The 1997 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
“At-Risk Youth, At-Risk Church:
What Jesus Christ and American Teenagers are
Saying to the Mainline Church”
Webster's has two meanings for the term "mainline." The one teenagers know is the practice of injecting narcotics directly into the bloodstream to get a quick high. The second definition means the principle route a train takes to reach its destination.
Pick your metaphor. The term "mainline church" was coined when trains, like churches, were a principal means of getting somewhere people wanted to go. Today, teenagers' understanding of "mainline" paints an ominous portrait of who we are as a church: once-‐able bodies who, after years of steady injections of American culture into our veins, have a dulled sense of who, what, and where we are.
We have reared a generation of teenagers to "just say no" to such behavior, and they're saying "no" to mainline Christianity in favor of visions of vitality elsewhere, many that endanger teenagers. According to a 1991 study released by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, one in four teenagers is "at risk." The church must work with others to create communities of health and hope for young people.
Young people are also making another point. Their exodus from our pews and programs is a form of "tough love" to our denominations, telling us to shape up, to be who we say we are, and to let Jesus be who we say He is -‐ the Savior, even of the mainline church.
In our "I'm dysfunctional, you're dysfunctional" world, it is easy to settle for therapy when resurrection is at stake. Maybe being "at risk" as a church isn't bad if it calls us back to the authenticity young people expect, and the Gospel requires. Maybe mainline churches and teenagers have something in common: a need to be saved.
These assumptions unite the lectures in this volume. The lectures in these pages provide an outline of "what Jesus Christ and American teenagers are saying to the mainline church" from the perspectives of systematic theology, practical theology, sociology, education, and American religious history (and futurism).
These lectures point to a theological foundation for ministry with young people that views youth as part of the mission of Christ and not as objects to be "won" for the propagation of the church. We approach this direction with humility and hope. The future of the church, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted when he himself was only twenty-‐seven years old, depends not on youth, but on Jesus Christ. Still, we are confident that young people are prophets in our midst, and that by attending to the "risk" that accompanies adolescence in 1997, we will be better prepared to take the risk that accompanies Christian faith in any era.
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary
- “Something to Believe In”
- “Youth Ministry: Historical Reflections near the End of the Twentieth Century”
- “Getting to All God's Kids”
- “What Jesus Christ and African American Teenagers Are Telling the African American Church”
- “Walking with Youth: Youth Ministry in Many Cultures”
- “Volcanic Eruptions: Eruptive Youth Ministry”
- “Promises and Practices for Tomorrow: Transforming Youth Leaders and Transforming Culture”
- “At-‐Risk Youth” “Today's Spiritual Quests”
- “Ministry to Youth Today”
- “Living in an Ancient Future Faith”
- “Youth Ministry: A Celebration and a Challenge”
TODAY’S SPIRITUAL QUESTS
In the last lecture I offered a sociological profile of the world our young people are growing up in. In this lecture I want to move beyond that overview and to advance a somewhat more positive perspective. It is true that the conditions we face with youth today are in many respects baffling — indeed, at times overwhelming. But I will argue that the pluralism, the moral and religious relativism, and the general loss of religious foundations that shape the youth culture may — paradoxical as it may sound — be a source of new spiritual creativity. The post-modern world, if we care to label it as such, occasions a new spiritual quest.
So let us turn to this possibility: the rise of a quest culture. By a quest culture, I mean a culture emphasizing spiritual seeking and exploration, a culture that involves much talk about journey and growth and cultivation of the interior life and rediscovery of soul. As I alluded to in the previous lecture, psychological language is the language of the day. Americans of all ages, and most especially young Americans, are invested in religious identities that reach deep into their lives and allow them to understand themselves in new ways.
There are signs of this spiritual quest in many places: look at the list of best-selling books, which includes Thomas Moore's The Care of the Soul and James Redmond's The Celestine Prophecy.
Check out the religion section in any bookstore. What you often discover is that the religion section is no longer there; it has been replaced by an expanded, diversified space — beginning with angels and running through the Bible, gurus, prophecy, Buddhism, Catholicism, magic, paganism, Mary, Pentecostalism, eco- spirituality, feminist theology and spirituality, and esoterica right on down to Zoroastrianism. In other words, marginal differentiation has taken over, splitting religion into sets of fragments for consumer choices.
MTV, which many teenagers watch, now openly deals with spiritual themes. page 94 Programs raise questions and pose dilemmas calling for spiritual answers. And of course, there's music in its many forms: heavy metal, light pop, jazz, folk, grunge, reggae, country, funk, gospel, and hip-hop. Because many youths feel marginalized, they connect with a musical form whose lyrics deal with questions of rejection and identity, and whose music takes risks, just as they take risks to survive. After studying teenagers in a suburban New Jersey community, Donna Gaines concludes: "All you have to do to find out someone's 'religion' is to ask what band they think is the greatest band of all time." Many of the young people grew up, as she says, "playing the liturgy in the basements and bedrooms of suburbia." 1
The Internet is giving rise to great curiosity about religion. According to a recent Time magazine article titled "Jesus Online," there are at present 410,000 web pages that mention God. Look for Christ on the web and you'll find him — some 146,000 times. There are hundreds of electronic bulletin boards on religious topics. To quote from that article: "Almost overnight, the electronic community of the Internet has come to resemble a high-speed spiritual bazaar, where thousands of the faithful — and equal numbers of the faithless — meet and debate and swap ideas about things that many of us had long since stopped discussing in public, like our faith and religious beliefs." 2
Teenagers and Generation Xers think a lot about death. We have already mentioned the high rate of teenage suicide. Of course, that is the tragic top of a large iceberg of feelings and stresses. Popular movies like Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers reveal a fascination with death. Only a few teenagers are Satan worshippers, but many teens are curious about Satanic themes. Compared with older generations, Generation Xers are more likely to report feeling as though they were in touch with someone who had died and as though they have had out- of-body experiences.
Searching for God in America is the title of a well-known PBS television series hosted by Hugh Hewitt. Describing the series and how it fits into our world today, Hewitt writes:
Give yourself the time and the opportunity to ask the big question. The overarching crisis of modern America is the evisceration of the opportunity for reflection. Very few can survive the deluge of three-minute music videos and twenty-five-minute happy meals, ten-minute lube jobs, and one-minute managers to sequester themselves for a period of quiet prayer or inquiry. 3
Hewitt's comment is revealing. It reveals a need for a new style of spirituality that can accommodate fast-paced lives. No longer can we presume a world where people's lives are stable and well integrated, where their spirituality is sustained in close relation to place and tradition. Social mobility, pluralism, changing families, and shifting, media-created, psychological worlds have created conditions for what I call "reflexive spirituality" — that is, a spirituality that searches more page 95 deeply for answers borne out of the complexity of our lives; for answers about why life is experienced as fast paced and overly demanding; for why we are pulled in so many different directions; and for why there is so little time to reflect.
"Reflexive spirituality" is concerned with creating and sustaining a more satisfying identity. It arises out of our human hunger for something more than empty religious rhetoric or religion that fails to address our most basic needs or to empower us to confront and deal with often quite simple things — getting along, being happy, coping with difficulties, feeling that our lives as a whole make some sense. "Reflexive spirituality" is process oriented in the sense that it presumes a potential to grow and develop further, that we might actually learn from others — from another tradition; from the artist or scientist or grandparent who lives on a deeper plain than most of us; from the small group whose shared experience exceeds that of any single experience. It is a spirituality that casts a broad net and fears being too bounded or fixed, yet is prepared to learn from the depths of a religious tradition." 4
"We are becoming fluid and many sided," writes psychologist Robert J. Lifton. His point is that people today are searching for resources to adapt to the changing circumstance of their lives. "Without quite realizing it, we have been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time. This mode of being differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment. I have named it the 'protean self' after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms." 5 He goes on to say that these new circumstances have the potentiality for renewal.
Is Lifton right? Is there a new sense of self emerging? Is this a time of renewal? It is striking, is it not, that in a time when religious studies professors, and maybe even theologians, often have difficulty speaking very affirmatively and passionately about God, physicists — of all people — seem to be able to do so. Take John Wheeler at Princeton University, for example, whose discoveries in quantum physics and astronomy have led him and others to back off of Newtonian notions of a deterministic universe and to speak openly of awe, holism, and even of an "observer-created universe." Old certainties may be collapsing, but new mysteries arise.
It seems not just coincidental that the metaphor of a spiritual quest takes on significance at a time when many traditional religious underpinnings of the culture have become more tenuous. One hears about the crisis of modernity, and terms like "post-tradition," "post-dogmatic," and "post-Christian" are commonplace, yet the search for spiritual meaning and direction takes on increasing momentum in many quarters. A reclaiming of the inner life and renewed stress upon inner truths surface just when passionate voices on behalf of moral relativism and multiculturalism are widely heard, and proponents of "personal knowledge" as opposed to the "unity of knowledge" attract mounting attention. If we look at popular culture, we cannot help but observe the way the quest theme finds expressions today: Voyager, Explorer, even Quest are model names page 96 on cars and trucks. Nissan's television ad has it as follows: "Life is a journey. Enjoy the ride." The US Army co-opts a basic teaching of humanistic psychology when it proclaims in its commercials: "Be all that you can be." There's even a Quest Study Bible designed to provide answers to questions asked about the Bible's meanings.
This quest culture, actually, is not just limited to the United States. In Paris, where I spent my sabbatical this past spring, I attended a "seeker church" not unlike those we see in this country; in Helsinki last year, I attended a "Thomas Mass," named after St. Thomas and organized around the notion that in a post-Christian culture, doubt, not belief, is the starting point. In many places there are signs of a global cliché culture emerging — a culture that David Wells describes as "a generic culture, this culture of the television age, of asphalt, advertizing, uniformity, and waste.... It can be exclusive to no one, neither the Japanese nor the Europeans, neither the Australians nor the Americans. It is everywhere but can be localized nowhere in particular." 6 If Wells is right, the rise of this generic culture is deeply tied up with developments around the world.
This generic culture arises in response to the fragmentation that so many people feel today: modernity has chopped up our lives. There is the world of work, the world of the family, the world of leisure. Our lives are pulled in many directions. As an institution, the church is faced with severe challenges in overcoming such great divides; indeed, many young people I have talked to in my studies wonder if conventional religious language can integrate their life experiences. Unfortunately, the word "religion" has negative connotations for many of them. Janet Bernardi writes:
When Xers think of religion, they think of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They think of extravagant televangelists bilking money from old women on social security. They think of Catholic priests abusing small children, and they think of the extreme political right wing that denounces much of what we call freedom. Xers, on the whole, regard religious institutions as they do all other institutions — as not to be trusted. 7
But then she goes on to say:
But we are still searching for God. We are still trying to fill the God space.... We are looking for a place to rest, someone we can trust. We are looking for a community, and like all people before us, we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.... We want to believe in something. 8
Thus it is not surprising that many young people talk about the "spiritual" as opposed to the "religious" and hold out a hope that somehow in the deeper experiential self, some new unity of life can be found. If there is a spiritual search, then surely it has features of what William James, America's greatest psychologist of religion, writing a hundred years ago had in mind when he spoke of a quest for "first-hand" page 97 religion, that is, an experience and encounter with the sacred itself.
This quest for the "spiritual" and skepticism about the "religious" is an interesting commentary on our time. Let me share a lengthy quote from Arthur Green, a Jewish scholar commenting on a young Jewish woman who described herself in the personals column in New York's ]ewish Week as follows: "DJF, 34. Spiritual, not Religious. Seeking like-minded JM." Admittedly she is not a teenager, but we can learn from her. Arthur Green says it better than I could; you try to fill in, if you like, the Christian parallels to her Jewish story:
This young woman should indeed be of interest to us. Allow me to treat her, if you will, as an icon of our age. I think she has a pretty clear idea of what she means by "spiritual, not religious." You could meet her, along with a great many other Jews, at a Kripalu Yoga Ashram retreat, where she goes for a weekend of Yoga, massage, a lecture on spiritual teachings, healthy vegetarian food, and conversations with like-minded people. You will not meet her at your synagogue, from which she continues to feel alienated. But she fasts and meditates on Yom Kippur, a day that has some "special meaning" for her. She reads both Sufi and Hasidic stories. She used to go to Shlomo Carlebach concerts and occasionally lapses into one of his tunes. Passover with her family is still an obnoxious and boisterous, "totally unspiritual," as she would say, affair. But one year her folks were away on a cruise, and she got to go to a women's seder. It was a little too verbal and too strident for her tastes, but she'd like to try more of that sort of thing, if it were conveniently available. She read part of I and Thou years ago and liked it, but most of her inspiring reading has been by Eastern authors or by Americans who have chosen an Eastern path. The fact is that she really doesn't read very much at all. Being of the video generation, she'd much rather watch tapes of lectures by the Dalai Lama, which she owns, than read his book.
By "spiritual, not religious" she doesn't only mean East versus West. She thinks of herself as a seeker more than a joiner. She has no interest in cults and thinks that her cousin Shimon, formerly Scott, who became ultra-Orthodox and lives in Jerusalem, has fallen into one. She picks things up here and there, believes that all religions are one, and is happy to live with bits of turned-on teachings from Jewish, Sufi, Hindu, and Buddhist sources all joined without any need for theological consistency. She is willing to accept spiritual disciplines when meaningful. She's been a vegetarian for years, after all, and she once went on a thirty-day silent vigil at a Buddhist retreat page 98 center. She cheated a couple of times and was interested to note that the other people having trouble maintaining thirty days of silence were also Jewish, one of them even a rabbi! But she also uses the phrase "spiritual, not religious" as a way of saying she's not interested in an Orthodox guy or the traditional Jewish lifestyle that a relationship with him would demand. 9
What do we make of her? Clearly, she is the extreme example of the postmodern, someone who is truly spiritually adrift, a protean in raw form, someone we might describe as a tourist or vagabond walking through a religious Disneyland. She is unlike the historic model of a pilgrim who is at home in a religious tradition. Thus she is not very representative; most of the spiritual questers I have talked with do not fit her extreme profile. But some do, and she does embody themes that are fairly widespread in milder versions today.
Let me share with you some factual data from my own research that help us to understand the religious worlds in which our young people live. Here I draw from our boomer survey. 10 Already I mentioned that one spiritual theme today is to try to find as much truth as you can, wherever you can. No one tradition has all the answers — or at least that view is held by many people today. Look at the breakdowns on the following question: "Is it good to explore many different religious teachings and learn from them, or should one stick to a particular faith?" About 60 percent said they preferred to explore, 28 percent said stick to a faith, and 11 percent could not choose or said "do both." Even the majority of born-again Christians (51 percent) chose to explore, as compared to 66 percent of all others.
Another expression of the quest involves looking inward as opposed to the more conventional shared worship. We asked: "For you, which is more important — to be alone and to meditate, or to worship with others?" Admittedly something of a false choice, the question was aimed at tapping the extreme responses of a generation often described as highly individualistic in their approach to the sacred. Half of the respondents answered saying they preferred to be alone, plus another 18 percent said both were important (or they were unable to choose between them), which means that 68 percent favored a religious style emphasizing meditation and aloneness. With born-again Christians, there were significant numbers opting for aloneness and meditation — 41 percent as compared to 57 percent of all others.
A third item taps into religious universalism — the belief that you can learn from other religions. We asked for agree or disagree responses to the statement: "All the religions of the world are equally true and good." The boomer population was split down the middle — 48 percent opting for the relativistic approach, 47 percent disagreeing, and 5 percent unable to decide. That is a significant finding, page 99 so it would seem, pointing to a deep split in American religious life and to the fact that large numbers of Americans look upon religions in the plural as symbolic resources, but with no single tradition as necessarily having a monopoly on truth claims. As might be expected, fewer born-again Christians opted for the relativistic approach — 28 percent as compared to 63 percent of all others. But the very fact that more than a fourth of evangelicals hold to a radical relativistic view toward all religions itself is worthy of note.
The suspicion of institutions runs deep, and especially the suspicion that they are spiritually bankrupt. According to the survey, 54 percent agreed "that churches and synagogues have lost the real spiritual part of religion." Not too surprisingly, more evangelical Christians (58 percent) agreed with the statement than did the others (49 percent).
Another question, far more radical, asked if they agreed with the statement: "People have God within them, so churches aren't really necessary." This is almost an anti-American statement, yet 31 percent of all respondents actually agreed with it. Thirteen percent of bom-again Christians agreed! It is unclear whether agreement is mainly with the notion that "God is within" us or that "churches aren't necessary," but when taken together the two amount to a strong statement for Americans to endorse. Whatever lies behind it, the fact that almost one-third of the boomer population agrees with the statement reveals just how deep the spiritual currents run today.
Finally, we asked why people were involved in religious organizations. From a traditional point of view, the reason should be rather obvious: if people are committed to the faith and have convictions, they usually feel some sense of duty and obligation to participate and to support the organization. But does this still hold in a consumer culture that places emphasis upon the personal rewards that go with religious attachment? Hence we asked our respondents: "Which of the following best expresses your view? Going to church/synagogue is a duty and an obligation, or going to church/synagogue is something you do if you feel it meets your needs." Almost three-fourths (76 percent) chose the latter, emphasizing the psychological benefits that are held up as important to those who are actively involved in churches and synagogues. Two-thirds of born-again Christians indicated this same reason for going to church — powerful evidence of just how far today's psychoculture has penetrated religious America.
In sum, the findings are rather conclusive: large sectors of the young adult population since the late 1980s, including born-again evangelicals, have expressed deep spiritual concerns. Spirituality is not just something bubbling up from the margins of the society; it claims the attention of mainstream constituencies. It is expressed in various ways — as searching, exploring religious teachings, spiritual growth, inner realities, meeting one's own needs. While those interested tended to be somewhat more educated and middle class, the messages are all much the same: Americans are hungry for greater spiritual depth, and they are looking to meet this need in many places.page 100
Another important source of information is book sales on spirituality and the sacred. As I already noted, "religion" as a category has been replaced in the book stores by a wide range of religious and spiritual topics. In 1995 the American Booksellers Association convention and trade show opened with a new and expanded section on "religious/spiritual/inspirational" books, a first for the ABA and an obvious indicator of this growth industry. What we are talking about here is a spiritual explosion. I also believe we can learn from the themes reflected in these popular books.
Based on book sales, four categories of religious books top the sales charts. Most popular are books on near-death experiences, angels, and the invasion of aliens — all catering to an audience caught, as Phillis Tickle says, "somewhere between belief in and curiosity about such possibilities." 11 Not very surprisingly, the quest for the supernatural flourishes in such a context.
Next are books on ancient wisdom, books that generally assume that something terribly important to human life has been lost but hopefully can be regained. Buddhism, Native American spiritual experiences, feminist insights, and assorted New Age teachings all fall under this rubric, and all in one way or another promise greater fullness to life. Here we see something of the frantic quest to find full exposure to spiritual possibilities.
Third are self-help books pitched to the well-being of the practitioner and promoting the use of spiritual disciplines as a means to gain power and control over whatever ills beset us. Technique is promoted here as the means for dealing with life's dilemmas. There is a strong emphasis upon rationality and instrumentality — the "how to" manual now pitched to just about every conceivable problem confronting us, from overeating to gambling or working too hard to not succeeding in love and relationships.
Finally, there is religious fiction, a rapidly expanding genre with labels for just about every imaginable constituency or interest. To quote Tickle again:
Call it religious fiction or inspirational fiction or by any of its sectarian names of Jewish, Catholic, Christian, or Evangelical. Or call it by some combination of them, like religious mysteries, Jewish historical novels, Evangelical Christian westerns, inspirational romances, and so on. 12
Whatever else might be said about it, this proliferating fiction market points to a fluid, even liminal religious context today. It suggests that our culture is restive and insecure, but it also suggests a fertile religious imagination.
What do we make of all this? The survey data and the book sales all point to widespread searching for answers to life's dilemmas. They underscore an open, page 101exploratory mood among many Americans, and young Americans especially; "reflexive spirituality" is what I have called it. Some commentators say such searching is shallow and therapeutic, of little real significance. In my judgment that is not the correct conclusion to draw. Certainly ours is a very confusing time. On the one hand, churches are at risk in responding to the needs of young people. Yet on the other hand, we see signs of spiritual hunger in many places. Can we better connect these two — churches and spirituality? That will be our challenge in the final lecture.