One of the most recent and best additions to my List of Good Blogs is The Twelve, a team of twelve Reformed bloggers + guests writing from a Reformed perspective—it’s connected to Perspectives, “A Journal of Reformed Thought” that, happy day, published an essay of mine last month (woot). I was introduced to the blog by a favorite former professor and this hysterical Facebook/church-humor post. (So. Funny.)
Anyway, a couple of posts caught my attention this week. In “The Kids Are Not All Right: A Research Opportunity” (complete with soundtrack), James K.A. Smith comments on Christian Smith’s National Study of Youth and Religion and the corresponding publications—including Kenda Creasy Dean and “moralistic therapeutic deism”—and notes that the onus is not on the twenty-somethings but on the folks Smith’s age who “produced” this generation.
(The “research opportunity” is for a summer seminar on hymnology, as “maybe it’s at least partly the case that young people have been sung into the moralistic therapeutic deistic faith”—I admit I like this focus on the formational aspects of worship, and I’m a sucker for music.)
A couple of days later, Jason Lief followed up with “…I won’t do What you Tell me,” in which he basically says to quit freaking out and leave the kids alone. “The real problem,” he writes, “is the over institutionalization and management of young people.” This isn’t a church-exclusive phenomenon—a friend (shout-out to Shannon) shared this interesting article on over-parenting.
Jamie Smith shows up in the comments to (somewhat) agree with Lief: “I think we would both say that the church could do much more by actually doing less, as long as that ‘less’ is also more intentional and recognizes that it needs to intentionally counter the powerful ‘secular’ liturgies of formation that can so easily trump Christian formation.”
To which Lief responds by wondering, “How can the Christian narrative – the formative ‘liturgy’ of the Christian story – speak to and supplement these cultural expressions rather than replace or co-opt them? I think it begins by taking their cultural world seriously.”
What I think I appreciate most about Lief’s response and comment is his willingness to assign agency to young people. “Taking their cultural world seriously.” This doesn’t mean taking Lady Gaga to church, or praise leaders in skinny jeans and dark-rimmed glasses, or chic U2charists. It means taking people for what they are. Breaking the Good Church People mold. Because, let’s face it, that mold has got to go.
I teach composition, and we talk a lot about agency as it relates to pedagogy. As a teacher, it’s my job to provide for my students the tools and guidance they need to become better college writers—but much as I’d sometimes like to, I can’t write their papers for them. I might think I could phrase something more beautifully or argue for something more meaningful and interesting, but it’s not my paper, and acting as if it were would hobble my students’ learning and revoke their agency. It would be bad teaching. And it would be the opposite of caring for my students—even though I still assign grades.
I’m not a parent, like Lief or Smith. I can’t talk about “what we should do about young people,” because I’m in that group. What I can talk about and appreciate is the need for agency at any age, an agency that stems from love, from charity and respect, an agency that requires active listening and an attempt at understanding, as well as distance and a great measure of trust. Parenting and pastoral care, done well, don’t strip agency—my ministers and mentors over the years have been great sources of tools and guidance—but in the end, I have to write my own paper.
So, will the kids be all right? What does intentionally leaving someone alone look like? What does it look like in the context of Church young people?