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Teenage spirituality

Why do young Christians suddenly lose their faith, and how can we help them?

Amy was one of the committed students in the Christian group at the school where I was chaplain. She was vigorously involved, and a resolute defender of the gospel against all comers. A minister’s kid, she was full to the brim with bible knowledge and ‘right’ answers.

And yet now, in the quiet of my office, she was crying.

‘I feel nothing’, she said. ‘My heart is cold towards God’.

It was an astonishingly honest admission. I didn’t quite know what to say in response.

But Amy’s disclosure not only told me a lot about her, it also said a great deal about the spiritual state many teenagers find themselves in.

As Erik Erikson, the famous psychoanalyst once explained, the adolescent years are a time of identity formation. These are the days in which an individual seeks an answer to the question ‘who am I?’. But of course, this is a complicated quest. We discover that the heart – the seat of our desiring self – is intimately bound up with this search for identity, because we make sense of ourselves in relationship to others. This explains why teenagers so express their individuality and identity by dressing just like everyone else around them.

We can put it this way: the teenage years are about finding something, or someone to love, since my loves will shape me and define me. Who I am is ultimately no more than who, and what, I love.

The trouble is of course, that lots of these loves are developed at a sub-conscious level. We love almost prior to thinking. We don’t rationalise what we love; we experience it the other way around. We love, and then we think. We don’t quite know why we prefer one thing over another – we just feel an emotional connection to it/ them, and we act outwards from there. Reason, if we deploy it at all, is exercised after the fact.

Brands and brains

One of my favourite shows is the The Gruen Transfer (ABC Australia), because it analyses so successfully how companies and brands work on captivating the hearts of people, and of young people in particular. The big brands don’t present a message that is persuasive in intellectual terms. They know human beings, and especially young ones, all too well. And so they work on the emotional connection that they can achieve. They tell a powerful story, or connect to a powerful image. They want to make our hearts sing with joy when we think about their product, so that we connect our very selves with our consumer choices.

It’s a very successful strategy. Brands like Nike and Mac are a case in point. They pretend to be so much more than simply the purveyors of products. They claim to connect us to something that far transcends us, so that when we buy their stuff, we are making a connection at a profound level with others; and we are to imagine, as well, that all our hearts’ longings are being met in this encounter. It’s not a commercial transaction: it’s a slice of heaven itself.

We all know how disappointing and belittling these idols are, but we seem to rarely have the guts to say so to young people. Aussie poet Les Murray once wrote: ‘The true god gives his flesh and blood, idols demand yours off you’. They are parasitic and corrupting. They push out every consideration except the present need, and they go to work on us by using deeply implanted subconscious measures.

This may sound a little paranoid. However, I saw a documentary series on brands recently, in which the producers conducted neuroscientific imaging tests on people who said that they loved particular brands. What they discovered was that showing images of the brands caused the various parts of the brain to light up with activity.

Should we be alarmed at this? Well, yes! The deeply implanted connections that people have with brands – and particularly young people – are insidious and destructive. Not because it is wrong to love, but because it is wrong to love such pathetic objects. They are poor, shriveled identities for young people to choose.

Which returns me to the story of Amy. Not that she was a brand junky, or anything like that. Not at all. But rather, it was alarming that she couldn’t express any kind of warmth for the God of the gospel, after all the years of Sunday School, Scripture classes, family prayers and the whole bundle. She had learnt the content of the gospel, but she hadn’t been led to fall in love with Jesus Christ.

The God of all glory did not at this moment cause her neurons to fire with recognition that He was hers - her meaning and identity. Why? Because the cognitive content of the Christian faith is not the same as an encounter with the true and living and holy God - yet we often confuse the two, when it comes to teenage spirituality. Perhaps this is because younger teens are so information-hungry and so keen to please, that we fail to realise that a significant shift occurs in the mid-teen years.

The power of the Christian story

What Amy needed was not more stuff to know. Knowledge was, if anything for her, a source of pride, and it was like an ice-pack around her heart.

This is where we can, perversely, learn from the great brands. They connect young people to a story that is irresistible. Only, they have to make it up, of course, because running shoes and mobile phones don’t really have stories.

But Christians already have a story, and they have practices that help us to connect with that story. The Christian story is profoundly personal, and yet plays us onto the grandest of all stages.

The story of the cross of Christ is one that should envelop Amy, because it confronts her with her deep need before God for forgiveness, and her utter dependence on him for all things in her life. It’s a story which is actually honest with her about herself. It doesn’t whisper sweet lies in her ear like the great brands do - it tells about a Lord that gives his flesh and blood for her.

What did Amy need then, humanly speaking?

She needed the time and space to spend actually thinking about the cross of Jesus Christ. She needed not to pass over it as some mechanism in the plan of God, but to actually learn to cling to it as her story. She needed to be taught to respond in prayer and thanksgiving.

In other words, she needed to be struck by the love of God for her.

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