Monday, January 17, 2011

Christianity vs. Christian Morality

In his recent round of research, Christian Smith observes that a sort of Christian morality is the “dominant outlook on religion” for emerging adults. On page 286 of Souls in Transition he states, “Most emerging adults think that most religions have the same core principles, which they generally believe are good. But the particularities of any given religion are peripheral trappings that can be more or less ignored. The best thing about religion is that helps people to be good, to make good choices, to behave well.” I think that we might be seeing the result of what T. S. Elliot calls a “dangerous inversion.” “To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion.”

This quote was a bit of an “aha” moment for me. The observations of Smith and his colleagues about emerging adult attitudes towards religion ring true. What weighs more heavily on my heart and mind is that these attitudes are present in my corner of the religious world. I can identify previous church-attending or youth-group-attending students now in college and beyond who think that Christianity is mostly about behaving and thinking well. Sure, it comes in a package that includes Jesus and forgiveness of sins, the Bible, and service to others. That is what we teach. But what if what we are really about in the church is behavior?

How many times did I enforce this by asking a question in small group or one on one that was aimed at behavior? “What are you going to do differently because of this teaching?” “What in your life can you see that does not line up with message of this passage?” These are good questions to ask and good challenges to make- especially because adolescents often have a disconnect between ideas, actions and consequences. But I wonder: are they the questions? These questions get at behaviors, outcomes, and, sometimes, at best, thought patterns. But is this what Jesus teaches?
Behavior and dispositions are frequently addressed in the Bible, but they are usually the outcome, not the axis. For example, both Colossians and Ephesians have lists and lists of “do’s and don’ts.” Put to death sexual immorality, evil desires, greed. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness. But the reason for these shifts is clear: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved clothe yourselves with…. And again in Ephesians Paul admonishes behaviors on the foundation of the gospel. The Ephesians were taken from their old way of life, rescued by Christ, consecrated and loved, therefore actions and thoughts change. Surely there is a call for a stringent Christian morality, and surely it is based on the love of Christ for us.

I ought to be so moved by His love and care for me that my response to him is to honor him with my actions and thoughts. Elliot’s observation rings true. It is backwards to start with actions because they are Christian and forwards start with Christ and respond with actions. I will ask different questions. “Why is doing or not doing something significant to God?” “Why would that matter?” “What does it say about His intentions and heart towards you?” What does it say about your intentions and heart towards Him?” “Where do you feel the love of God, and how are you compelled to act because of that love?” Perhaps this is one way to distinguish Christianity from the religion of Christian morality.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What is this all about?

               I love teenagers, I love Jesus, and I love academics. These three things motivate me to share my thoughts about the intersection of all things youth ministry and all things academic. I have a hunch that you are passionate about at least one of those three things and that is why you are here. After recently completing a Master’s, and studying factors that contribute to faith that lasts beyond high school, I have a head full of tangents, and practical suggestions. There is always far too much to cram into a paper or a venture that is purely academic. So, here I am, writing my thoughts in a blog for you to read them. I intend to make this blog a resource for those in youth ministry (and those who just like teenagers, Jesus or me) with reflections, suggestions, questions and resources.

            There is a wealth of strong academic research on adolescents and on youth ministry that speaks to all kinds of issues from trends in culture, to adolescent psychology, and youth ministry theory. I think that information can be brought to bear on the daily ins and outs of youth ministry. This is my corner of the world to explore those ideas, to tell you about what I am reading and learning, and to hopefully bring some of that information to you in a way that is useful, or at least thought provoking.  So, here we go!