Why Students Don't Get It

by John Stonestreet

Editor's Note: John Stonestreet is executive director of Summit Ministries, a group dedicated to educating Christians (particularly high school and college students) in the biblical worldview and giving them tools to confront and shape our post-Christian culture. Summit's ministry to students is primarily through their Summer Leadership Conferences and curriculum for Christian schools and homeschool families. This article raises some crucial issues, and next month's article will be devoted to resolving them.

Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, describe the current worldview of American teenagers, most of whom claim Christianity as their religion, as "moralistic therapeutic Deism." If Smith and Denton are correct, our key concern in regards to the next generation is that they "get" Christianity. Our primary focus should turn from whether Christian students like church, or whether they think of Jesus as their best friend, or even whether they know why they believe what they believe (though that has been a useful tag line for my organization, Summit Ministries, for years). Primarily, if Smith and Denton are correct, our focus should be teaching them what Christianity is because, simply put, they don't get it.

My experience working with students, most having strong histories in conservative Evangelicalism (and representing almost evenly home, private Christian, and public schooling), suggests Smith and Denton are right. I often hear students describe their experience of Christianity in these terms: "I've been a Christian my whole life, but I don't really get it;" or, "I prayed the prayer when I was four, but I don't think it stuck;" or, "I committed my life to Christ when I was fifteen, but I am not sure it stuck."

How is it that students who are so deeply engrossed in church culture and who have more access to the Bible, Christian literature, youth programs, and other resources than any generation that has lived since the founding of the Church, can be so confused about what Christianity actually is and why it matters? How is it that they possess such a truncated, neutered view of the Kingdom? How is it that these students just don't "get it"?

The Distraction Factor

The age of information presents two unique challenges to this generation of students. First, they encounter daily an overwhelming amount of information. Of course, information isn't neutral; it contains, argues, or embodies ideas. Students today swim in deluge of information. Whether or not there is an absence of the true or the genuine, there is often an inability to find it amidst all the noise and distraction.

Second, they experience this information, with its inherent ideas, differently than previous generations. Information today (especially via the internet) comes without context, without a clear source, and often without narrative. Their lives look more like a random episode of Seinfeld than the start-to-finish Cosby Show. They are not a linear generation.

The result? In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neal Postman argued a long time ago (without understanding the full impact of the Internet) that the West had become a silly culture. Entertainment had destroyed our ability to think and prioritize. We lack discernment. We care about irrelevant things, and ignore what is actually important.

Unfortunately, the Christian community often responds by heaping "Christian" noise on the rest of the noise. Attempting to be "relevant" to students, we instead contribute to their appetites for distraction. Entertainment has made us silly and Christian entertainment has made our students silly Christians.

The Grip of Adolescence

Dianna West, in The Death of the Grownup: How America's Arrested Development Threatens Western Civilization, states that "There was a time, literally, when there were no teenagers." In virtually every other culture in the history of the world prior to late 20th century Western culture, kids became adults. Not anymore. Now, they become teenagers or, as we call them, adolescents. Despite its rather recent history, adolescence goes largely unquestioned as a fixed stage of development. It is fully expected that students will lose their minds from ages 13-18. "Kids will be kids," we say. Only, we aren't referring to kids, we are talking about those who buy, vote, and drive automobiles.

Further, the grip of adolescence continues to forcefully expand. On the front end, we now talk about "pre-teens" (with marketing engines quickly spotting the financial potential). On the back end, whereas 18 was once considered the end of adolescence, it is now the middle. Adolescence now refers to ages 11 to 30.

But that's not all. Adolescence is now, and this must not be missed, the goal of our culture. Somewhere along the way, we ceased to be a culture where kids aspire to be adults and became a culture where adults aspire to be kids.

Often, our approaches to youth ministry sanctify adolescence. Whereas teenagers have the capacity (and thus, I would argue, the calling), to think deeply and broadly about their culture, confront evil and injustice, and champion the truth, they instead are encouraged in their adolescent narcissism. We present a neutered Gospel, only about them and their needs, lacking vision (Prov. 29:18).

The Cultural Identity Crisis

Darwinism was the central battleground of worldviews in the late 1800s, the reliability of Scripture in the early to mid 20th century, and truth for the Gen Xers. While these issues are still very important, most of the contemporary worldview battles are rooted in a basic disagreement of what it means to be and live as human.

Today's students enter a world of runaway biotechnology, postmodern social constructions of gender, virtual online identities, family redefinition, distorted understandings of beauty, and multiple sexual orientations, each of which fundamentally challenge our concept of humanness. Further, our culture has largely embraced Darwin, trivialized Scripture, and relativized truth, and therefore left few stable resources to negotiate this corporate identity crisis.

At the same time, clear teaching on what it means to be imago Dei is largely neglected in the church. Conservatives, as Nancy Pearcey noted in Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, often begin the redemption story in Genesis 3 rather than Genesis 1. The fall, though taught, lacks context (From what have we fallen? To what will we be redeemed?). On the other hand, liberalism replaces the rule and responsibility endowed upon humanity by God with muddy concepts of "freedom" and "self-image." The depth and breadth of the fall is trivialized or ignored. What it means to be human is a critical touch point for students in relationship to the Christian worldview.

The Issue of Definitions

The battle of ideas is often the battle over definitions. Asking students, "What do you mean by that?" has never been more crucial. Assuming that we share definitions or that traditional definitions will go unquestioned, with the emerging generation is a mistake with significant consequences. Among the more crucial words needing careful definition include God, human, truth, faith, Gospel, Kingdom, evil, tolerance, male, female, pro-life, justice, marriage, family, freedom, rights, responsibility, and the good life.

Further, the concept of worldview needs clear definition if it is to be preserved. Having been used and misused in a variety of ways, it is dismissed as a modern concept from one side and in danger of dying the death of the "we already tried that program" from the other side. Abandoning the concept would be wrongheaded, given its rich history and its Biblical foundations.

I have attempted to highlight several barriers to communicating the full Gospel to the next generation. Del Tackett of Focus on the Family noted that articles that list trends appear pessimistic. With Del, however, I am encouraged by the commitment and courage I have seen from this current generation of students once they "get it." If students accept or reject Christianity, that's one thing. If they "don't get it," that's another. In the next issue, we'll build on this and discuss how to proactively counter these trends.

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