American youth understand personal faith in Jesus Christ, but when it comes to connecting faith to the public sphere they are rather inarticulate. Youth are not apathetic by any means. They are passionate, but lack models for public engagement. Mennonites, having a 500 year history of both discipleship and sectarianism, get squirmy about presenting faith in the marketplace. John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, provided a handle on the matter with his notion of middle axioms.
Almeda Wright, Assistant Professor of Religion and Youth Ministry at Pfeiffer University (Misenheimer, NC), gave the Wednesday keynote at the Children, Youth and New Kind of Christianity conference. In addition to her Ph.D., Almeda also has an undergrad degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT, so it was no surprise that her presentation was on a topic that is “directly current”! That’s an electricity joke…because direct current…nevermind.
Almeda’s presentation addressed the tension between a personal Jesus and public faith in young people and asked how we might cultivate a generation of young public theologians.
Personal Jesus and Tension of the Public Sphere
Focus on individual commitment to a personal Jesus permeates the religious language of American Christianity and deeply affects the spirituality of young people. Many youth pastors and youth workers struggle with this question: “What happens if a young person commits to a personal relationship with Jesus and then stops there?” Almeda suggested that postioning “personal” as the primary mode for faith is inherently limiting.
The Youth Theological Initiative of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University is an ecumenical program of religious inquiry and service for high school juniors and seniors. YTI has conducted surveys with their students, a small, highly-selective population, on the matter of personal religion and public life. Though 80% of participants report themselves as very involved in a religious community, their responses surprisingly parallel the responses of their age-cohorts nationwide.
YTI participants noted several communal concerns: 35% noted violence as a primary concern, 25% cited division among groups (religious, ethnic, cultural), 16% were concerned about racism.
When asked about God’s activity in the world, though, they could only name for certain that God was at work in their personal lives and severely doubted whether God was at work in their community or in government; answers were peppered with “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure.” Read more »