Youth and Church, Part 1

 I'm reading a book entitled Awakening Youth Discipleship: Christian Resistance in a Consumer Culture, by Brian J. Mahan, Michael F. Warren, and David F. White (Eugene, Cascade Books, 2008).

I'm only through the first chapter, and they have my attention.  

The first chapter is by White and entitled "The Social Construction of Adolescence".  

White begins with a survey of the contemporary social context, taking into account the National Study of Youth and Religion, which was led by Christian Smith of UNC Chapel Hill.  He quotes Melinda Denton's summary of that study before a gathering of United Methodist Youth workers in 2004.  She told them that the study showed that sixty percent of American teenagers - who are overwhelmingly mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic - view religion with "benign positive regard."  They view religion as "good, but inconsequential."  He quotes Smith: "Most religious communities' central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers benign 'whateverism'".

In other words: religion?  Meh.

White maintains that the social construction of what we call adolescence is just over one hundred years old, and describes the "bargain" we strike with those in this period of life as "dependence and education now; responsibility and independence later."  This bargain is problematic, in that:

"recent cultural developments relegate most youth to institutions in which they have less than full power for longer than any age cohort in the history of the world, leaving them less free to make their distinctive mark on history, and are quickly shaping them as passive consumers rather than active agents and shapers of history."

It's hard to argue with that, it seems to me.

He further asserts that there is a "subtle hostility toward youth" in our culture, pointing out that states are criminalizing "behavior once considered experimental, such as public mischief, minor vandalism, and gang affiliation, placing increasing numbers of youth alongside adults in courtrooms and prisons."

White then devotes sections of his essay to summarizing historical periods beginning with "Organic Preindustrial Society".  In his section on, "Industrial Capitalism and Fragmentation of Organic Life", White explores the development of market forces as a major shaper of adolescent identity.  This development competes with  and substantially overcomes the "authority and guidance of families, communities, and congregations," giving rise to an "autonomous youth culture - one likely as not originating in Hollywood and increasingly incomprehensible and irrelevant to their parents and local communities."

White then explores "Postmodern Adolescence" as a period of "destabilization" of "meaning, social institutions, traditions, and personal identity." There is a mixed blessing in this development, as it has opened up new possibilities for women and minorities to gain equal rights and privileges, but has also led to an instability having to do with what he calls "the iconoclasm and promiscuity of the markets."  He cites "planned obsolescence" as an example of this; the work of corporations to instill in us a desire for new fashions and make us into consumers.

White observes several trends in this post-modern situation.  The first is "vastly diminished social roles allowed for youth", which involves the lengthening of adolescence, even beyond the age of thirty.  He observes that the promise that education would lead to middle-class security is increasingly in doubt, and that upward mobility in the workplace is less certain than ever before in modern times.  Underclass youth are now stripped of earning power in a new global economy as jobs are shipped overseas.  He describes a trend to prosecute as felons youth whose indiscretions might have in past times been considered with a more forgiving attitude, citing evidence from California which indicates a priority for prison construction over investment in the university system.  He cites evidence of a decline in the capacity for young people to think critically and in depth, and relates that to the explosion of the entertainment industry and it's power to attract attention from more intentional pursuits.

White also cites a trend in the post-modern situation toward a decline in the number and availability of adult mentors and sponsors, which goes hand-in-hand with what he calls a "specious adulthood" shaped by the entertainment media.

And White cites as a concern market forces which militate against the possibility that youth will find mentors who can apprentice them in meaningful work.  Adolescents are restricted to low-skill and low-pay service sector work.

In summary, White comes to eight conclusions in his review of the history of adolescence:

1. "Youth were abstracted from significant social roles in communities. (Youth roles are now limited to education, consumption, peer relationships)."

2. "Youth were abstracted from networks of care in communities. (Youth are largely relegated to peer relationships with little or no adult involvement)."

3. "Youth were abstracted from attention to the common good. (Youth today are seduced by marketers to a focus upon commodities and sumptous lifestyles)."

4. "Youth were abstracted from families and other local authorities. (Youth are relegated primarily to peer groups.)"

5. "Youth were abstracted from 'innate 'passions and sensibilities,' described by G. Stanley Hall as intellectual curiosity, compassion, passion for life, beauty, and justice. (Many youth experience curiosity and passion as unnecessary and irrelevant for vocational advancement.)"

6. "Youth were abstracted from expectation to fully attend to the call of God upon their lives.  (For many youth, the need for security and desire for consumption drives lifestyle and vocational advancement)."

7. "Youth were abstracted from faith communities.  (Youth are relegated to special but marginalized status as adolescents)."

8 "Youth were abstracted from their own powers as agents of God in history, shaping a better world.  (School and other social roles do not expect or challenge youth to explore their powers and abilities.)

This first chapter has me wanting to read the rest.  I'm thinking that some readers will be able to point out instances of exceptions to those eight conclusions about the "abstractions" of youth, but I find it hard to do anything other than agree with the general description of these abstractions.  They ring true for me.

I'm going to continue reading.  The book promises to give some direction as to constructive engagement with these abstractions.