Some final musings on the Barna Report Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland.
At the end of the Report there is a short section advocating for the need for adult spiritual guides to talk to young people about issues of faith. Two reasons are given:
i. Evidence points to the significant impact of mature spiritual guides for young people.
ii. Most young people have no older adult who talks to them about matters of faith.
Reading a bit more closely it seems that it is parents (particularly mothers) are by far the biggest influence on the spiritual development of young people. If faith is practiced at home it will be most impactful on children. This is unsurprising.
Other people like church leaders, youth leaders or college chaplain may have some influence but it is limited in comparison with parents.
The report closes with some surprising figures (to me anyway):
- 37% of Irish youth (14-25 yr olds – across the whole sample) say it is mostly or completely true that they would like to “find a way to follow Jesus that connects to the world they live in.” That is higher than I would have expected (the figures will be signficantly lower for 18-25 I assume).
- This applies to 47% of ‘Christians’ (so the majority of those labelled ‘Christian’ don’t actually want to follow Jesus? What value does this term then have?).
- And applies to 71% of ‘practising Christians’ (so 29% of ‘practising Christians’ don’t want to follow Jesus? This raises questions about the meaning of this term in the study. As mentioned in the first post, my daughters’ sense is that the broadness of the categories masks a much lower engagement with even basic Christian claims than the stats suggest).
It is not easy to know what to take away from the Report as a whole. Some musings
1. INTERPRETATION OF DATA.
The Barna report necessarily focuses on people’s responses to questions and to measuring certain ‘religious’ behaviours. It’s findings are very useful and unique, but need to be treated with care. They are ‘big picture’ and general and, to some degree, reflect the legacy of Irish Christendom when 99.9% of people were ‘Christian’.
However, in thinking about the implications of the Report’s findings we must beware of looking for a ‘silver bullet’. We need, first and foremost, to think theologically about faith and discipleship.
J K A Smith nails this in his book You Are What You Love. ‘Being Christian’ is in essence, a matter of what/who we love. Biblical faith, OT and NT, is summed up in loving God wholeheartedly and loving your neighbour (who may be an enemy don’t forget).
So authentic Christianity is all about love, faith (pistis) as allegiance, loyalty, worship, commitment, obedience, relationship, being in the presence of God, knowing God as loving Father, experiencing the love of God in the Spirit – and so on.
A Christian will then shape his or her life around this primary love and live their life within the Christian story – looking forward in the here and now to the kingdom come.
So being a disciple of Jesus is much much deeper than mere external behaviour. It is about a formation of the heart – what we truly love and live for. The tragic failure of Christendom Ireland was that is concentrated on just those external behaviours. When the cultural pressure to conform was removed, religious nominalism was exposed for what is was.
3. COMMUNITIES OF DISCIPLESHIP
This means that we need most of all to be considering places where young people can be shown, taught and nurtured in that living faith. At least two places are absolutely central:
i. The Family as a place of Christian formation
Nothing outside the church, is more significant and influential in the shaping of young people’s faith than the family home. Here’s an excerpt from a previous post on Smith’s take on the family and discipling young people:
In the last few pages of this chapter Smith then sketches his ideas and experiences of inculcating these values within family life. He asks
What does it look like to parent lovers? What does it look like to curate a household as a formative space to direct our desires? How can a home be a place to (re)calibrat our hearts? (127)
- Christian calendar: family rituals linked to the cycle of the Christian year
- Serving others together
- Enacted symbolism
- Eating together
- Creativity – a Sabbath slow down from hyper-consumerism and technology
Obviously all of this is contextual to each family. But the point is that ‘heart formation’ is far deeper than a surface bit of religion now and then ….
All of this is to build connections to the ‘liturgy of the home’ with the liturgy of the church in which the home belongs. Without this sort of integration there will be a lack of authenticity … and ‘doing a bit of church’ on a Sunday is mere nominalism unless it is embedded in daily life liturgies that flow from the gospel story that we claim to believe.
Of course, for many if not most, the family will not be a place of such formation. Which makes the community and practices of the church even more important.
ii. Churches as places of Christian formation
Christianity is nothing if not a corporate faith. At its best, the church is a community of believers on pilgrimage, following and worshipping their Lord before any other love or loyalty – come what may.
To be a Christian is to live this story. It is to be part of a body where worship and service happens. It is to be a place where our hearts and imaginations are formed by the gospel.
There are many alternative stories in Western culture (whether work, money, sex, love, pleasure, family, sport, beauty, technology etc) to which we are invited daily to commit our hearts and live to as objects of ultimate purpose.
This means that the challenges for discipling young people in a post-Christendom Ireland are complex. But at the very least such discipling has to be linked to communities of faith where the gospel story is preached and God is worshipped.
I don’t doubt that young people having a spiritual guide and mentor is a good thing. I have seen that in our own family, especially how significant slightly older adults can be. Not a parent figure, but guides and mentors giving a safe space to explore issues and questions honestly. Our family has been blessed with some great friends in this area, but the best thing was that this happened naturally within the life and worship of our local church.
So what implications?
i. The Report quantifies what many have known for a long time – that Ireland is today far from being a ‘Christian country’ – and it never was (since there is no such thing).
ii. There is no short cut silver bullet to mission and outreach. The most powerful witness of the gospel are communities of authentic love and worship – in Christian marriages and in worshipping Christian communities that embody something of the presence of the kingdom of God. Those can’t be faked.
iii. Youth ministry needs to be embedded within such local churches, not free-floating and detached from them. The body of Christ is just that – one body made up of many parts. To divide the body of Christ into generational segments is to damage the catholicity and unity of the body of Christ as described in Ephesians 4:4-6. Young people need the wider body, the wider body needs young people.
iv. Trust, authenticity, care, love, service – these are the sorts of relational requirements for people working with a pretty savvy and rightly sceptical young Irish population, trying to navigate their way through the legacy of Irish Christendom.
v. But also required is courage and a willingness to be counter cultural in an individualist culture that says the self is king. This means holding to the foolishness of the cross and the radical demands of Jesus to come and die if someone is to be worthy to follow him – a call to love him before all others. (Matt 10:34-39). Young Irish Christians know this first hand – whether in schools or universities – they are a tiny minority and it takes guts to stand up and be counted.
vi. I would say this wouldn’t I – but critical to any renewal is good Bible teaching and education. Where Moral Therapeutic Deism reigns virtually nothing can be assumed of what young Irish people believe about God, the Bible or basic theological concepts.
Comments, as ever, welcome.