Yesterday, guest contributor Nick Coccoma proposed moving back the age for both Confirmation and Eucharist; today, he’s back at it, considering ways in which faith formation itself can be revamped. Check out Part 1 here.
Brian’s question was really one about the religious education of adolescents, packaged in the question of confirmation programming. This deeper topic is more difficult to address. How to make Christianity relevant to teenagers and young adults? I’m no expert in religious education, either in theory or practice. I write, then, provisionally and based on my limited observation of the cultural climate among Millennials and younger generations. Caveat emptor. That said, here are some educated impressions.
Firstly, though young people come ready made these days with a skeptical attitude toward institutional Christianity, Jesus is still very popular. Any theologian worth his weight would argue that you can’t have one without the other, but let’s leave that issue aside for now. Religious education of teens should focus on coming to know and love Jesus, experiencing his presence in life, and desiring to share in his mission to the world.
Secondly, teenagers live in a sea of multimedia and pop culture. It’s incumbent on religion teachers to draw on popular forms of music, movies, literature, and other arts so as to affect youths on an emotional level. This approach should draw connections between the themes they encounter in the world at large and Christianity. It would illustrate the positive cultural attitude of Christian humanism, the universality of the biblical story, and the pleasures of a religious aesthetic sensibility.
Thirdly, while many kids instinctively view the church as a vociferous guardian of rigid sexual positions, the church’s social teaching is in accord with their views on many political issues of today: immigration, the environment, war, etc. Religious educators would do well to highlight these teachings and the Christian origin of social advances like the Civil Rights movement, Progressive Era, and anti-war movement .
Finally, adolescents and young adults are in the developmental stage of seeking identity and intimacy. Religious formation should target this yearning and instill a theology of vocation to meet it. But it should shift from the limited categories of priesthood, religious life, and marriage to an expansive notion: vocation discovered through listening to one’s inner voice and attuning one’s natural interests and talents with God’s purposes for the world. This focus would not reduce Christian discipleship to being a nice person at work, but rather familiarize adolescents with the art of reflection, so as to discern the Spirit’s movement: what gives them joy, what they really want do with their lives (beyond societal pressures to go into finance!). The one constant across all vocations would be service to the poor and prayer. (For young men, especially, this contemplation should give them a sense of the projects they can undertake for the church–tactile missions to do for Jesus.) In terms of intimacy, instruction should showcase how Christian living entails learning to make oneself vulnerable. Vulnerability allows for strong connections and intimacy (with God and people), which in turn increases happiness, as studies today indicate.
With all this said, I don’t believe we should abandon the cognitive dimension of faith formation. Teenagers learn advanced calculus and physics, read Salinger and Hardy, and study the internecine details of European history and complications of foreign languages. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask them to wrestle with systematic theology, illustrating the philosophical rigor that the faith has. Sometimes I wonder if youth look skeptically at certain strains of contemporary Christianity because it seems, to them, excessively emotive, simplistic, and superstitious. Introducing them to the church’s intellectual tradition–treating them as adults–might aid in building their adult faith.
Nick Coccoma studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he lives in Boston, where he’s worked as a middle school religion teacher, hospital chaplain, and currently writes movie and cultural reviews for Critics at Large.