School and Education

Bible Engagement Among Australian Young People

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Conservatively interpreted, the surveys show that around 4 per cent of young people read the
Bible daily, another 6 per cent read it weekly, and 15 to 20 per cent read it very occasionally.
About 70 per cent never read it. The frequency of Bible reading is a little greater among older
young people, although this is probably a result of changing history patterns over generations and
not related to age.
Of those who read the Bible daily or weekly, most attend church services and youth activities, such
as a Bible study group. Most also have parents and friends who attend church frequently. Those
who read it frequently are mostly involved in Protestant Evangelical or Charismatic
denominations, such as the Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day
Adventists.
For a full account of Bible engagement among young people, click here to read the full report which was commissioned by the Bible Society (South Australia).

Implications Of The Study Of Youth Spirituality

Monday, April 19th, 2010

From Pointers, Volume 16. Number 3. September 2006.

As the study of youth spirituality comes to an end, we have begun exploring the implications of the findings for church and youth activities, for schools and religious education, and for parents and the young people themselves. A final formal meeting with the sponsors of the project was held on 18th August 2006 and several of the sponsors spoke of what they saw as significant implications for their various contexts. This article is based partly on my own reflections and partly on those who spoke at that meeting. This is just the start of the process. The Christian Research Association is looking forward to holding consultations in various places towards the end of this year and the start of 2007.

The Changing Culture

Having noted the low levels of involvement among young people in churches and their vagueness about beliefs, one has to ask whether the churches have failed young people. Have they failed to pass on the heritage of faith that has been handed down over many generations?

In some of the interviews we conducted in Christian schools, we asked students about their own beliefs, and then asked them about what they had been taught. They could explain the Christian faith the school was teaching. But the differences between the school’s teaching and their own beliefs were most informative. Young people take what works for them. They put together their beliefs in a way that is meaningful for them. Those aspects that are not meaningful are not explicitly rejected, but rather fade into obscurity.

We followed this up through many in-depth interviews. Young people saw it as their responsibility to put their own beliefs together. They were aware of the many sources of information. They could talk about the problems in the relationship between religion and science. Many were wrestling with the issue of how the suffering that arises from natural disasters can be reconciled with the idea of a loving and powerful God.

Some young people indicated that they found it impossible to accept Church teaching on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and premarital sexual activity. Some pointed to the human failures within the church, of paedophilia and other forms of abuse. In the light of all this, they were putting together, albeit vaguely and unsystematically, beliefs that made sense to them.

Western culture has changed. Throughout the Western world, young people have been brought up not to accept what is handed to them. Rather, they see it as their right to work things through for themselves. Many people of previous generations have come to those same difficult issues later in life.

Sometimes people wrestle with them within the churches. Sometimes they hope that someone else will come up with the solution. Contemporary Australian young people start from the standpoint of the individual, in most cases outside the context of a church, putting together beliefs and practices that make sense to them.

An Environment for Exploring Faith

The general pattern in church life has been to invite people into the church and then provide them with opportunities to explore life and faith. The entrance is clearly marked on Sundays, but entry points are not so evident on other days of the week. But attending a church on Sundays demands a certain amount of commitment. One is expected to join in the hymns and the responsive prayers. Some churches expect one to find the reading in the pew Bible and to be able to follow it. And then one has to listen passively to the sermon. There are no opportunities for questions or discussion, no chance to express one’s disagreement.

We found that young people generally reacted strongly when beliefs and practices were thrust upon them. They objected to the school that taught them what they should believe. “Our principal pretty much told us we had to believe in God and the Church”, said one student attending a Christian school. “Kind of annoying because we all feel that we want to believe in what we want to,” she continued. “I was kind of confused. I just thought we don’t have to do that because you tell us to.”

Young people told us, however, that they enjoyed listening to the experiences of people they respected. Sometimes, in the church schools, they warmed more to services when teachers took them rather than the chaplain or priest. Often, they enjoyed input from other students. They were keen to know what would work for them in their own lives, here and now. Such input made it more meaningful to them. A few jokes to make it more fun, some visual elements to make it interesting, and it might hold their attention.

I was talking with a class of students in a Catholic school about what were most ‘fun’ experiences they had ever had. I expected the usual range of answers: a pop concert, a visit to a theme park, extreme sports, and so on. But this class was unanimous in its opinion. It was the last spiritual retreat they went on. “Why was that so much fun?”, I asked. “Because we said things to our friends that we would never normally say”, they said. The retreat had focussed on relationships. It had provided them with the opportunity to deepen their relationships and to appreciate each other at a new depth. That had been fun.

In his reflections on the findings of the project, Garry Everett , who works with the Queensland Catholic Education Commission, noted that in his experience religious education has been approached primarily from a cognitive perspective. However, Generation Y are evidently approaching spirituality and putting life together affectively.

He went on to comment that religious education has generally been approached as if it was delivering certitude. However, Generation Y see themselves as being on a journey and are not convinced by the certitude. It has offered what it saw as a system of meaning while most young people believe there can be no great all-encompassing system. They are looking for experiential markers and techniques.

I wonder if the churches can do better at providing opportunities for people to explore faith without first requiring that people make a commitment, or expecting people to participate in the strange and culturally foreign rituals that occur on Sunday mornings? I wonder if we can open opportunities for discussion and dialogue without making assumptions about the existence of a total system of belief that can be delivered with certitude? Can we start those discussions with the issues of everyday life: about friends and family, about fun and freedom?

Young people want to be taken seriously. They want their autonomy in matters of faith to be respected. But they are willing to enter into dialogue if they feel that the environment will let them explore faith in ways that are meaningful to them.

Their parents often have similar attitudes and are no more involved in the churches than their children. One of the surprises in the data was how close the attitudes and beliefs of Generation Y were to their parents and how much Generation Y takes from their parents. The Broken Bay Catholic Schools Office noted that this may mean that we need to take seriously the whole family in the dialogue.

Worship

For many young people, worship is a very strange activity. Many have little understanding of the symbols and the language. The language does not have to be 19th century for them to be confused. We asked a range of students in church schools what they understood by ‘grace’. A few knew that it was the prayer you say at the meal table, but almost no one could get much further than that. I am sure they had heard the term, but they had not absorbed it. It had not connected with what they already knew or had experienced.

Many young people have told us that they are simply bored by church services. Those that occur in the context of a Christian school are boring. Those that occur in a local church are usually worse. Much of the time, they fail to connect with the language, the thoughts and the interests of the young people.

One of the highest values amongst contemporary young people is ‘excitement’. We have been exploring what they mean by this. They want experiences that are new, that are different, that capture their attention and absorb them. Many freely admit that they find it hard to concentrate on words alone. They have been born into a world full of moving images and short bites of information.

It dawned on me that what is new for one person looks just the same to another. I turn on a commercial radio station and all I hear is unpleasant noise. I cannot tell one band from another. The differences between hip-hop, rap and other sorts of contemporary music escape me. Just a bar of classical music, and I certainly know whether it is classical or romantic, whether it is Mozart or Tchaikovsky. The new symphony of Vivaldi that has just been discovered I find exciting. The new rock band means nothing to me.

Those of us who have attended services of worship all our lives are attuned to the tiny differences, the different wording in the prayer or the hymn in a different place. Such differences escape many in our pews, let alone the outsider who becomes easily bored by what, to them, is the sameness of it all.
We have built our network of churches on the basis of geographical area. But today’s communities are centred around tastes and interests, styles and passions. The language, the assumptions, the worldview of one community are very different from that of another.

Worship that expresses what we feel must be in the language of the heart. Among younger people in our community that means that worship will be different from one group to another, both in language and style, in symbol and focus.

As God came into our culture to express God’s self, so we need to express our worship in the language and symbols of our culture. Indeed, part of the function of worship is to lift our culture to new heights as its forms of expression are used for worship. Youth forms of communication are multi-sensory. They are colourful with a strong physical and emotional beat. Most importantly, however, they relate to a world in which young people are trying, each in their individualistic way, to put their lives together – their relationships, study, work; the world of fun and excitement, of chill-out times, and sometimes of confusion and hurt.

Philip Hughes

Note:

The core part of this study of young people was conducted by a team of researchers: Michael Mason and Ruth Webber (ACU), Andrew Singleton (Monash), and Philip Hughes (CRA). The Christian Research Association alone was responsible for the additional surveys and interviews in schools. For more details, see the CRA website: www.cra.org.au. Philip Hughes takes sole responsibility for the opinions about implications for the study that are expressed here.

Youth Spirituality: How Young People Change

Monday, April 19th, 2010

From Pointers Volume 16. Number 3. September 2006.
Two years ago members of the Christian Research Association interviewed young people around Australia as part of its study of youth spirituality about their values, goals, spiritual beliefs and practices. In the final stage of the

study among school students the Christian Research Association returned to many of same young people to see what had and had not changed since they were last interviewed. This article will focus specifically on the changes that had occurred in their general values and goals and their spiritual beliefs and practices. (Please note that this study of school students undertaken by CRA is distinct from the ‘core’ study of the ‘Spirit of Generation Y’ which has been the responsibility of a wider team including researchers from Monash and the Australian Catholic University.)

Introduction

The research into the spirituality of young people which the CRA has undertaken is in the concluding stage. The third and final stage of the study involved interviews with students who had been questioned two years ago. Much was learnt about the values, world views, and spiritual beliefs and practices of young people in the first and second aspects of the study – which were based on interviews and surveys. This final round sought to add a longitudinal element, and hence another perspective to the study.

Changes were examined in three ways. Firstly, students were asked about changes in their beliefs, values and practices over the last two years and what might have contributed to such changes. Secondly, the questions were turned around: what were the significant experiences they had had in the previous two years and what had been the impact of those experiences? Thirdly, some similar questions were used in both the first and second interviews so the researchers themselves could compare the responses.

The students interviewed came from a variety of Catholic and Lutheran schools across four States, in both rural and urban areas. While the first round of interviews included around 160 students, this report is based on interviews with 68 students, all of whom participated in the original interviews. While the bulk of interviews were conducted in person, often in the schools of the various students, a hand-full occurred over the phone.

This report considers two groups of changes: firstly changes to the values and goals of students, and secondly to their spirituality and church attendance.

Values

Before addressing various aspects of change, it is important to note that a continuing trend was that many students were much more articulate about their values and beliefs than they had been two years earlier. In many cases, students were also more confident and self-assured, and generally had a better sense of who they were, in comparison with the first round of interviews. In this regard, increased maturity was evident.

Overall, there had been little change in the students’ primary values. Relationships with friends and family remained a central part of their lives, although some students suggested that they had developed a greater appreciation for these relationships. The importance of these relationships was a recurring theme throughout the interviews.

As students spoke about their daily and other important activities, family and especially friends were included as part of their description about what made that activity important. For example, soccer, netball and drama were some of the sports which young people were enjoying, not only for the exercise and creative aspects but also for the social element.

Friends and family were often the first people students would turn to for guidance, and were generally the most significant influence in their lives. These relationships contributed to the young people’s framework of beliefs and values (Fowler, 1986).

More evident were changes that had to do with the stage of life of the young people. The majority of the students involved in this round of interviews were either undertaking their VCE, HSC or equivalent, or entering this phase (year 10). This had a significant influence on some of their priorities. Some students indicated that, for the time being, other interests and concerns had to be put aside. Sports and hobbies could not be pursued at the same depth. It was noted that interests in social justice were also relegated in the list of priorities.

As students completed their secondary schooling, they did not revert to their foci of earlier years. Rather, further studies or establishing themselves in their careers often became a focus in their priorities and many young people continued to say they had little time for some of the things they enjoyed.

One girl who was in her second year out from school talked about her attempt to enter the entertainment industry. In that context, she spoke of her dreams and of the importance of focussing on herself for the moment. This may seem self-centred. Yet, she had found opportunities to do voluntary work that was associated with the career she wanted to pursue and was engaged in helping others in that way.

With the bulk of participating students at the point of adulthood, of growing personal independence and freedom, these students were being exposed to new opportunities and circumstances. Many mentioned that getting their driver’s licence had been important, while others spoke about the ability to have a job and earn money. Many students at this age are learning how to juggle more spheres of life (Fowler, 1986).

Other changes in values were influenced by factors beyond the students’ control, such as incurring an injury or becoming sick. These experiences in turn shape and guide the goals and general attitudes about life and self.

Goals

Generally students had a more defined understanding of their goals – from deciding on a specific profession to learning about the process required to reach their goal – than had been evident in the first interview. One student who had previously held the general goals to ‘settle down, have a wife, friends, enough money’, had become more specific in this round. This student was now aiming for a career in information technology.

In general, their goals had become more realistic. In some cases, this meant that they had less idea what career they might aim for. For example, one student commented:

I was wanting to be an actress, but now I don’t know what I will do. I’m in the process of sorting out what to do. I think I want to own a business.

Some other students had had to change their aims as they did not do as well in their studies as they had hoped. For example, since year 10 one student had wanted to work in law. Yet poor marks at school meant that she had to change her plans about how she achieved that goal. Instead of going directly to university, this student had to go though a year of college.

The immediate goal of many students in this round was success in their studies, with school taking up more of their time and attention than previously. Wider goals included travelling, having families of their own, being secure and having a comfortable life.

This is a significant time of life, with the students not only learning more about themselves. Their relationships grow in depth. They encounter a wider range of experiences through learning at school and vicariously through the media, through opportunities at university and successes in extra-curricular activities (Hughes et al, 2003, p. 4). Giddens refers to reflexivity to describe this process. Through various experiences, challenges and setbacks, students develop not only a better understanding of themselves, but actively rebuild their identity according to these developments (Giddens, 1991, p. 75). Giddens contends that instead of depending on the tradition from which they came, individuals are more likely continually to analyse and evaluate their own lives according to their own experiences.

This reflexive process was particularly evident in several students who had completed school and had decided to have a ‘gap year’. One of these students went overseas and worked in a youth club in the United Kingdom. Another who planned to be a doctor had taken a position for a year as a receptionist at a medical centre. These young people were actively seeking experiences on which they could reflect. In the light of these experiences they were making judgements about what they should do in the future.

Excitement

In the surveys that had been conducted in schools, students emphasised the importance of having an exciting life. In this round of interviews, students were asked what it meant to have an exciting life and whether their ideas about excitement had changed over time.

With schooling at the forefront of students minds, an exciting life had taken a back-seat for some students. Some spoke about the growing importance of school, money, time and responding to opportunities in life. Several students saw themselves as becoming more mature and less into ‘mucking around’.

What excitement is has changed. I’ve grown more mature and can make better choices. I have moved from all fun activities to more serious. (15 year old female)

Beyond a change in focus, some said that excitement was a less important value now as they had achieved many of their goals for excitement. Part of this may have been the gradual move towards independence, which meant that greater freedom from parents and family allowed them to attend parties, drive cars, travel and have greater control over their relationships. While some young people saw part of the excitement of such experiences in the realising of their own independence, for others, growing freedom meant seeking more serious activities.

Some students thought that having a girlfriend or boyfriend was a part of having an exciting life although others said they preferred to be part of a wider group of friends than have one intimate relationship. Through such experiences, young people learn about themselves and make choices through which they build or rebuild their sense of self (Giddens, 1991, p. 75).

The study found that while some students flourished with the new opportunities to grow and develop, other students struggled. These students tended to offer fewer ideas about their goals, had less idea of how to achieve them, or generally struggled to talk about themselves.

Changes in Spirituality

Religious Beliefs

A number of students had developed their ideas on specific issues. Much of this could be attributed to a general maturing. It is important to recognise the numerous issues and experiences which the young people had encountered over the years. These often required students to make a decision or confirmation about what they believed. It is at this life stage that people are becoming aware of the contradictions and contentiousness of religious issues, not only from the students’ own traditions but also about the wider impact and role of religions in society (Fowler, 1986).

Many students considered spirituality to be a positive thing. A significant number were open to spiritual experiences – not limited to supernatural events but anything which may have impacted the students’ view or understanding about God or spirituality. This shows little change between the first and final round of interviews.

Many ‘spiritual experiences’ involved family and friends. Meaning about spirituality came not only from a church or personal spiritual revelation, but from the hard and trying times in life. Such experiences included relationship breakdowns or the death or sickness of a significant person in their lives. It is important to note that openness to spiritual experiences or positive attitudes to spirituality in general occurred regardless of whether or not students attended church on a regular basis.

Views of God had not changed markedly between the first and final stages of the study. What was apparent in this stage was the number of students struggling with questions about the nature of God and how God fits into the world. Students were also asked about their view of Jesus. Again, regardless of whether students attended church they were open to learning about Jesus, although several also expressed confusion about him.

The American sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, describes how grappling with particular questions and issues is one way in which people make their faith personal (1990, p. 129). Many young people tailor the tradition they had formally accepted to create their own sense of identity and ownership of the beliefs (Wuthnow, 1990, p. 129; Fowler, 1986). While ultimately they are given the opportunity to be responsible for their beliefs and integrate them into their lives, some express a limited commitment or even dismiss or ignore this aspect of their lives (Wuthnow, 1990, p. 130; Fowler, 1986).

Again, the model of constructing their world in an intentional and reflexive way appears to be appropriate. The students interviewed spoke about their acceptance of and respect for people from other denominations and religions and, in some cases, their interest in exploring these. Many showed a desire for new experiences, although there was often a sense that they wanted to do this on their own terms. Students were generally also open-minded towards religious faith. Most were aware of, and many had actively thought about, how to reconcile natural disasters with the belief in a loving and powerful God. They were well aware of the issues of religion and science and potential conflicts between them. Many were seeking ways of making sense of the variety of perspectives, constructing and shaping their beliefs through a reflexive process.

Church Attendance

Many students reported little change in their levels of church attendance. Of those that did, many had been attending church on an occasional basis two years ago but had stopped going in the interim. Others who had been going less regularly previously spoke about their increasing independence and greater awareness which had facilitated the change. Still others had changed because their levels of commitment to the church and connection to it (though family especially) had decreased.

For example, one student spoke about how her family had stopped attending, although she still attended occasionally when asked to participate in the choir.

While some of the general reasons for not attending revolved around practical goals such as earning money and studying, other reasons were based around their beliefs and attitudes about spirituality and the church. One comment made by several students was that in their view that it was not essential to go to church in order to believe in God and be a Christian. One student commented:

I don’t believe in going to church because why am I going to go to church to prove to other people I’m a Christian? I’ll pray by myself.

Another female student who was attending occasionally two years ago had moved to the city and had not joined a church. She also felt that her beliefs remained important to her even though she was not attending.

A significant number of students struggled with the content of the services, saying that church was boring, repetitive and old fashioned. However, much of this implied their inability to understand and connect with the language and culture of the church. For example, one female explained, ‘I just sit there and I don’t understand what the guy is talking about’, and a male reiterated that church is ‘just not exciting towards my age.’

Other students reported an increase in their regularity of attendance. For example, some students spoke about how they were expected by family to attend, yet their growing maturity and independence meant that they felt they were attending in their own right, out of their own desire to be there.

A few students who were attending more did so out of a personal decision. One girl had had a conversion experience at a Pentecostal convention. She had been convinced of the power of the Christian faith when she had seen people who had been ‘slain in the Spirit’.

Another young student had increased her attendance because of the influence of a friend. On the other hand, the most common reason behind increased involvement was having specific roles which allowed them to participate and contribute to the services. For example, one student had met a priest through her university who encouraged her to participate in the activities and services there, and another student was asked to play the guitar. Many of the young people who were attending regularly were participating in the music life of their churches.

Changes in the Lives of Young People

Significant life experiences such as moving interstate, a serious accident or illness within the family or an overseas holiday had various kinds of impact on their beliefs and practices. Sometimes these significant experiences had led to students becoming much more aware of what was happening to themselves and those around them. The challenge of experience drew some students into new levels of maturity. Others noted significant life changes through which they had experienced the loss of social networks and friends.

The role of experience was also evident in some of the stories they told about their journeys of faith. For example, several young people spoke of having their faith challenged and, in some cases, deepened by difficult experiences such as personal sickness or the death of a family member. Increased involvement in churches generally seemed associated with formal involvement, for example, through music. However, a few students also spoke of how faith had become personally more meaningful, while for others it had lost what relevance it might have once had.

Young people sometimes seek out significant life experiences. Most young people want to try things out for themselves and to learn by doing so. This was apparent as they spoke about their attitudes to girlfriends and boyfriends, about careers, and about the ways they put their faith together.

Changes in relationships and new depth in relationships were evident in a few cases. Such changes can have a real impact on young people. The resolving of tensions with parents and the growth in the depth of relationships with friends can help young people find a sense of purpose in life and develop goals for life. Relationships with teachers was one factor that had been very important to several students as they sought to work through problems.

Changes in maturity were often identified by students as they spoke of what had happened to them. Actions they had considered ‘fun’ were now seen as ‘childish’. However, other changes also appeared as part of the growth in maturity. Some young people spoke about a greater balance in what was important in life: both study and friends, both work and family. Maturity was also apparent in the greater articulation they were able to give to their goals, their attitudes and their beliefs. Along with the change in maturity often went new freedom and independence. One important point in this process, mentioned by several students, was obtaining their driving licences. At the same time, several students mentioned tensions with parents in relation to being independent.

Changes in life-stage were evident in many interviews. As students reached the final years of their schooling, they were more focussed on completing their secondary education successfully. Many students were thinking about future career paths. Older students were not necessarily clearer about those career paths. Many still had little idea what would be an appropriate career. However, in general, they were more realistic in their thinking, less captivated by glamorous careers or unattainable goals. Major changes had occurred for some of the students who had left school. All had tried more than one course or career before settling into the present course. With the move from school came greater responsibility for their own decisions.

The Self as a Reflexive Project

In Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, the social theorist, Anthony Giddens, describes the formation of the self as a ‘reflexive project for which the individual is responsible’ (1991, p.75). ‘We are’, he says, ‘not what we are, but what we make of ourselves’ through continuing ‘reconstructive endeavours’ (1991, p.75). He describes this process as ‘all pervasive’ and contributing to the primacy of the concern about ‘lifestyle’ (1991, p.81). This process involves choice within the plurality of options. Aspects of traditional culture are ‘adopted’ rather than being ‘handed down’ (1991, pp.80-81).

This process can be contrasted with the society in which the nature of the ‘self’ is largely given by the groups into which one is born. In many non-Western societies today, the self is largely a product of the social class, the political and religious groups in which grows up. The process of the development of the self involves socialisation into these groups, absorbing their language, their symbols and their beliefs. There may be narrow bands within which choices can be made in terms of occupation but, by and large, one has to accept one’s station.

What we have been describing through this article is the formation of the self as a reflexive project. We have caught glimpses of it in relation to the formation of personal goals and career options. We have seen it in the personal choices of primary values.

Giddens himself has suggested that within this context religion, as a form of tradition, would be undermined. Religious cosmology, he suggested, ‘is supplanted by reflexively organised knowledge, governed by empirical observation and logical thought, and focussed upon material technology and socially applied codes’ (1990, p.109). Something of this is apparent in the interviews. Yet, there are also glimpses of the incorporation of religious beliefs into the reflexive self. Young people continue to wrestle with religious beliefs and some young people incorporate them into the ways they see the world. Nevertheless, they are doing this in their own way and in their own time.

This discussion suggests that young people are searching for genuine experiences, especially those involving friends and family, although other meaningful connections also play a role. Thus, while family and friends attend church and young people feel they can contribute to the life of a church through given role and duties to perform, they found involvement more meaningful. The flip side is that if family and friends do not attend, if the students’ goals are oriented around working and playing sport, and if they are not familiar with the language and culture of a church, it is hard for students to be drawn into the collective worship experience.

The young people showed great interest in making decisions for themselves and in being independent in relation to their beliefs, their values and their practices. To have a constructive role in the growth of young people, schools, churches and even parents have to respect that desire for autonomy and engage in dialogue, respecting that process of reflexive construction.

Catherine Cook
and Philip Hughes

References

Fowler, J. ‘Stages of Faith’ in Wolski Conn, Joann (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development, Paulist, 1986, pp. 226-232, – http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/fowler.htm – accessed 09/08/2006

Giddens, A. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford University Press, California, 1991.

Hughes, P., et al. Exploring what Australians Value, Openbook Publishers, Adelaide, 2003.

Wuthnow, R. Growing up Religious, Beacon Press, Boston, 1990.