternal dignity in order to provide good things for their children or to make their lives comfortable or to make sure their children get into a good college. Parents have been granted the paternal dignity by God to accomplish the maturity of their children and thereby contribute to their salvation. The goal of the parent is to get their kids to grow up. Parents can't do this if they aren't grown up, themselves. Likewise, parents can't do this without the aid of the Church and churchmen. When priests and adult 'youth' ministers spend their time acting like children in the hopes that such behavior will be attractive to youth, they not only appear to be fools, but as St. Augustine sums up, they are fools. This is the underlying reason for all of the religious problems and inarticulateness highlighted in the above article that so plagues America's teenagers."
We must stop dumbing down our approaches to children and teenagers. If we are worried that they will not like us, then the problem is ours for making the friendship and affection of children a priority. We should have our age-appropriate peers and not be dependent on that of those we should be leading. If we are worried that they will not come back to our churches and youth groups, then we need to recall the response of Jesus when the rich young man left him over His difficult teaching. He did not chase the man. He did not lighten the message. He simply let him go. You see, God respects our free will enough to let us make mistakes and even to choose death over life in Him. Does it grieve Him when His children act this way? Of course it does, but this is no reason for Him to alter one jot or tittle of the Truth.