Apple Beliefs Clergy & Congregations Columns Culture Ethics Faith Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Leaders & Institutions Opinion Religion News

Responding to American Christianity’s obsession with youth

(RNS) — Centuries ago, some of our ancestors powdered their wigs in order to appear older and wiser. Today, adults dye their hair darker to seem young and relevant. It’s difficult to dispute that, as Simon Donnan put it, “Youth is the new global currency.”

One might assume that the Christian church, which often touts itself as counter-cultural, would buck this trend. But many American congregations have embraced it instead. Have you ever been to a house of worship with a top-40 style music and a skinny-jeans wearing pastor donning a carefully coifed hipster hairdo? Then you know exactly what I mean.

This trend is born out of an earnest desire to “reach the next generation” and is usually well-motivated. But according to Andrew Root, author of “Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness,” it is a recent phenomenon and creates challenges that must be addressed. Here we discuss how American Christians can understand and respond to our obsession with youth.

RNS: Talk to me about the history of “youthfulness.” What are the key turning points?

AR: I am developing this idea of “youthfulness” because of a thesis that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1930, in it he said, “Since the days of the youth movement [referring to the German Youth movement in the late 19th century] the church has been more obsessed with the youthful spirit than the Holy Spirit.”

When I read this five years ago, I almost jumped out of my chair; it felt incredibly prophetic and like Bonhoeffer was speaking to the American church today. I think the legacy of youthfulness, like Bonhoeffer says, goes back to “the days of the youth movement”; as some cultural theorists point out, it is always 1969 in America. In the late-1960s the counter-culture drew from older avant-garde communities to embrace this ethic of authenticity, opposing a larger sense of obligation and duty. The baby boomers shifted the whole ethos of the culture to follow only what speaks to you. We all, in one way or another, live in this legacy now.

Image courtesy of Baker Academic

RNS: How did American society specifically become obsessed with youth culture? 

AR: How we got here was not just young people growing their hair long and smoking weed, but Madison Ave picked up these themes of authenticity. After World War II, it was your duty to buy. Madison Ave took the counter-culture ethic of authenticity and made it the new engine for buying and consuming. Youth become the prophets of the age of authenticity – to be authentic is to be youthful. This continued to be sold to us for the past 50 to 60 years. So as the church finds itself with an authenticity deficit, it often runs to youthful forms to legitimate it.

RNS: I’ve heard some Christians say that working to attract young people is a good thing, that the youthful spirit will keep the church vibrant. Is this true?

AR: I clearly want young people in the church. I am a professor of youth ministry, after all. My concern is that the youthful spirit becomes a certain form of idolatry – a way of saving ourselves without the need for God. Do they actually want to attract young people? Real young people will force them to have relational encounters that will change them and their church. Or do they like the idea of having young people as a measure of their church’s vibrancy, legitimacy, or longevity?

RNS: Churches designating ministers to specifically oversee youth programs is a new development. What is the history?

AR: I am all for youth pastors, but I have been pushing, for almost 10 years now, for youth ministry to take a theological turn. If youth ministry is about capturing the youthful spirit, it not only has its priorities wrong, but will burn out anyone actually doing youth ministry. Instead, I think the question that drives youth ministry is not “How can we capture/keep the young for the church?” but rather “How can we encounter the living God with and alongside our young people?”

The history of how we’ve gotten here is a long one, but to sum up, after the youth movement, and the generational gap that existed within it, there was a sense that starting a youth-centric church and ministry could bring vibrancy to the church as a whole. My argument is that congregational-based youth ministry has been both a good, and at times, bad, response to the implications of the youth movement and the dawn of the age of authenticity.

RNS: Is having a youth minister net positive? What parent doesn’t want someone who will look out for the specific needs of their children?

AR: Yes, overall having a youth pastor is a net positive. However, those positive elements can be undercut when we imagine that the youth pastor is the “youths’ pastor.” Instead, it is the job of the youth pastor to be pastoring the whole congregation with the particular job of advocating, listening to, and connecting young people with others in the congregation. If the youth pastor’s job is to capture the youthful spirit, then those positives are quickly lost. But if the youth pastor’s job is to help create an environment where young people are ministered to and ministering to others, then this starts to connect deeply with the kind of faith-formation I am speaking of.

RNS: You note that many young people are leaving the church. That’s old news. But you’re also claiming that the church is to blame for this, and that’s provocative. How so?

AR: I’m not so sure the church is “to blame” per se, but the church has not been aware enough about how the age of authenticity uses youthfulness to validate. Everyone is searching for the 18 to 35 year old market to show that their political party, product or new home fitness center is legitimate and valuable. I think the church has bought into this kind of logic.

Ironically, the more we have focused on our churches being “youthful” the more blinded we are to seeing the real issue we confront: how to actually talk about God and articulate peoples’ experiences of the divine. My book in no way blames, or is even opposed to, young people, but it does wonder if young people (and more rightly, “the youthful spirit”) have been sought and used as a way to legitimize declining institutions rather than young people being part of whole communities who are seeking the presence of God together.

RNS: I’ve heard many note that when the church stands for the “capital-T Truth,” it drives away postmodern young people who less willing to accept universal propositional truth statements. How do you respond?

AR: This is what I actually want to embrace about the “age of authenticity.” It is not about getting to some kind of propositional truth but about naming the depths of our experience. So I am walking a fine line in this project: I want to point out the ways the age of authenticity has become a kind of shiny object with which the church has become obsessed, but don’t think the response is to demonize the age of authenticity. Our experiences really matter. The larger questions are, “How do we discern God’s actions within them?” and “What does it mean to have faith?”

I am driving deeply toward this sense that faith is the encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, so truth is never a proposition but always a person. Paul is invited into faith through encounter with the person of Jesus and the experience of Ananias caring for him. When the Church simply stands for capital-T truth, it is not only irrelevant culturally in the age of authenticity, but also misses the dynamic that faith is not a proposition but an encounter. The task of the church isn’t to assimilate young people to propositions, but to help them discern where the person of Jesus Christ calls out to them.

RNS: I know many older Christians who’ve felt overlooked or ignored by “youthful” churches. Is this a problem, and how might the church address it?

AR: The shape of faith formation that I am developing in the second half of this book argues that it is through an encounter with personhood that we are drawn into an encounter with Jesus Christ. So the church always has to be reviewing, renewing and reforming itself to be the kind of community where all persons are encountered, embraced and known. If there is any group of people who feel pushed out by any kind of ethos, then the church has to examine this. But this also has to move beyond stylistic taste and preference.

Bonhoeffer reminds us in “Life Together” that all true communities of real embodied, persons are often moving in and out of discord. I think this means that to be annoyed with your church is a sign of faithfully being in the church. So if older people feel annoyed that young people are free to express themselves and give voice to their experience, then that’s on them. But if there is a sense that their experience or person doesn’t matter as much as that of younger people’s, then following Bonhoeffer further, that church may “be more enamored with the youthful spirit than the Holy Spirit.” To encounter the Holy Spirit means there is no longer slave nor free, male nor female, Gen Z or Baby Boomer, but all are one in the person of Christ.

FOR MORE, CHECK OUT “FAITH FORMATION IN A SECULAR AGE: RESPONDING TO THE CHURCH’S OBSESSION WITH YOUTHFULNESS” BY ANDREW ROOT.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

ADVERTISEMENTs