Do America’s Colleges Need Revival?

Part 6 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

In trying to reach his students, Jon ended up transforming his culture and the future of American higher education

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“(A) strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives. Their worldview is little more than moralistic, therapeutic, deism, or more specifically, ‘whatever.'”

– Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers.

Jon’s students broke his heart. As recently appointed pastor of his church and headmaster of their school, he strove to provide his students with the best biblical instruction and ‘spiritual formation’ programming available. Yet despite his every effort they were completely apathetic about their faith.

Sure, most attended church each Sunday, but it didn’t impact their daily lives one wit. Everything was one giant ‘whatever,’ as they wasted their vast potential in partying and public drunkenness. His youth group was literally the laughing stock of the town. Slowly Jon came to the sobering conclusion that ‘business as usual’ was failing his students. Something had to be done.

However, Jon was not your typical youth pastor. His three-fold strategy to win his students to Christ was not for the faint of heart. First, to make sure they clearly understood what it meant to follow Christ, he began preaching a Sunday evening hour-long sermon series on “Justification by Faith.” Second, to make sure his students understood the concepts, he and his wife invited them to evening discussions in their home. Third, because he didn’t trust in the power of his own persuasiveness and programming, Jon began to pray for each student by name, often spending hours each day asking God to ‘pour out’ his Spirit upon his teaching and ‘awaken’ the hearts of his listeners. After a year and a half of intense efforts… nothing changed.

Then suddenly it seemed to Jon as if “the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and to wonder­fully work among us.” Several students began to follow Christ. One was a young woman who had been the ringleader of the party crowd. Word of her conversion went “like a flash of lightning” into the heart of virtually every youth in town. They came to Christ in a flood and would talk of nothing but Jesus and eternal things for hours on end. The change in the young people was so dramatic that soon the work of God spread to their parents and then to the entire town.

Within six months nearly a quarter of the town’s population professed faith in Christ. Jon later wrote:

“There was scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner… and the number of true saints multiplied… (until) the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.” [1]

As word of the ‘revival’ among Jon’s students spread, churches and schools across America began to seek a similar work in their own towns. Churches began to passionately preach the truth and create small groups where people could connect with one another and the word of God. But Jon’s model had convinced that that great teaching and educational programs were not enough to reach the next generation. They began to unite in prayer asking God to pour out his Spirit upon their efforts and awaken the hearts of those farthest from God.

Within seven years, the First “Great Awakening” had swept the eastern seaboard resulting in as much as 15% of the total population of America professing conversion to Christ. Jon’s approach to student ministry not only transformed the church, it also became the underlying educational philosophy for three generations of “revival colleges,” such as Dartmouth,  Brown, and Princeton, who lated appointed Jon their college president.

Of course by then Jonathan Edwards, had become a household name.

Do American Colleges Need Revival?

Do twenty-first century schools and churches need such ‘revival’? The question seems laughable to those who equate ‘revival’ with slick televangelists, emotional appeals and high-pressure altar calls resulting in little long-term fruitfulness, or periods of religious excitement when undergrads neglect their studies to immerse themselves in dualistic expressions of spirituality.

Yet to Jonathan Edwards and most early American cultural and educational leaders, ‘revival’ meant something altogether different. For them revival was a descriptive term for the aftermath of a season of ‘spiritual awakening’ caused by ‘an outpouring’ of God’s Spirit. The outpouring of the Spirit resulted in the same kind of knowledge of God’s Presence, sense of awe, conviction of sin, and sacrificially loving community that was evoked in the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47). As J.I. Packer boldly articulates, “Revival is a repeat of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.[2]

To Edwards, a spiritual awakening was a season of an “extraordinary effusion of the Spirit of God” that resulted in “accelerating and intensifying” the normal ministries of the Holy Spirit.[3] Edwards described such seasons as times when:

“God seems to have gone out of his usual way, in the quickness of his work, and the swift progress his Spirit has made in his operations on the hearts of many. (M)uch was done in a day or two, as at ordinary times … is done in a year.”[4]

Like most early American schools, Princeton was established as a “revival college” and later named Edwards their president. (Photo: Nassua Hall, princeton.edu)

To Edwards, spiritual awakening was key to the mission of the church and academy.These seasons of the “outpouring” of the Spirit resulted an intensified conviction of sin, sanctification of character, illumination of intellect, and impact upon culture so that Christians became more earnest in their pursuit of God, more Christ-like in their love and service, and more committed to their vocation in the world.

Edwards’ experience in the Great Awakening coupled with a lifetime of scholarship on the subject led him to the conclusion that: “(F)rom the fall of man to this day wherein we live the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.”[5]

Could he be right?What might such a movement look like in American churches, youth groups, colleges, and cities?

A Third Great Awakening?

While much has been lost in American excesses over the past century, Edwards’ older idea of revival being the result of a spiritual awakening is central to historic evangelical higher education. The quest for society-wide spiritual awakening drove much of the educational vision of nineteenth-century Evangelical leaders in their attempts to develop America’s first genuinely Christian colleges. As George M. Marsden, noted historian of higher education and Edwards’ leading biographer explains:

“Much of the antebellum collegiate education was shaped by New Englanders with an Edwardsean heritage, (who) controlled most of the nations leading colleges, including the state ‘universities.”[6]

The best of these colleges formed the intellectual backbone of a transatlantic revivalism” that became “the dominant theme in America from 1800 to 1860” and a “central mode of our search for national identity.” In these colleges, literature, art and the sciences moved into the academic curriculum for the first time, the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, a vision for universal public education found a champion, and a resilient ethic of moral citizenship found a remarkable incubator. [7]

The spiritual-intellectual synthesis of ‘revival colleges’ dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and led to the remarkable “Christianization” of society. Could it happen again?

Noll notes that the leaders of these colleges were key to a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of evangelicalism and common-sense moral reasoning that dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and which led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society.[8] As legendary historian Timothy Smith asserts, these educators first and foremost “were revivalists” and we ignore their effectiveness to our peril (author’s italics). [9] Their effectiveness as educators came, not in spite of their commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit in higher education, but rather because of it.

 

Edwards and the Humility to Learn from History 

All this is to say that Jonathan Edwards certainly appears to be a promising starting point for educators and ministers seeking to reach a new generation marked by spiritual apathy and what researchers Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton have labeled “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  Accordingly, this series will exploring Jonathan Edwards’ theology of spiritual formation and awakening in 19th century American higher education in order to connect it to our 21st century educational philosophy and practices.

However, before we can learn anything from Edwards, we first need to humble ourselves as he did on that fateful day in 1734, when he finally admitted that “business as usual” was failing his students. Then and only then can we look into the genius of this man who’s “revival thinking” shaped virtually all American higher education for over 150 years. As Marsden expressed so eloquently in his biography of Edwards:

“We will never learn anything from the sages of the past unless we get over our naïve assumption that the most recently popular modes of thought are best… We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from the great figures in the past—both their brilliance and shortcomings. Otherwise we are stuck only with the wisdom of the present.”[10]

In future posts I will explore key moments in the history of the Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts in relation to Smith and Denton’s generational research and then tackle Edwards’ unique approach to genuinely Christian higher education that proved so influential in early American colleges.

Next: Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

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Other posts in the series:

NOTES

[1] Jonathan Edwards (1737), A Faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. C. C. Goen (Ed.). In H. S. Stout, (General Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening. (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1972). (Originally written as an unpublished letter, dated May 30, 1735, to Boston clergyman, Benjamin Colman, who had requested an account of the Connecticut River Valley revival of 1734-5. It was first published in London in 1737. Normally referred to as Faithful Narrative.)

[2] Keep in step with the Spirit. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), p. 256. See also, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Joy unspeakable: the baptism of the Holy Spirit. (Eastborne, UK: Kingsway, 1985), p. 280. For a similar assessment of Pentecost being the “prototypical revival” see also other Reformed theologians such as, Kuyper (1900), Packer (1984), and Lloyd-Jones (1985). This viewpoint is also held by most Wesleyan (e.g. Stokes, 1975; Dayton, 1987), and Pentecostal/Charismatic thinkers (e.g. Williams, 1999; Keener, 1999). See also, Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit: contours of Christian theology. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), p. 84.

[3] Edwards, J. (1733ms/2005). Persons ought to do what they can for their salvation (Ecclesiastes 9:10). In H. S. Stout, K. P. Minkema, C. J. D. Maskell (Eds.), Works of Jonathan Edwards Online. Retrieved March 30, 2008, from http://edwards.yale.edu/ref/6168/e/p/8 (Originally preached December 9, 1733.  Privately published in Boston 1734.) See, Samuel Storms, Signs of the spirit: an interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious affections. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p. 25.

[4] Edwards, Faithful narrative, p. 21.

[5] Jonathan Edwards (1774), A History of the work of redemption. Wilson (Ed.). In H. S. Stout, (General Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards, 9. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 138. (Originally a series of sermons preached in 1739 that were later expanded and published posthumously in 1774.),

[6] Edwards, A Life, p. 8-9.

[7] R. Carwardine, 1978; P. Miller, 1965, p. 3,6; Marsden, 1980, p. 222.  See also, J. R. Fitzmier, 1998; Smith, 195; Ringenberg, 1987, 2006, 2007; and Reuben, 1996.

[8] America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 9.

[9] Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. New York:  Abingdon Press.

[10] Edwards, A Life, p. 8-9, 499, 502-3

 

Adult Films: Why Oscars Ignore Movies About Millennials, by John Hanlon

Youth-obsessed Academy oldsters give no respect to films about young characters 

SHORT TERM 12, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, and THE WAY, WAY BACK received as high or higher critical ratings than any of this year’s best picture nominees. So why weren’t any of them nominated?

By John Hanlon  CNN

short_term_twelve_ver4_xlgWhen people talk about the cinematic geniuses of the 1980s, one name invariably comes up — John Hughes. For young people growing up then and even today, the writer-director’s name conjures up memories of unforgettable films.

From “Sixteen Candles” (1984) and “The Breakfast Club” (1985) to “Pretty in Pink” (1986) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), Hughes was responsible for a series of films that openly and honestly explored the exhilaration and tumultuousness of adolescence.

It’s been nearly three decades since those movies arrived in theaters, but audiences still watch and enjoy them as if they were made yesterday. However, despite the love audiences have shown for his work, Hughes was never nominated for an Academy Award.

Hughes isn’t alone in being an outstanding filmmaker whose features about people under 30 were overlooked during awards season. It’s unfortunate but undeniable that award shows — and the Oscars in particular — have a history of ignoring great movies made for and about young people.

In 2013 alone, several such films received raves from critics, earning spots on “best of” lists. “The Kings of Summer” and “The Way, Way Back” scored approval ratings of 76% and 85% of critics, respectively, on RottenTomatoes.com, while “The Spectacular Now,” written by the duo behind 2009’s underappreciated “(500) Days of Summer,” earned the approval of 92% of critics.

“Short Term 12” received a 99% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, a higher ranking than any of this year’s best picture nominees. “Spring Breakers,” starring James Franco and Selena Gomez, may have divided some moviegoers, but the film was also lauded for its provocative depiction of disaffected youth. And it’s not for nothing that “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” was the top grossing film of 2013.

Yet not one of these movies earned a single Oscar nomination.

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Ponce de León on Steroids: What does Christian maturity look like in a youth-worshiping culture? by John Ortberg

A response to Thomas E. Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity

Because we increasingly live in a post-Christian culture, any church leader must seek to discover how to contextualize the gospel to our culture. And our culture is a youth-worshiping, Justin Bieberized, Twilight-Hunger Games-Kardashian culture.

by John Ortberg

I ran across a generationally concerned quote while reading University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright recently:

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days … children no longer obey their parents.”

It was chiseled on an Assyrian stone tablet around 2800 B.C. And it may well have been true. You don’t see a lot of thriving Assyrian family ministries these days.

The “things are getting worse” narrative is a comet with a long tail in human history and has particular resonance with today’s evangelical community. Thomas Bergler’s thoughtful exploration of American youth ministry taps into that narrative with a wealth of information that will be new even for many of us who grew up in the evangelical world. And it will prompt many questions about a dilemma that has troubled the American church for a long while: What kind of people are we trying to reach, and what kind of people are we trying to produce, and is it possible to do both simultaneously?

Youth has always been worshiped in its own way. After all, Ponce de León didn’t risk his life and fortune searching for the Fountain of Maturity. But what was once a quest has become an industry. Between Rogaine, Viagra, Botox, and Gingko, the fountain of youth has turned out to be pharmacological.

Bergler poses as his thesis that an inescapable tension struck the core of American Christianity during the 1930s and ’40s: Should church leaders aggressively seek to adapt to youth culture and risk altering the faith, or should they avoid youth culture and risk losing the youth?

One of the difficulties in answering that question is the lack of a baseline. To truly measure the cost of adapting to youth culture, we would need to have a good gauge of the “maturity level” of people whom churches were turning out in the three or four decades before the ’30s and the rise of youth culture. The emergence of adolescence as a prolonged developmental stage of life is clear; judging its impact on national character would require some kind of assessment of prior national character.

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The Juvenilization of American Christianity, by Thomas E. Bergler, PhD

Are we all adolescents now?

by Thomas E. Bergler

The house lights go down. Spinning, multicolored lights sweep the auditorium. A rock band launches into a rousing opening song. “Ignore everyone else, this time is just about you and Jesus,” proclaims the lead singer. The music changes to a slow dance tune, and the people sing about falling in love with Jesus. A guitarist sporting skinny jeans and a soul patch closes the worship set with a prayer, beginning, “Hey God …” The spotlight then falls on the speaker, who tells entertaining stories, cracks a few jokes, and assures everyone that “God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally.”

After worship, some members of the church sign up for the next mission trip, while others decide to join a small group where they can receive support on their faith journey. If you ask the people here why they go to church or what they value about their faith, they’ll say something like, “Having faith helps me deal with my problems.”

Fifty or sixty years ago, these now-commonplace elements of American church life were regularly found in youth groups but rarely in worship services and adult activities. What happened? Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith. In any case, white evangelicals led the way.

Saving the World

Juvenilization happened when no one was looking. In the first stage, Christian youth leaders created youth-friendly versions of the faith in a desperate attempt to save the world. Some hoped to reform their churches by influencing the next generation. Others expected any questionable innovations to stay comfortably quarantined in youth rallies and church basements. Both groups were less concerned about long-term consequences than about immediate appeals to youth.

In the second stage, a new American adulthood emerged that looked a lot like the old adolescence. Fewer and fewer people outgrew the adolescent Christian spiritualities they had learned in youth groups; instead, churches began to cater to them.

Between 1930 and 1950, Americans got blasted by the Great Depression, World War II, and the cold war. Youth pastors, politicians, and parents all wondered if America and its “way of life” would survive. In the public mind, young people held the key to national survival. After all, millions of young people were unemployed, and Hitler and Stalin were riding to power on the backs of easily manipulated youth. Torrey Johnson, the first president of Youth for Christ (YFC), spoke for many when he said, “If we have another lost generation … America is sunk.” In a world of impending doom, who could argue against doing whatever it took to Christianize and mobilize the young saviors of the world?

The 1940s also saw the birth of the “teenager.” Unlike the more diverse youth of previous eras, teenagers all went to high school and participated in a national youth culture increasingly dominated by the same music, movies, products, and cultural beliefs. Although it may seem that the teenagers of the 21st century bear little resemblance to those of the 1950s, crucial similarities remain in the structure of adolescent life and its relationship to the church. And one of the most important traits is the aversion to growing up….

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Four More (BIG) Reasons Young Adults Quit Church, by Christian Piatt

Part 5 in series A Place of Our Own: How Millennials Who Have Given Up on “Church” are Redefining Faith and Re-engaging Community

by Christian Piatt

There has been a surprisingly positive response to the article I published yesterday: “Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church.” And as I noted, it was hardly a comprehensive list. There were several others I thought were worth noting if I’d had the room, so I thought I’d continue with the same theme today.

And as I said in yesterday’s article: 

  • Although the answer(s) vary from person to person, there are some general trends that I think apply in most cases, and;
  • In the list below, when I refer to “we,” “I” or “me,” I’m referring to younger adults in general, and not necessarily myself.

#8 – We Don’t Want to Be “Talked At” Any More

There’s a very strong case that can be made for the value of sermons. Jesus did it. There are times when someone in a position of expertise has something they need to share with a group, and the best way to do it is didactically. But what if people stop listening?

I asked a friend of mine, who is a minister, if he was planning to attend an upcoming conference. He said no, not because the content was off-base, but because he said he couldn’t tolerate more passive learning environments where he sat back and was a receptacle for more information.

Our daily realities are becoming more interactive. Compare the passivity of reading your daily paper with the engagement a blog offers. We expect to be able to take part in the learning process now, rather than it being so one-sided. More churches are going with a model that reflects this, dispensing entirely with the traditional sermon. I’m not sure this is the answer, but more active engagement in one’s discipleship is a must going forward. (See, J.R. Miller’s post on Flipping Theology.)

#9 – Christians Are Seen As Hypocrites

From the scads of TV evangelists busted for impropriety to Catholic priests sexually abusing children under their care, there’s a face on Christianity in the media that says one thing and does another. Though this is hardly the baseline for all Christians, there’s a phenomenon of human consciousness that tends to seek out examples that reinforce existing stereotypes. Things that don’t align with our prejudice get filtered out. The result: everywhere we look, we see examples that reaffirm what we already thought about Christians.

This may not be fair, but it’s reality. And the only thing that tends to change a social stereotype as embedded as this one is a concerted, collective effort to break the prejudice wide open, not with a competing media campaign or by shouting louder. Rather, it happens one person, one story and one relationship at a time. It’s the same way other stereotypes are dismantled, so why should Christians be any different?

#10 – Church Seems to Lack Relevance

We are swimming in the wake of a self-help tidal wave that swept through Western culture over the past thirty years. This, combined with the custom-built media universes we’re able to construct for ourselves now, reinforce the question: How does this affect me in my life today?

But at the heart of the Christian message is a counter-cultural theme, particularly in today’s culture: it’s not all about you. This can be a tough sell. After all, who really wants to hear that it’s not all about them? And there are plenty of pandering prosperity gospel types who will opportunistically affirm that it is all about us after all.

But it’s not.

That said, we still to have to be mindful in church about waxing theological, while neglecting to identify with the humanity of the people around us in our congregations. At the heart of this connection is story. Not just telling them, but also making space for others to share theirs. And when I say “story” I’m not talking about some inspiring anecdote you plucked form a forwarded email; I’m talking about your story.

If you haven’t already, go listen to the recordings that are part of National Public Radio’s Story Corps project. It is the narrative of a culture, longing for meaning, belonging and to feel something. Church can do the same; we just don’t often enough.

#11 – Nobody Looks Like Me

A young adult commented on my first post on this subject, published on the Sojourners website, that they tried really hard in college to find a faith family that felt right. But despite visiting many churches, she said that all she seemed to find were older people, families with children and a handful of youth, but no other young adults like her. After that it didn’t matter how good the music, the sermon or the coffee were. She didn’t feel like she belonged, so she left.

This long-standing chicken-or-egg conundrum has been a challenge for churches for a long time. It’s kind of like trying to get credit when you don’t have an established line of credit. Where do you start?

First of all, you don’t start by hoping they wander in on Sunday mornings and magically feel comfortable, surrounded by people unlike them. Look into concepts like the ministry of “third spaces” meeting off-site, or spontaneously organizing “hang outs” to help people connect. But I can tell you that we don’t have to look any further than ourselves when wondering why young adults feel marginalized.

My wife, Amy, and I published a book about young adult spirituality a few years ago called “MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation (clearly and outdated title now, but what can you do?). We were frustrated when it was labeled on the back of the book as a “youth” book. Why? Because there was no such thing as a Young Adult section in most bookstores and catalogs.

Still wondering why YAs feel ignored?

 

Next Post in Series: 15 Reasons I Left Church, by Rachel Held Evans

 

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Young Adults Fleeing Churches That Embrace Partisan Politics, by Jonathan Merritt

The dramatic generational shift away from the church is primarily in reaction to the religious right

By Jonathan Merritt

Religious pollsters and demographers have long warned that young people were leaving churches in alarming numbers. According to a much talked about LifeWay Research survey, for example, 7 in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 who regularly attended church during high school said they quit attending by age 23. What’s been less clear is why they’re leaving.

But according to Notre Dame professor David Campbell and Harvard professor Robert Putnam, the fusion of faith and partisan politics – particularly the conservative type – is at least partly to blame. “The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right,” they wrote in the latest Foreign Affairs in an essay titled “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both.” They explain: “And Millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined.”

Mr. Putnam and Mr. Campbell point to the statistical growth of “nones,” those persons who claim no religious affiliation. This group has historically comprised between 5 and 7 percent of the American population. In the aftermath of the religious right movement in the 1990s, however, the percentage began rising. In the mid-1990s, it reached 12 percent. By 2011, it was at 19 percent. Between 2006 and 2011, the rise in young people aged 18-29 who reported never attending religious services was three times higher than the increase among those over the age of 60.

“In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, ‘Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I’m outta here…

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Jonathan Merritt is author of soon to be released “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He has published more than 300 articles and columns in outlets such as USA TodayThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN.com. Follow him on Twitter@jonathanmerritt.

Teen Role Models: Who They Are, Why They Matter, by David Kinnaman

Part of ongoing series: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion. (Note please pray for David, Dan Allender and I as we speak to the National Student Leaders Network in Orlando later this month.)

David Kinnaman is President of the Barna Group and quickly becoming one of the most articulate voices for next generation faith in America. David has designed and analyzed a wide range of projects for a variety of churches, parachurch organizations and for-profit clients. As a spokesperson for the Barna’s research, he is frequently quoted in major media outlets. He also speaks and writes about new models of church experience, the profile of young leaders, and generational changes. In 2007, Kinnaman released his first book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters, co-authored with Gabe Lyons.

Teen Role Models: Who They Are, Why They Matter

A national study led by David Kinnaman, president  of the Barna Group, revealed that while celebrity plays a significant role in the preferences and tastes of teenagers, the greatest impact in students lives is made by those who invest relationally in their lives.

The Role Models

The nationwide sample of teenagers asked 13- to 17-year-olds to identify the person whom they admire most today as a role model.

Among the non-celebrities mentioned: “relatives—37% of teens named a relation other than their parent as the person they admire most: This is typically a grandparent, but also includes sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, and uncles (parents were excluded from the study). After “family,” teens mention teachers and coaches (11%), friends (9%), and pastors or other religious leaders they know personally (6%).

Celebrity influencers included “entertainers (including musicians and actors) were named by 6% of teens, followed by sports heroes (5%), political leaders (4%), faith leaders (4%), business leaders (1%), authors (1%), science and medical professionals (1%), other artists (1%), and members of the military (1%).

The “Why”

“Respondents described a wide range of reasons why they named a particular role model. The most common rationale (26%) was the personality traits of that person (e.g., caring about others, being loving and polite, being courageous, and being fun were some of the characteristics mentioned most often). Another factor in teens’ thinking was finding someone to emulate (22%) or that the teen would like to “follow in the footsteps” of their chosen role model.
Encouragement is another reason for teens’ selections (11%), which included those who said the individual “helps me be a better person,” is someone who is “always there for me,” and is the person who is “most interested in my future.”

What it Says

“Kinnaman offered four insights about the current mindset of teenagers based on the findings:

1. For better and worse, teens are emulating the people they know best. More than two out of three teens identify people they know personally as their primary role model. Many parents and youthworkers fret about the role models of the next generation. Yet, one reason to remain hopeful about the development of young people is their reliance upon the people they know best: friends, relatives, teachers, pastors, and coaches. At the same time, that reality underscores the insistence of many parents that they influence the people with whom their child associates, in order to be sure that their kids are surrounded by people modeling positive values and life choices.

2. Teenagers’ role models reveal that teens want to get ahead, accomplish goals, overcome obstacles… and be encouraged along the way. For all the talk about the social consciousness of the next generation, their role models are rarely selected because of a person’s service or sacrifice for others. Young people, like most other Americans, choose their role models because those people are achievers and because they help teenagers feel better about themselves. None of these aspirations is necessarily misguided, but the focus tends to be uniquely American: on tasks and self, rather than on God and others.

3. Spirituality is only of modest concern to the aspirations of most teens. Teens rarely identified spiritual mentors. Moreover, few teens consider issues of faith, religion or morality when deciding whom they will try to emulate. Even among young Christians, their role models are virtually no different than other teenagers. (The only exception is an expected outcome: those teens actively involved in a church are slightly more likely to identify a spiritual or faith leader as one of their models.) While other Barna research shows that teens are active spiritually, that behavior generally does not influence the “who” and the “why” of teens’ role models.

4. Outside of their personal relationships, teen role models reflect a broadening mindset. The next generation selects its heroes from a wide spectrum of both people discovered through both the global stage and micro-niches. The menu of celebrities crosses multiple sectors, ranging from skateboarders and MTV hosts to international graphic novel artists, scholars, social innovators and historic leaders; from teen idols to celebrities who came of age in the 1960s. The eclectic nature of the role models they embrace is not new but the diversity of pools from which they choose those models is atypical. Their choices are substantially affected by media imagery and exposure.”

So… while celebrities exert significant influence, relational authority and genuine servant leadership are still key to providing role models for the next generation.

 

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