The Surprising Way American Culture Makes It Harder to Disciple Children

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Older men are to be self-controlled, worthy of respect, sensible, and sound in faith, love, and endurance. In the same way, older women are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not slaves to excessive drinking. They are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands and to love their children, to be self-controlled, pure, workers at home, kind, and in submission to their husbands, so that God’s word will not be slandered (Titus 2:2-5).

Our family recently watched Oliver Twist (1948). You know the story. Young Oliver is orphaned in a workhouse, where he’s callously neglected and eventually sent to be apprenticed to an undertaker. “How would you like you to already have a job at your age?” I asked the kids. Later, Oliver runs away from the undertaker and is recruited by a street gang led by an older man named Fagin (played by Alec Guinness), who trains Oliver to be a pickpocket in the grim world of Victorian London. By the movie's end, Oliver moves from surrogate family to surrogate family until he is finally reunited with his grandfather and finds a loving home.

I thought of that movie while reading Christian Smith’s Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. One of the points he makes in the book is that teenagers’ lives have changed radically over the last century, especially in America, and that has profoundly influenced teenage religion.

For all of human history up until a century ago, the lives of the youth were bound up with the lives of adults. In pre-modern society, children and teenagers participated in the work of adults, “herding, gathering foods, planting, irrigating, and harvesting, hunting, fishing, fending off predators, running errands, transporting and selling goods, assisting in crafts, caring for animals, and much more” (p. 182). They learned from adults day in and day out.

As society developed, youth remained involved in adult lives in the form of apprenticeships:

“As recently as 175 years ago, for better or worse, many American boys at the age of 12 were sent away from their families to become apprentices working long days under the care of craft masters in whose homes they lived out their teenage years” while girls helped older women with household chores (p. 183).

You see that kind of thing in Oliver Twist, where he’s sent to learn how to make coffins and later learns how to steal. In both cases, he was apprenticed by adults.

All that changed with the Industrial Revolution, and things are entirely different today. Teens do not spend their time with adults. Instead, they're sent off to be together:

“A mere 70 years ago…the majority of teenagers were for the first time in history gathered up together for most of the day, for most days of the week, in a single building with masses of other boys and girls of their same age, with relatively few adults around to supervise and intervene into the details of their lives. Mass school was the perfect incubator for a new, distinctive youth culture, which blossomed in the following decades” (pp. 183-84).

Instead of being socialized by adults, learning from them, teens spend most of their time among themselves:

“[V]iewed in broad historical perspective, contemporary teenage autonomy from adults is unprecedented and astounding. Significant numbers of teens today live their lives with little but the most distant adult direction and oversight. They spend the greater part of most weekdays in schools surrounded almost exclusively by their peers. Their parents are working and otherwise busy. Members of their extended family live in distant cities. Their teachers are largely preoccupied with discipline, classroom instruction, and grading. Their neighbors tend to say out of each other’s business. These teens have their own cars, cell phones, spending money, and televisions in their bedrooms, or they may simply spend all of their free time hanging out with friends and associates at the mall, on the streets, at friends’ houses, or other places away from home” (p. 185).

This impacts teenage religion.

In the study, Smith found that most teenagers could not clearly articulate their religious beliefs. The statements of faith they were able to make had little to do with orthodox Christianity. Their knowledge of their faith was fragmented at best and heterodox at worst.

How did that happen? Why are children in Christian families unable to articulate Christian beliefs?

This is partly because, in our culture, instead of being daily discipled by an adult, they’re left to live life among their peers, focused on their own issues. How do we expect them to learn how to be Christians and live a pleasing life to God if adults are not teaching them on a daily basis?

Reading Smith’s book has helped me realize that I’m not seeing the big picture of how contemporary American culture is historically unique and how much more challenging it makes discipleship—how it undermines discipling my family.

Smith recognizes that many Americans think of themselves as being pro-family when the truth is our culture is very anti-family:

“Most of the structures and routines of American life actually pull families apart regularly and effectively. American work and education practices separate family members for most daytime hours of every weekday. Day care centers and preschools remove children from their parents at a very young age. After school, many parents, middle-class parents particularly, schedule their children’s lives with so many programmed activities that they find themselves with very little unstructured time simply to spend together as families. A minority of American families with teenagers eat most of their dinner meals together. And our legal systems and cultural practices around divorce make clear that keeping families together is not a particularly high societal priority. Contrary to our culture’s pro-family rhetoric, an alien anthropologist might have good reason to conclude that members of American families actually have little interest in spending time together” (p. 190).

And the less time we spend together, the less time we spend teaching our kids what it means to believe and follow Jesus.

What do I do? What do we do as families and churches? Can we solve this while still following typical American patterns of life, or do we have to become counter-cultural? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


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