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”
MINISTRY TO YOUTH TODAY
In this final lecture, our attention turns to the ministry of the church to teenagers and Generation Xers. Admittedly this is a formidable task, far more difficult than describing the social and cultural world in which these younger generations now live. There is no easy formula, no listing of simple programmatic solutions, or, if there is, I don't know it. I would also caution against easy answers. Just last week the National Religious Broadcasters held their annual convention in Anaheim, and I was struck by a description in the Los Angeles Times (January 26, 1997) of one of the seminars, "Generation X and the Irrelevant Church." The seminar was described as follows: "Art, music, buying trends, clothing, and speech are all being changed by the most enigmatic generation in modern history. Find out who they are, what they believe, and how to reach them." I can most certainly agree with the part about an enigmatic generation, but knowing how to reach them isn't as simple as the NRB would have us think.
What, then, can we say? I am going to put forth two comments: one quite general, the other more a set of specifics. The general thing I want to say follows from what I said in the previous lecture about spirituality. To put it as forthrightly as possible: there can be no satisfactory ministry to today's young Americans unless we can address the deep underlying problem of spirituality. Religion for the sake of religion is no answer. Religion, if it is to be meaningful, must arise out of the spiritual depths of a people. But, of course, it is this very relationship between religion and spirituality that has become so problematic. Many churches just continue going through the motions of religion as if those motions will suffice, but it should be obvious that this is insufficient. As the theme of this lecture series has it, our own youth are at risk.
Many religiously committed people (the religious of course contains the spiritual) page 104 hold to a faith in a God that is subjectively real for them and provides a meaningful framework for life. This is the meaning of lived tradition, or vernacular religion: that is, religion expressed in a way that is existentially and psychologically real. I think it is helpful, as some have suggested, to think of religion as a kind of cultural-linguistic system, that is, as a set of symbols, myths, and narratives that generate and sustain a sense of the sacred. Historically, religion has functioned so powerfully in this way precisely because its symbols, imageries, and stories have evoked the most basic of religious sentiments.
Indeed, research suggests that stories precede experience. That is, religious symbols and stories help to shape the very experiences that we describe as religious or as spiritually uplifting. Even for someone who has drifted away from religion, the symbols can still have a strong pull. In this respect, let me tell you about John McRae, someone I have interviewed several times and will describe in a book I am currently writing. John was born into a Presbyterian family and was an active churchgoer up until his college years. Like so many others of his generation who dropped out in the seventies, he has had little to do with any church for the past twenty years. But he was recently married for the second time, to a Catholic woman disaffected with her church as well, but who belongs to a house church made up of alienated Catholics. When we last interviewed John, he had started going with his wife to this house church, and he told us he was surprised by his own emotions. The group had been reading about Mother Theresa, and he admitted he found himself overwhelmed by his feelings of admiration for her. Now these words are coming from a man who doesn't strike me as very emotional; he's a professional architect, a no-nonsense sort of guy who appears to be rational to the core, maybe so rational that he's lost touch with his own feelings. But Mother Theresa has gotten to him, and his emotions have begun to pour out. He admits he hasn't had such powerful sentiments since he was a child anticipating Christmas.
Clearly, for John McRae, Mother Theresa has reconnected him with the Christian narrative and re-awakened his spiritual life. Use of the word "reconnecting" here is very important: it suggests that images and symbols serve to recollect our memories. The sacred breaks into the profane world, and often in this very way. Andrew M. Greeley, the novelist, priest, and sociologist, describes this situation when he writes:
Discouraged and depressed with the futility of life, I wait for an endlessly delayed flight in December at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. I see a young mother holding her baby with passionate and protective adoration. In the beauty of that instant recognition of grounds for hope, my confidence in the purpose of life is revitalized and renewed. The friends who meet me at the end of the plane flight are astonished at my good spirits. Today, I tell them by way of explanation, I met a madonna. page 105 The madonna image, lurking in my memory on the threshold of consciousness, especially in December, disposes me to experience renewal in the presence of a mother with a child, shapes that actual experience, provides a "pigeonhole" into which I can insert my new experience, and becomes a shared symbol with which I can explain my unusual (after plane flights) cheerfulness to my friends. If someone should preach a Christmas homily about the madonna, I remember both images — Bethlehem and O'Hare — and "correlate" them; each gives emotional vitality and resonance to the other. Catechisms, creeds, doctrines, philosophy, and theology — essential reflection on and criticism of the moments of raw religious experience — all come later. The origin and raw power of experience resides in life-explaining experiences. Religion is a meaning-bestowing story before it becomes anything else. 1
What would teenage ministry look like that made reconnections of this kind — genuine reconnections between life experience and personal story?
But, of course, for some people conventional religious vocabularies fail to evoke strong sentiments except perhaps in very special moments of personal crisis and tragedy. The madonna and child don't do as much for them as they do for Greeley. People may speak of being "spiritual" and actually express themselves in a deeply spiritual way, yet fail to find much meaning in religious language. Many of the people I have interviewed belong in this category. They talk about spirituality — but more often they are referring to the quest for it than to having necessarily achieved it. This is especially true for many middle-class professionals who have broken with the church and whose life-worlds seem far removed from any familiarity with the language of faith. I am reminded of what book publisher Thomas Cahill wrote in the New York Times earlier this year:
There are all these people I know and meet, especially in communications: publishing, journalism, television, the theater and arts. They have feelings and promptings that they don't know what to do with; they have no vocabulary and terms in which to explain these things; and they have no suspicion that these experiences might have something to do with any religious tradition.
I think Cahill touches upon something very important for many people today: this gap between the ordinary experience of life and religious vocabulary. It would be too easy simply to blame the secularizing trends of our time; religious institutions themselves must bear part of the responsibility for having often lost touch with the ordinary experiences of life, with the sacredness in all things, with the page 106 soul itself.
Indeed, for many, the spiritual is disconnected from the religious. At the very least, people are looking for a richer psychological language than churches often offer. Many people, including religious people, are turning to mass movements outside of the control of traditional denominations for transcendent meaning. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan drew hundreds of thousands of Black men to Washington for a "day of atonement." Over the past several years, former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney has attracted more than a million men to gatherings of Promise Keepers, weekend-long stadium rallies where participants pledge to love Jesus and their families. And recently Gus Niebuhr, religion writer for the New York Times, carried a piece on Women of Faith, a movement that draws 15,000 or more women into a convention center or sports arena, women paying $49 each to be there, to hear lay women speak about their life experiences. Organizers predict that more than 100,000 women will meet in these two-day conferences called "The Joyful Journey." What is the attraction? I suggest that it has something to do with spiritual bonding, feeling accepted by others and by God, and being able to express the joys of such experiences. Real-life stories of ordinary people have power. The bondings that emerge out of shared experiences and insights into faith are even more powerful.
What would teenage ministry look like that made possible spiritual bondings emerging out of young people's own experiences, where we listened to their stories and ways of thinking about the sacred in everyday life?
So then, religion and spirituality may be connected, or not so very connected. But there is also a third possibility: some people cannot think of themselves very well either as "spiritual" or as "religious." Neither vocabulary — that arising out of the inward quest or that derived from a traditional religious script — conveys much meaning to them. "Flow" experiences as described by psychologists come to mind. 2 Such experiences carry one away in a rush of energy and excitement, as can happen when one takes on a challenge, be it climbing a mountain, listening to jazz music, or perhaps even something as simple as seeing a child learn the alphabet. People caught up in moments like these reportedly experience little distinction between self and activity, between past, present, and future; they feel as if they are lifted out of the anxieties and boredom of everyday life and into an expanded state of consciousness. What we have in such instances are deeply internalized moments of mystery and heightened self-awareness without a shared vocabulary or appeal to a religious authority. Secularizing trends in our society lead to a loss of both shared vocabulary and religious authority.
What would teenage ministry look like that presumed that people didn't have a good vocabulary to describe their innermost concerns? How would we frame the Christian message?
Just how many people fit into this third category, I don't know, but I suspect it is fairly small. Most of us find within religious or spiritual vocabularies a way of talking about ourselves that is meaningful, simply because of the symbols and page 107 metaphors found within these discourses. Symbols play a crucial part in our spiritual quests, since it is through these that we express transcendent modes of consciousness. Conditions of human contingency not only encourage but also force upon us symbolic expressions of unity and coherence. Indeed, it is through the symbolic that the spiritual finds its greatest meaning. "By uniting inner with outer, self with others, present with future," writes Robert M. Torrance, "spirit is a continuous mediation between the constricted actualities of our given individual existence and the transcendent though never limitless potentiality of our super-personal being, the perpetual possibility of becoming more than we are." 3
"The perpetual possibility of becoming more than we are": many people, so it seems, are caught up in that hope. And further, I would argue that this hope finds expression in new ways and is leading us to explore new frontiers. Some years ago, Peter Berger argued that modernity has thrust us into a "heretical imperative": we are forced to become more deliberate, to pick and choose what we will believe, to create our symbolic frames more consciously. 4 Today, under conditions of modern pluralism and the confrontation of religious and secular worlds, this imperative faces us more pointedly than ever before.
A hallmark of religion in our time is our greater self-consciousness about the role symbols play in our lives. Ours is a time when we talk openly of symbols and truth, when we are aware of the constitutive power of language. We know that increasingly we must create a meaningful world. Symbols are manipulated, often intentionally, in a world in which we have grown more aware than ever before that our symbols are humanly constructed. The "reflexive spirituality" that I spoke of in the second lecture involves a more deliberate stance on the part of the church; that is, we can no longer simply assume that the symbols that have traditionally conveyed transcendent truths for people still work for them.
I call to your attention the very fine study by Marsha Witten of the discourses as revealed in sermons preached in Presbyterian Church (USA) and in Southern Baptist churches. 5 She finds that in both denominations there are two styles of religious discourse relating to the world that all of us here are familiar with: liberal, accommodating language and conservative, resisting language. "Christ of culture" and "Christ against culture," as H. Richard Niebuhr said many years ago, or as we might say today, culture wars. But she goes on to argue that another mode of discourse is emerging in sermons that she calls "reframing," a type of discourse in which the symbols themselves are reinterpreted. For example, for some Christians, the symbol of the cross may no longer plausibly refer to the accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as they have long been interpreted; yet, the cross may take on significance of another kind when it is used to dramatize notions of suffering and its transcendence, or to describe overwhelming love, or to illustrate the possibilities of human transfiguration. In other words, page 108 rather than insist that the cross must have a singular meaning, "reframing" opens up the possibility that people might connect with the symbol in a variety of ways.
Witten finds evidence, not overwhelming, but at least some evidence, of "reframing" as a new mode of discourse. She finds, for example, speech about Christian life in the world as a search for meaning, and notes that the assumption seems to be that the role of religion is not so much to signify objective truths to which we must all subscribe within the Christian community as it is to provide the symbolic resources through which a human being may weave a coherent narrative about life. Or as Mary Catherine Bateson might say, a person is thrust into a situation of having to "compose a life," and religious symbols often find their way into that composition. 6
Witten goes on to predict that "reframing" as a speech style is likely to increase in the future. I think she is right, and further, I would suggest that "reframing" as a speech style has a special affinity with the youth culture. Young people like to take on a more creative role in shaping the universe of meaning in which they live. "Reframing" is of course a serious matter, for indeed, the making of meaning, as Witten points out, is serious business. It used to be the province of theologians and church authorities. But increasingly, we live in a world where the churches must compete with the cultural industries that now spin out the stories by which we live. Competition means, among other things, that ours is a world in which the framing and "reframing" of meaning is an ongoing process of reality-construction.
This being the case, we must ask: How then is the church to compete? This of course is the question, the one for which we all would like to find an answer. But there is no one answer, although I do have a few thoughts to offer based upon my research on Generation Xers. So, let me make several specific suggestions about improving the church's ministry to youth.
One, the language problem: we need to be conscious of the language we use in presenting the message of the church. We cannot take for granted that youth will understand the terms and metaphors we use when describing the Christian faith. "Reframing" the message in ways sensitive to their culture and experiences is essential. Kevin Graham Ford points out that we should be careful even talking about the fatherhood of God. He writes:
For previous generations God's fatherhood was a comforting, healing truth. But if a person comes from a dysfunctional family, the concept of fatherhood may not be very appealing.... They may have trouble separating the idea of a heavenly Father from the memories of an abusive earthly father. 7
At the same time, as Ford points out, there is a deep hunger on the part of many youth for belonging to a family. Relationships are important, but they must page 109 be supportive and nourishing. The church must be a place where such relationships are found and held up as ideals.
Two, authenticity: young people demand honesty and frankness. Struggle is real in many of their lives. To portray life in any other way is to frame ministry in a way that strikes many as at odds with their experience. Indeed, to overlook the depths of their pain and confusion, their cynicism and despair, is to miss an opportunity for special ministry. For the mainline churches, there may be a very important message here: having relied so long upon the dominant culture, these churches aren't always as sensitive as they should be to the hurts of the world. The churches must learn to listen to the young and to identify with their concerns. Just being there for them when needed is part of what is called for. Narrative theology is promising, but narrative as framed by, with, and for the young.
Three, imagery: how the church conveys its message of Jesus Christ is absolutely critical. What is the image that we convey? As Jaroslav Pelikan observed some years ago in his book Jesus through the Centuries, 8 the Jesus Christians claim is a Jesus that has been imaged in many differing ways in differing cultures and by differing groups. What image best communicates to today's youth culture? Andrea Tapis, a journalist writing in Christianity Today, writes:
Christian and non-Christian Xers alike take great comfort and strength from the Jesus of the Gospels with whom they have much in common. Jesus was in his early thirties when he began his public work; he had no career path and no place he could call home. His greatest battles were against the dogmas of his day, and he showed little faith in institutions and rules and regulations. Rather, his message was of a Father full of grace, and the context of his work was his personal relationships. He built community, first with his small group of twelve, and then across class, gender, racial, and lifestyle lines. He liked a good party, even turning water into wine to keep from ending prematurely. He spoke against injustice and did not have the stomach for unauthentic people. He thought globally but acted locally. 9
Finally, openness and responsiveness: there is no substitute for, as the young people themselves sometimes say, "hanging loose in the spirit." To hang loose means not to be too bound up with any one set of strategies or programs, but to be flexible, with one ear to the ground. Of all ministers, youth ministers must envision an unfolding future, full of opportunities and surprises. In biblical language, they must read the signs of the times. That is not easy, but religious people of the great Abrahamic faiths — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — are impelled to keep their eyes and ears open. I close with one of my favorite passages taken page 110 from a book by Peter Berger:
There are times in history when the dark drums of God can barely be heard amidst the noises of this world. Then it is only in moments of silence, which are rare and brief, that their beat can be faintly discerned. There are other times. These are the times when God is heard in rolling thunder, when the earth trembles and the treetops bend under the force of his voice. It is not given to men to make God speak. It is only given to them to live and to think in such a way that, if God's thunder should come, they will not have stopped their ears. 10