Teenagers and Translating the Faith: Parents Matter Most

Kenda Creasy Dean

The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw; the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds. (in Martin Luther, preface to The Small Catechism [1529], translation by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; catechism.pdf [accessed August 16, 2007])

Luther’s Small Catechism, widely regarded as an educational masterpiece, located teaching

in households, not congregations. He was convinced that Christian formation began with youth ministry, and he was convinced that youth ministry started at home. Even before his break with Rome, Luther wrote “If ever the church is to flourish again, one must begin by instructing the young” (cited in M. Albrecht, “The Effects of Luther’s Catechisms on the Church of the Sixteenth Century” [lecture, Dr. Martin Luther College and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, 1979], [accessed August 14, 2007]). One of his first goals as a reformer was to teach children the basics of Christian religion. Borrowing the medieval assumption that all things precious are known “by heart,” Luther developed a method of instruction-by-memorization he called catechism, from catēchizein, to “echo back,” or “to make someone learn by teaching out loud.

This had the effect of locating Christian formation in the intimacy of families, where children drew direct connections between religious instruction at the dinner table and the lives of people who loved them. Luther admonished pastors to preach from the catechism and advised all Protestants to “pray the catechism,” but the Small Catechism itself was intended for parents (especially fathers). The instructions explicitly indicate “How the Head of the Family Should Teach His Household.” It was an educational stroke of genius, since it effectively ensured that parents, children, and servants learned the core teachings of the church together.

Parents Matter Most

Luther would not have been surprised by the National Study of Youth and Religion’s conclusion that the best way for youth to become more serious about religious faith is for parents to become more serious about theirs. (Interestingly, the NSYR’s longitudinal interviews indicated an even stronger tie between parent religiosity during the teenage years and young people’s faith in emerging adulthood; cf. Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults [Oxford University Press, 2009].) Research is nearly unanimous on this point: parents matter most in shaping the religious lives of their children. (One notable exception is J. Arnett’s Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties [Oxford University Press, 2004], 174; Arnett’s data stands in such stark contrast to the preponderance of research and common sense that even Arnett expresses surprise.) This is not to say that parents determine their children’s spiritual destinies. Even the Bible has apostate parents with spiritual children, and vice versa. But this only underscores the importance of supplementing teenagers’ religious upbringings with congregational formation—consistently the second most important variable on adolescent religiosity (cf. Smith, Souls in Transition; Smith’s research reinforces earlier studies such as P. Benson et al., Effective Christian Education [Search Institute, 1990]). Yet there is no doubt that teenagers’ appreciation of a life-orienting God-story, and their ability to discern God’s ongoing movement in their lives and their communities is heavily influenced by our appreciation of such a story, and our ways of discerning and responding to the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. Proximity matters. Teenagers’ ability to imitate Christ depends, to a daunting degree, on whether we do.

Herein lies the rub. Many adults lack confidence in articulating, much less teaching, their own faith. What if parents and volunteers are no more religiously prepared than teenagers are? How do we speak with conviction about a faith that we have trouble explaining ourselves? What if we accept church teachings, but then discover, as we rub shoulders with different cultural perspectives, that we have questions about God too? Even allowing for Jesus’ radical redefinition of the family, in which he adopts the entire church, not just biological kin, as his spiritual family (Matt 12:50), we often feel, as Luther’s pastors did, “incompetent and unable to teach” the young people in our care. How do we translate our faith with conviction when we are not always convinced ourselves?

Nurturing a Bilingual Faith

Walter Brueggeman argues that the cultural conditions of postmodernity require the church to function as a bilingual community, conversant in both the traditions of the church and the narratives of the dominant culture. Metaphorically, “bilingualism” lies at the heart of God’s mission in the Incarnation. God became what God loved, translating the divine self into human form, sending Jesus to become like us so we could become like him. Christian formation requires a similar but admittedly imperfect move, translating words of faith into lives of faith, as the church provides young people with resources necessary for maintaining their alternative worldviews while they interact with a persuasive dominant culture.

Brueggemann offers 2 Kgs 18–19 as a model of community particularity that converses with the broader culture, but also refuses to give in to the dominant culture’s demands. Here is the story. The Assyrians have surrounded Jerusalem, and now all attention is on the wall of Jerusalem that stands between the Jews and the culture that seems destined to overwhelm them. The Assyrian negotiator stands at the wall, taunting Yahweh and shouting conditions for surrender. Israel responds with a tactical move of its own. While negotiations on the wall with the Assyrians are being conducted in Aramaic (the official imperial language of those who dismiss Yahweh), Israel’s leaders were immersed in a behind-the-wall conversation in Hebrew, the language of Judah, where Yahweh is addressed.

The behind-the-wall conversation turns out to be pivotal. Within their own community, the people of Judah speak and grieve openly in Hebrew, the intimate language of family and friendship, of worship and prayer. Speaking Hebrew behind the wall, the people of Judah recount stories of God’s faithfulness to them, remembering that their salvation is in Yahweh’s hands. Behind the wall, the people of Judah remember who they are—a people whom Yahweh has promised to save, whom Yahweh has called to be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:2–3). As the sociologist Nancy Ammerman observes, “Any community that wants to sustain itself must have space behind the wall to tell its own primal narrative and imagine its own future in relationship to that narrative” (N.T. Ammerman, with A.E. Farnsley et al., Congregation and Community [Rutgers University Press, 1997], 360). These behind the-wall conversations are decisive for what happens on the wall. Remembering God’s faithfulness, Israel’s leaders enter the on-the-wall conversation with different assumptions about the world from those of the empire. And this allows them to negotiate on the wall, using the language of the realm, emboldened by an alternative vision of their future.

Brueggemann maintains that taking part in both conversations is crucial for people of faith, which means that Christian formation must result in a bilingual consciousness. God calls God’s people to converse fluently behind the wall, using the Christian community’s distinctive language, perceptions, and assumptions, and to take part in conversations with the Assyrians, which requires competence in the language, perceptions, and assumptions of the broader culture. The controlling conversation, however, is the one behind the wall. If we lose this language and its distinctive view of reality, “there is nothing to do inside the wall but concede that the Assyrians’ view of God and life is the true one” (Ammerman, 359). Without the behind-the-wall conversation, “the language of the Empire prevails” (Ammerman, 359). Within the walls of Jerusalem, where everyone speaks Hebrew, our identity as God’s people is reinforced. There we gain tools that critique the dominant culture’s vision of reality, reminding us that we need not capitulate to the Assyrians’ demands. We know that the on-the-wall conversation is not the only one to be had.

At the same time, we need a public language for negotiating on the wall. If we only take part in conversations behind the wall, we risk absolutizing these intimate conversations. We begin to think that the inner conversation is the only one, that everyone must join it, and that we must “speak the language of faith ‘in bold type’” (cf. J. Smith, “The Language of Faith: Inside and Outside the Walls,” Conversations 3 [Parkville, VIC: Centre for Theology and Ministry, n.d.,], 2; cf.

The on-the-wall conversation provides an appropriate distance from which we can critique our own conversations as the people of faith. It reminds us that behind-the-wall language (for example, the language of the Bible and liturgy) is largely dysfunctional for public discourse. The purpose of Scripture and liturgy, after all, is not public testimony, but “to make sure we do not lose our voice and keep alive this conversation so those who abide in it and are nurtured by it will become translators of the truth we hold, outside the walls, so that others who do not know our stories will begin to understand” (Ammerman, 360 [emphasis added]). Brueggemann maintains that the “sectarian hermeneutic” nurtured behind the wall is essential to the church’s public witness on the wall: “Christians must…be able to speak both the language of policy formation and the language of transformative imagination. There is merit in seeing these as distinct educational tasks but dependent upon each other” (cf. W. Brueggemann’s Interpretation and Obedience [Fortress, 1991] 64).

We can safely assume that the modern-day Assyrians (media, marketers, and other culture-makers of global postmodernity) are immersing American teenagers in the official language of policy formation for the commercial empire. The empire’s language dismisses Yahweh, offers tantalizing, yet ultimately empty promises of salvation, and hands out scripts that the empire expects teenagers to follow. Unless the church cultivates a behind-the-wall conversation that reminds young people who they are, who they belong to, why they are here, and where their future hope lies—unless we hand on a tradition that gives them cultural tools to help them lay claim to this alternate vision of reality—then the Assyrian conversation is the only view of reality they have.

Sharing the Gospel, Sharing Power

Sharing the gospel with young people who are unfamiliar with the language of the church necessarily requires the art and act of translation. Yet translating the gospel for young people amounts to entrusting them with matches, for it gives them access to holy fire, which puts the church at risk. What if young people ignite the church? Then where would we be? Indeed! Translating the gospel with teenagers in mind throws open the doors of the church to young people whose perspective on Jesus, if less informed, is also less jaded than our own. Newcomers to Christian faith are prone to believing that Jesus is who he says he is, and they are apt to negotiate risks on the wall that the more seasoned among us would like to avoid.

If we say we want to translate the gospel with young people, this is what we are saying: we are willing to put the very power of the gospel itself—the very power of the Word of God—into the hands of teenagers, people who do not view culture the way we view culture, who do not hear God the way we hear God, who will not worship the way we worship, who will not “do church” the way we want them to simply because they will be listening to Jesus and not to us. Catechesis behind the wall is a mixed bag. Yes, young people fortified by these conversations quickly puncture the flimsy spiritualities offered by global consumerism and the media’s celebrity culture as the on-the-wall conversation with culture begins to include them. But what if they trust us? What if they love the God we say we love? What if youth imitate Christ, share his wasteful grace, and embody his self-giving love in the world? In short, what if they get their hands on the gospel? Then where will we be?

Maybe in the church Luther imagined.

(Excerpted from Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford, 2010) by Kenda Creasy Dean, edited and abridged by Nathan T. Stucky.)

Posted Nov 01, 2011