(RNS) — Centuries ago, some of our ancestors powdered their wigs in order to appear older and wiser. Today, adults dye their hair darker to seem young and relevant. It’s difficult to dispute that, as Simon Donnan put it, “Youth is the new global currency.”
One might assume that the Christian church, which often touts itself as counter-cultural, would buck this trend. But many American congregations have embraced it instead. Have you ever been to a house of worship with a top-40 style music and a skinny-jeans wearing pastor donning a carefully coifed hipster hairdo? Then you know exactly what I mean.
This trend is born out of an earnest desire to “reach the next generation” and is usually well-motivated. But according to Andrew Root, author of “Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness,” it is a recent phenomenon and creates challenges that must be addressed. Here we discuss how American Christians can understand and respond to our obsession with youth.
Admittedly, this is from an American perspective but it has some interesting observations; for example: If [a] youth pastor’s job is to capture the youthful spirit, then those positives are quickly lost. But if the youth pastor’s job is to help create an environment where young people are ministered to and ministering to others, then this starts to connect deeply with the kind of faith-formation I am speaking of.
A couple quick excerpts
RNS: Talk to me about the history of “youthfulness.” What are the key turning points?
AR: I am developing this idea of “youthfulness” because of a thesis that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1930, in it he said, “Since the days of the youth movement [referring to the German Youth movement in the late 19th century] the church has been more obsessed with the youthful spirit than the Holy Spirit.”
When I read this five years ago, I almost jumped out of my chair; it felt incredibly prophetic and like Bonhoeffer was speaking to the American church today. I think the legacy of youthfulness, like Bonhoeffer says, goes back to “the days of the youth movement”; as some cultural theorists point out, it is always 1969 in America. In the late-1960s the counter-culture drew from older avant-garde communities to embrace this ethic of authenticity, opposing a larger sense of obligation and duty. The baby boomers shifted the whole ethos of the culture to follow only what speaks to you. We all, in one way or another, live in this legacy now.
RNS: You note that many young people are leaving the church. That’s old news. But you’re also claiming that the church is to blame for this, and that’s provocative. How so?
AR: I’m not so sure the church is “to blame” per se, but the church has not been aware enough about how the age of authenticity uses youthfulness to validate. Everyone is searching for the 18 to 35 year old market to show that their political party, product or new home fitness center is legitimate and valuable. I think the church has bought into this kind of logic.
Ironically, the more we have focused on our churches being “youthful” the more blinded we are to seeing the real issue we confront: how to actually talk about God and articulate peoples’ experiences of the divine. My book in no way blames, or is even opposed to, young people, but it does wonder if young people (and more rightly, “the youthful spirit”) have been sought and used as a way to legitimize declining institutions rather than young people being part of whole communities who are seeking the presence of God together.