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The Kids Are Not All Right: A Research Opportunity

By January 4, 2012 3 Comments
[Do me a favor: Promise me you’ll read this post with The National’s “Conversation 16” video playing in the background. Don’t try to exegete the lyrics, just let it rattle and hum a couple of times through. If you’re looking for a more adventuresome video version, try this (advanced warning: zombie ahead!).]

The kids are not all right.  That is the evidence-based, data-driven picture that is emerging from sociologist Christian Smith’s National Study of Youth and Religion.  His account of the paucity of moral reasoning among twentysomethings can’t be chalked up as mere grumpy-old-man harumphing about “those damn kids” or a reactionary conservative harangue about godless “secular” America.  Smith’s longitudinal study provides a deeply worrisome snapshot of the state of spiritual maturity and moral reflection among millenials. Indded, I found the first chapter of his latest book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, to be positively harrowing in its account of how these young people are “morally adrift.”  But as Smith is at pains to emphasize: the point isn’t to demonize twentysomethings; the point is for the rest of us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we produced this generation.  

Earlier volumes (Soul Searching and Souls in Transition) did the same with respect to religious understanding and spiritual maturity.  While the study considers young people from various religions and those without any, the implications for Christian ministry were especially challenging (explored with verve and wisdom by Kenda Creasy Dean in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teens is Telling the Church).  The “faith” that young Christians were learning (often from age-segmented youth ministries) was not trinitarian Christian faith but rather “moralistic therapuetic deism”: a strange deity who embraces antimonies and paradox, who is both a legalist and a great big bubble gum machine in the sky–the perfect god for American civil religion, who judges premarital sex but is enough of a big teddy bear to also let it slide, because really, he just wants you to be happy.  The god of moralistic therapeutic deism is a lot like Oprah, it turns out.  

And if that‘s the god that our young people worship, we need to ask ourselves: What have we done?  As Dean puts it, this is an indictment of the church, not teenagers.  

This is why I think Bert Polman’s upcoming seminar (June 18-22, 2012), “Singing What We Believe: Theology & Hymn Texts,” is such an excellent, timely opportunity for a blend of scholars and practitioners to spend some time together thinking about these issues.  For maybe it’s at least partly the case that young people have been sung into the moralistic therapeutic deistic faith.  Here’s a description of the seminar:

Congregational songs have often been called the lay persons’ “handbook of theology” as “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” have a unique mix of doxa (worship) and logia (teaching) which shape and express the life of Christians.  This seminar will explore initially the theology of hymn texts, based on an analysis of some 250 classic hymn lyrics and a similar number of contemporary Praise-Worship texts. Then the seminar participants will discuss the relationship between the theological themes of such texts and the prevalence of what sociologists of religion (Christian Smith, et al) have termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.”  In other words, this interdisciplinary seminar will focus not only on doxa and logia but also onpraxis, and is expected to raise issues about current religious convictions and practices of Christians.

Do consider applying (by February 1)!


  • Sounds interesting. I'm reminded of Prof. David Smith's Summer Seminars lecture at Calvin, titled "How We Learn in Church (Even When No-one is 'Teaching')," and his emphasis on how environment and cues — and music — shape what we're learning as much as any sermon. I think some of what appealed/appeals to me about the Episcopal Church, my current home, is the acknowledgement that prayer/worship powerfully shapes belief (lex orandi, lex credendi, if you want to get all Prosperian) — hence the importance of the prayer book liturgy. In my choir, we pray the Royal School of Church Music's Prayer for Choristers, "Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives." And that certainly relates to the seminar, eh?

    I suspect I'd have disagreements with Christian Smith's conclusions, and it's certainly not nice to imagine Boomers looking at me and thinking, Oh, God, how did we produce something like that, but thinking about how our worship life shapes our beliefs is certainly worthwhile.

  • James K.A. Smith says:

    I'm completely sympathetic. In fact, David & I just teamed up on a new book that considers how to extend the formative, pedagogical wisdom implicit in Christian practices and liturgy into Christian teaching and learning.

    But of course not all that goes under the banner of Christian worship has the kind of intentionality that you're talking about. Indeed, I think part of the diagnosis of the problem here has to include an assessment of the shape of evangelical "megachurch" worship that ends up (perhaps unwittingly) inscribing in worshipers a very different story–just the sort of moralistic therapeutic deism that Smith is talking about.

    That's not to say, of course, that intentional, historic Christian liturgy is some sort of guarantee for character formation. (Here Chris Scharen's critique of Hauerwas is very germane.)

    So yes, things are messy. And the twentysomethings I love, and who I see flourishing, get that.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks for this, Jamie. Readers should note that in the next few months, Perspectives will be printing reviews of Almost Christian, Lost in Transition, and a third book worth mentioning: Donna Freitas's Sex and the Soul, which examines colleges students' moral reasoning regarding sex.

    I trust that Bert will be familiar with the research of Lester Ruth, now at Duke, who has been studying the theology of praise and worship songs for a number of years now. Ron and I used his research on the Trinity in Worship Words. Bracing stuff.

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