ARTICULATING FAITH: Thoughts on “What do you believe? American Teenagers, Spirituality, and Freedom of Religion,” a video by Sarah Feinbloom
Written by Amy Valdez Barker
“A compelling educational peacemaking film without being didactic, sectarian, or doctrinaire. Every public school, congregation and youth program in the country should have a copy of it.”
Rev. Paul Chaffee, Director
Interfaith Center at the Presidio, San Francisco, CA
Last week we watched the video “What do you believe?” a documentary on the beliefs and thoughts of American teenagers on Spirituality and Freedom of Religion. You can check the video out at: http://www.whatdoyoubelieve.org/
This intriguing video offers the perspectives of a diverse group of teenagers in 2002, still relevant today. The creator of the documentary filmed several teens that claimed Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikh and Wicca as their preferred religions. They followed these teens through a few days in their life and asked them to describe what they believed about God, heaven, faith communities and religion in general. Their responses were varied, with some students very articulate about their faith and their identity in their faith tradition and others who were less confident in their beliefs and in their understanding of God.
What I found most intriguing about the video was the articulation of faith and understanding of their religions. The students who were able to articulate their belief with security and confidence were often the students who would have been defined as “Highly-Devoted” teens by Christian Smith’s study on “Soul-Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” In this video specifically, the most articulate students were Muslim, Buddhist, Native American Church and even Wicca. The least articulate students were Christians and Jewish. This raised the question for me about “How are we teaching our children and youth to articulate what they believe?”
This issue is not only a 2002 issue. I believe that this is a challenge with the Christian church systems we live in today. In an effort to be polite and inclusive, we have watered down God through our Christian faith and offered what Smith and Denton call the god of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Smith and Denton argue that “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs – especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.” (Soul Searching, p. 164)
This goes against our understanding of God conveyed to us through the Christian bible today. God is completely interested in our affairs, especially the affairs that go against the commandments God has offered us through the Bible. Our challenge is to convey God to students and parents in such a way that transforms their way of thinking, their understanding of the world and their entire lives. We are not just seeking to give people a God of convenience, but rather the God who is intimately involved in every aspect of our lives.
As youth ministers, this isn’t done alone. Our youth ministries not only need to take into consideration the cultural context in which we live, but we must also work with the church to indoctrinate an understanding of God that goes beyond Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We are not just looking for teens to share their faith in rote, but rather believe and acknowledge God’s gracious love in life-transforming ways. Can we help parents and other adults move past their fear of sharing their faith into a realm of passion that helps them grasp the necessity of passing on their faith to the next generation?
If your congregation is doing this well, send us the story! We want to learn more and see where God is transforming communities through the faith of American teens. It’s too important to ignore.
Amy Valdez Barker is a long time youth minister from the North Georgia Conference. She is currently a PhD student at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary working with the Vital Congregations Project.