Scenic Route

Scenic Route

Craig Mitchell

Last week I had lunch with a farming couple near Warracknabeal in western Victoria. We talked about their three young people moving to Melbourne, and how they had all dropped out of the church. These young people were all busy, and didn’t see the relevance of the church for their lives. They weren’t anti-God. There just wasn’t much point in organised religion.

When I left the farm to drive back to town I got lost. Do I go left or right to get back to the highway? No signposts. The sky was overcast. I couldn’t tell which way was west. Turn left. Wrong way. Backtrack. Finally I made it to familiar territory.

When it comes to youth spirituality, we’ve left the highway. The old, tried and true methods don’t seem to work anymore. There are no clear directions for the church to take. We’re looking for signposts. Most of us want a short-cut back to familiar territory. Instead, we need to pay attention to the lay of the land; look around us for signs of life and hope.

If we can’t define the spirituality of young people, where do we start looking for ways to engage?

Look at popular culture

In Australia, the Cross is still the most popular piece of jewellery, an icon for connectedness with something greater. Movies, TV and music are thick with references to the realm of the Spirit. The most successful TV shows mix technology and the supernatural with themes of adventure and friendship.

Madonna and Courtney Love have spiritual advisers. Jewel’s latest album “Spirit” says “we are God’s hands, we are God’s eyes”. The words “faith”, “hope” and “believe” are being sung on the radio every few minutes. Sure, some of these are aimed at 20+ or even 30+ adults, but the trickle down effect is there.

Look at the spiritual experience of young people

We are experiencing a shift from Christianity as a set of abstract propositional truths to Christian faith as a lived response to God’s presence and purpose in the world.

Young people have grown up without the sacred/secular, spirit/flesh, mind/heart, heaven/earth dualisms of church history. All of life is the realm of the Spirit. The world and the body are not inherently bad (unless the church tells me so.) Because young people seek meaning in the everyday, the language of spirituality must be about connection with God in daily living; the practice of spirituality must be about the experience of God NOW in heart-body-mind-soul (one: not separate parts).

Look at the senses and the ‘supernatural’

For young people today, the words “Turn your eyes upon Jesus�.. and the things of earth will grow strangely dim” belongs to another era. Interest in the environment, creative arts, Celtic spirituality, and even sport and food, are signs that for young people, God needs to be found in the here-and-now.

Young people also have a yearning for the “beyond”, the physical, emotional and intellectual highs that provide a sense that there is more to life than mundane, day-to-day existence. While TV and movies have stimulated this sense of the supernatural or mystical dimensions of life, we know that people of all ages experience ‘God-moments’ outside the four walls of the church. Church-speak doesn’t give us the words to describe these experiences, and church gatherings rarely provide the space or security to discuss them. Helping people share these God-moments in words and other media is vital.

David Tacey says, “The new worldly or secular spirituality can be viewed historically as a revival of …’cosmic religion’, a celebration of the world as we know and touch it, sensuously enjoyed and heartily lived…”

Look at young people’s health

Spirituality is no longer confined to the Sunday religious practice of churches. Researchers are uncovering the links between spirituality and the total well-being of young people. In Andrew Fuller’s study of resilience, (La Trobe University, Melbourne) 40% of Year 11 young people said that prayer helped them to cope with problems. This is much higher than the percentage of young people who attend church.

The Search Institute lists faith connection as one of the identifiable developmental strengths of young people, contributing to positive well-being and reduced risk. While still fairly new outside the US, this research indicates growing attentiveness to the life/values orientation as a key factor in their health, behaviour and community participation.

Look at the person and the planet

Young people’s spirituality is both local and global, with a gap in-between. Young people have a better sense of the global and cosmic sense of human existence than any previous generation. They are environmentally aware and socially conscious on a world scale. While the daily media bombardment of global horrors can be desensitising, young people have a strong sense that we are a global community. By contrast, their belonging and connectedness are primarily local.

Close friends and family, places of belonging in the local community, are where young people find meaning and hope. In the past, the gap between local and global was filled by social institutions such as government, church and school. While these institutions still exist, they no longer provide a coherent structure which makes sense of daily life.

As a result, young people have little or no sense of the value of overarching social institutions in providing frameworks of meaning or belonging. Today the gap between local and global is filled by the media, which take individual experiences and broadcast them worldwide, and take the big picture and make it personal. It should be no surprise that the blockbuster movies are about an individual saving the planet. That sounds a bit like the gospel.

Look at individuals-in-community

Spirituality is about my life journey in the company of others who are on a journey. Every time I read a statement about ‘youth culture (or sub-culture)’, I can easily think of ten young people who don’t fit the description. I’m convinced that part of the decline of church youth ministry was due to our tendency to treat young people as groups, rather than as individuals-in-community.

When we see young people as a group, we tend to look at what is common as a way of getting a handle on working with the group (including age and gender). This ‘lowest common denominator’ approach tends to overlook that individual personalities, experience, backgrounds and maturity may be huge factors in helping young people explore and express faith.

The forming of community among young people is an intentional task: the common elements of their group identity (dress, interests, language, etc.) can be both building blocks and barriers with respect to deeper community.

Faith needs to become “up close and personal” for individuals in a communal context. My personality strengths and preferences are an important avenue for faith exploration.

A community encourages and enables individual searching, rather than assuming that all people have similar likes and needs. Spirituality is more about being close friends on a shared journey together than it is about taking a group of young people through a series of developmental stages.

Look at science as spiritual

For postmodern teenagers, a debate between science and religion just doesn’t make sense. Science and technology are a given, part of the carpet we walk on. Recently my nine year old daughter said to me “Dad, what’s a typewriter?”. Young people rely on the fruits of science for their everyday existence (as do the rest of us), yet at the same time they recognise that it can’t explain everything. In their world, science and fantasy intermingle. Genetic engineering and the occult are part of the same reality.

Mixing God-stuff and technology for worship or faith learning needn’t be a problem. Yet it’s clear that the gap between the church and popular culture is widening every day. I work with some country churches which won’t get an overhead projector because the building doesn’t even have electricity! For young people, the use of technology in worship is a given. One of the biggest challenges facing the church is to technologise our faith experiences with integrity.

Look at the historical Jesus & the cosmic Christ

While this may seem painfully obvious, what it means is less clear. For me, Christian spirituality is about both the cosmic, risen Christ and the historical particularity of Jesus of Nazareth.

A survey of Australian Christian young people a few years back indicated that they saw Jesus as Saviour and Friend. Much lower down the list of images of Christ were Example and Role Model. In other words, it was easier for young people to accept Christ as God-for-them in a general sense than to see how the particular details of his life could be a pattern for their own.

What would Jesus do?” While this slogan can be shallow, at least it raises the question of the ethical significance of the life of Christ. Spirituality involves the spirit-filled practices and virtues of following in the way of Jesus. How do young people learn these practices?

Spirituality is also about the cosmic Christ. As we move from the old missionary view that “we take Christ to them” to a view that Christ is already in the world, we can see that Christ is in some way already a part of their “non-Christian” experiences of spirituality. For Wesley this was prevenient grace: God’s coming to us allowing us to come to God.

We look for the presence and activity of Christ in people’s life experiences, rather than confining Christ to a prescribed set of church programs or even doctrines. In this realm, spirituality is more about conversation than about indoctrination; the emphasis is on learning rather than teaching.
Perhaps these signs are obvious to some. Certainly they are inconclusive, a mud map rather than a street directory. This is a time for conversations, for listening, for discerning where Christ is present, and becoming partners with God in building an emerging church.