Biblical Recorder:Seven styles of teen faith formation
October 30 2003 by Mark Wingfield , (Texas) Baptist Standard

Biblical Recorder:Seven styles of teen faith formation

| Home | NewsOpinion | Baptist Life | YouthFriday, Oct. 31, 2003

By Mark Wingfield

(Texas) Baptist Standard

HOUSTON-American teenagers hold religious beliefs in at least seven distinctive ways, ranging from the conventional to those completely lost to the church, according to a social researcher.These seven categories of youth religion were outlined during the annual meeting of the Religious Research Association by Carol Lytch, a researcher with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville, Ky. Her report was based on in-depth research among high school seniors related to three Louisville congregations - one Catholic, one Methodist and one evangelical. The study was funded by the Lilly Endowment.Lytch classified the teenagers' views on their own faith development in seven categories: the conventionals, the classics, the reclaimed, the marginalized, the customizers, the rejecters and those lost to the church.Though the data paints starkly different pictures of how teens approach faith, it may provide validation for what youth leaders see in the teens with whom they work, Lytch said in an interview."One of the jobs of the church is to help teens through this formative time when they get a sense of themselves," she explained. Given the variety of approaches teens take to faith, a primary goal of the church should be "helping teens see themselves as in Christ and what that means," she added.Lytch acknowledged she "didn't know what I was going to come up with" when she began the research, but she soon started to see patterns emerge.Here is a summary of the differences she found: Conventionals These teens adhere strongly to the authority of their religious traditions. Their primary circle of influence is their immediate family, with Christian friends forming what Lytch calls "a second ring of intimacy."Conventionals are modest in appearance, Lytch said, although they generally "blend in with their peers by wearing a less-extreme version of what is considered stylish in their reference group.""These teens want to stand out because of their testimony to God, not because they look like nerds," she said.Conventionals structure their belief system around their confidence of spending eternity in heaven. "Among conventionals, heaven comes up as a topic of conversation at least as frequently as God," Lytch noted.The ultimate rite of passage for conventionals is professing faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, although that cannot be considered a passage from youth into adulthood because it generally occurs at an earlier age, Lytch said. "Instead, for conventionals the rite of passage to adulthood is marriage, the formation of the adult family unit. Of all the teens in my sample, conventionals were the ones who exhibited the most interest in finding not just a girlfriend or a boyfriend but a future spouse."Because of this, conventionals face an "extra incentive" to get married, she said. "Unmarried adults, especially the never-marrieds, and most especially the female never-marrieds, occupy an ambigious status" and "are not held in the same high regard as role models to the teens."Sexual purity is the "crucible" of personal ethics for conventionals, Lytch reported. Other major issues for testing right and wrong in the mind of conventionals include opposition to abortion, evolution and homosexuality, as well as living a drug-free and alcohol-free life.ClassicsThese teenagers show respect for their parents but have begun to focus on peer relationships as sources of intimacy, Lytch said. "While these teens respect their parents, they choose to spend time with their friends more often than with their parents."Classics have both Christian and non-Christian friends and struggle to maintain a consistent lifestyle among the two groups. They are likely to belong to groups such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and to participate in "See You at the Pole" but are less likely than conventionals to "target" others for evangelism.In appearance, classics are "not as uniformly neat as the conventionals" but still avoid extreme displays, Lytch said.In fact, classics may be put-off by Christians who make appearance too much of a focus, she said, citing the story of Jeff as an example. Jeff's mother pulled him out of a Christian school because teachers were criticizing his shoulder-length hair. "Classics distinguish what is custom, like hair style, from what is the classic event, the theology at the heart of the Christian tradition - the focus upon Jesus as the Christ."In theology, classics are open to inter-racial dating, to reconsidering traditional understandings of homosexuality as sin and to finding truth in other religions.Yet classics are "serious about God," Lytch said. "They tend to be disciplined in their study of the Bible. They look at the world, their goals, their relationships and moral issues through the lens of the Christian tradition."The rite of passage for classics is their acceptance of adult-like responsibility for themselves, Lytch said.In moral decision-making, classics are much like conventionals, saying they are guided by the Ten Commandments, the Bible and the values of their parents. The places where classics encounter moral dilemmas are less predictable than with conventionals, however. Lytch cites these examples of classics confronting moral choices: The temptation to drink and use drugs at a party, racism among peers, taking a stand against hypocrisy in the church.While conventionals are more inclined to accept religious traditions the way they are, classics do not see religion dictating uncontested standards, Lytch said. "The tradition attracts them because they believe it is true and because it is open to reformation." ReclaimersThese are teens Lytch said she first thought should be classified as conventionals or classics but who didn't look the same as conventionals or classics. "They dressed sloppily or showed some evidence of rebelliousness." For example, one girl showed up for an interview wearing a skirt held together only by a safety pin."A closer look at these teens revealed they were more than a hybrid type of the conventionals and classics; they shared a common experience that set them apart - they had broken with the tradition in a significant way before reclaiming it."Reclaimers do not consider their parents in their inner-circle of intimacy. Rather, they selectively choose family members to whom they desire to be close.Reclaimers are not close to many of their peers either, Lytch said. Those they are the closest to tend to be those in their non-Christian peer group to whom they actively witness about faith in Christ."Reclaimers have an intense experience of being saved by God, and this grounds their sense" of theological self-awareness, Lytch said. "Reclaimers have first-hand experience of the world as a dangerous place. They have walked to the edge of the precipice, faced the abyss and seen some of their friends destroyed. Their way of being religious has an experiential certainty that comes from being rescued from self-destruction."In a sense, reclaimers already have experienced their rite of passage, Lytch added, and do not look forward to another stage of advancement.In moral and ethical decision-making, reclaimers believe much the same as the conventionals and classics. They tend to see staying alcohol-free, drug-free and sexually pure as "clear moral tests" and opportunities for Satan to "tempt" them.More than conventionals and classics, reclaimers know that "the structures of their religious identity could come crashing down as they have before. Not trusting themselves, they rely on God to shore up these structures," Lytch said.Reclaimers tend to be evangelicals and Catholics but not mainline Protestants, she added. "When a mainline Protestant teen becomes a reclaimer, he or she might switch to the evangelical megachurch because it offers more support for the notion of a distinct 'new life in Christ.'" Marginalizers The attitude of these teens is summed up by the comment of Megan, who comes from a large Catholic family, has attended Catholic school all her life, has marked all the passages of Catholic life by the sacraments up through confirmation and is considered a youth leader in her church."You know, religion is just not a big part of my life," Megan told Lytch in an interview."Marginalizers are believers, but belief in God does not dominate their thoughts, nor does it self-consciously shape their lifestyle or life plan," Lytch explained. "They are pursuing careers defined by the market, not vocations discerned through prayer."Marginalizers accept the church's definitions of belief and practice, even if they don't pay attention to them, she added.Likewise, these teens acknowledge respect for the adult figures in their lives but reserve intimacy for their peers. Most of these friends tend to be a mixture of peers from church and school, sometimes overlapping groups due to a high percentage of marginalizers attending parochial schools.A majority of marginalizers are Catholic, but others are mainline Protestants as well, Lytch reported.Marginalizers are high-achievers, success-oriented, neat dressers, usually athletic in some way. But none of this is based on any religious underpinings.Any sense of security these teens feel comes from their own achievements and physical assets rather than from a well-defined belief in God or heaven, Lytch said.Marginalizers are involved in community service projects as an outgrowth of their concern for moral and ethical issues, but this service has no religious underpinnings, she explained. They perform service hours but cannot say why their work is satisfying. Customizers"If marginalizers are the ones who take the religious institution without the belief, then customizers are the ones who take the belief without the religious institution," Lytch said to introduce this group of teens.Customizers are seekers who are aware of their need for connection to God but are not interested in institutional religion. They may attend a particular church because they have a needed talent, because they like a particular minister or because of opportunities to work with children, but they will fall away if pressured for too much commitment.Lytch quoted one customizer: "Whenever I go to church, it's kind of like I stumble into it more than getting up and going."Like conventionals, these teens talk a lot about heaven. But unlike conventionals, they are just as likely to find theological meaning in "The Velveteen Rabbit" or "Chicken Soup for the Soul" as in the Bible.Lytch told the story of Michelle, who writes poetry about God and has created her own "cleansing ritual" involving candles, music and meditation on glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling of her bedroom.Customizers tend to relate to parents as peers and tend to be among the most sexually active teens, Lytch said.Overall, customizers see few boundaries. They dress in more flamboyant ways, are more likely to use drugs and alcohol.Moral action for customizers is "not behavior based in separating right from wrong as much as it is going the 'second mile' by helping others when it is not required," Lytch said. Customizers volunteer many hours in community service and don't care whether they get credit for it. RejectersThese are teens who have been in church but for a variety of reasons have rejected the teaching of the church. Some would classify themselves as agnostics.A commonality among rejecters, Lytch found, is how they conceive of intimacy. "Rejecters consider their intimates those who support them in the values they have chosen as critical to their self-identity."But rejecters limit their circle of intimates by establishing high standards for friendship, she added.These teens are most likely to be non-smokers, non-drinkers, drug-free and vegetarians. They may buy their clothes at thrift shops as a protest of materialism. They may not wear leather because it comes from animals. But they might dye their hair or alter their school uniforms as a means of standing out from others.Rejecters usually substitute something else for Christian symbols and narratives of the faith they have left, Lytch said. "In place of extrinsic sources of meaning, they look to the self as the arbiter of truth."Rejecters also are concerned about global issues but work on them in smaller, local contexts. They are "committed to ideals like equality, respect for all and honesty." The LostTo illustrate this group of teens, Lytch tells the story of Trey, who has been baptized as an infant in the Presbyterian church, rebaptized as a youth in the Catholic church and then immersed in an evangelical church but cannot repeat "The Lord's Prayer." He cannot name a religious song or hymn with which he is familiar, and he has no memories of church at all.Though he shows no evidence of understanding anything about the Christian faith, he considers himself a Christian.Trey and others like him often come from families where they are "underexposed to their religious tradition," Lytch said. "They never had a chance to be formed in the religious identity and practices of their faith because their religious socialization was inadequate. Some of these teens come from families that switch from one tradition to another, sometimes switching more than once. ... They never settle into one pattern of belief and practice that is sustained for a period of time."A common characteristic of the lost teens is the absence of good relationships with their parents, even if both parents remain in the home, Lytch said. "These teens do not reject their parents because they are overly strict or demanding; rather, it is the opposite."Teenagers lost to the church also do not have many strong peer relationships, she noted. "Lost teens tend to report that they have difficulty with friendships."They also have trouble making friends in the church when they do attend, Lytch said, noting specific instances she observed when visiting church youth functions.These teens tend to dress in extreme versions of what is worn by their reference group, she said. "Danielle dresses like a cheerleader, even though she is not one. Trey, the football player, wears athletic clothes all the time, except when he has to wear his school uniform."Security for these teens is not found in religious beliefs or service to society but in future career paths. Yet even these career paths may be unrealistic, Lytch said, because the teens fail to connect risky behaviors of their youth with their future success in life. For example, Alan aspires to be a Marine and then a state trooper, yet he currently is a gang member.The lost have no signposts as rites of passage into adulthood and demonstrate no pattern of moral decision-making. | Home | NewsOpinion | Baptist Life |

10/30/2003 11:00:00 PM by Mark Wingfield , (Texas) Baptist Standard | with 0 comments

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