Last Sunday we heard at church from some young people who had been to a Christian event called Soul Survivor over the summer. Attending the event had been a significant spiritual experience, when they’d felt closer to God than ever before.
That got me thinking about teenagers and faith. I had lunch last Thursday with my old school-friend Colin. We shared memories and discussed my rather tough experience of church as a 1960s teenager. I know I’d have found it hard to cope with the fairly intense immersion in spirituality which is Soul Survivor. I’m sure there are still young people who, like me, need a different kind of nurturing.
An article by Jon Nielson, an American Youth Pastor has been circulating on social media. Nielson looks at why some young people remain involved in church in their 20s while others quit. What they have in common, he concludes in his thoughtful piece 3 Common traits of youth who don’t leave the church is that they are ‘converted’ – they have taken a decisive turn to God, that as teenagers they were not just entertained in church but equipped to pass on the gospel, and that their parents, in an environment of tough love showed deep love for Jesus and preached the gospel.
Here’s the fruit of my reflections. Conversion can be a single, decisive turning point. But it’s just as likely to be a slow process of opening up to God over the years. There will be many times when we turn away, many times when we turn back. And what of the child who has always believed, and sought Jesus as a friend? To be told that there is need for a decisive conversion can be woundingly confusing. It seems to me that great sensitivity is called for in discerning where a particular young person is at on their journey.
I believe we must also realise that because we are all different, our relating to God – and our experience of God will vary. Some respond to the passion of Soul Survivor, others find nurture in quiet reflectiveness. And just to add to the complexity, people from different background use different words to describe the identical experience.
I just wonder if Jon Nielson’s approach tends to create spiritual clones, rather than helping unique individuals to find the ways of living and expressing faith which are right for them. There are many ways of serving God besides church leadership, many ways of making known the wonders of God. We must be prepared for our young people to take unexpected byways.
I think we need to encourage young people to question what they are taught, to believe not simply because they are told to believe, but because they’ve thought things through and reached a personal conviction. When I was young, I believed that the interpretations of the Bible I heard at church were unquestionably correct and that to doubt was a sin.
Things are better now – I love the story I heard this week about a teenager whose family were close to a gay couple in whose lives he had seen both love and sincere Christian faith. When he was told at church that homosexual relationships were immoral, he left shaking his head and concluded ‘The minister must have got it wrong.’
We damage ourselves when we’re unable to find hospitable space where we can bring our questions out in the open. We grow when we acknowledge and befriend our questions, and work through them, and reshape our understanding accordingly.
It seems as though Jon Nielson expects Christian parents to be identical in their approach to living out their faith and expressing their love for God when again, we are all different. And I believe our lives encourage others to the extent that we are real, letting God be seen in our unique selves on our unique journeys. This means being open as appropriate about our failures and the unanswered questions we live with.
Over lunch, Colin and I chatted about the consequences of strict religious backgrounds. Some simply walk away from the faith, as Colin’s mum did as a teenager. Some conform and buy into the package as sincerely as they can. ‘But there’s a third way.’ Colin said, ‘Continue in faith while facing the questions and embracing the mysteries. And it seems to me that this is what you have done.’
I emphasise that it’s not a better way, not a more difficult way, nor again an easier way. It is simply the way I have been called to.
‘I think you’re a credit to your parents,’ Colin concluded. His words gladdened me. And whatever our route to becoming our unique, God-birthed selves, our lives as we travel will be a credit to God.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 4th September 2014)