Sticky Faith 2: three key thoughts

I want to preface this post by reminding my readers that I'm not an expert in adolescent psychology or sociology or anything like that.  I read Sticky Faith, by Powell and Clark, in order to better understand how or why kids go through the faith crises that causes them to abandon the church.  So the insights I share here might be a little naive or amateurish to those "in the know."  I hope you'll bear with me.

As I read the book, I noticed three concepts that I found especially illuminating but that were presented almost as side issues or contextual issues to the main message (how to keep kids in the faith).  First was the pattern of adolescent development from concrete thinkers to abstract thinkers.  On p. 52, we read this:
We now know that the brain functions with the concreteness of a child throughout early adolescence and begins the abstraction of adulthood at around age fourteen (thus making the shift from early to late adolescence).  In other words, while your abstract sixteen-year-old will be able to pull together a variety of experiences to figure out how they are going to handle a contentious teacher, your concrete twelve-year-old will barely be able to remember they had math that morning.
As I read that, I immediately began to think how these developmental patterns must alter everything we think we know about the world.  It's not just about our faith.  The stereotype of the sullen and rebellious teenager must have roots in this transformation.  The world ceases to be about good guys vs. bad guys, and you begin to notice the rough edges, flaws, and sins of the most admired people in your life.  No wonder teens struggle with faith.  They struggle with everything.

Some folks reading this might think, "Duh.  You don't have kids, do you?"  But for us in the creationist corner of theology, there's a tendency to think that protecting the faith of kids is all about teaching them facts and exposing cultural lies.  If we do that enough or well enough, then kids will not stray.  We love quoting Prov. 22:6 to anyone who asks about parenting, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

Now I don't think education is a bad thing, but that intellectual development from concrete to abstract changes the way education and "facts" are perceived.  Just knowing stuff isn't enough.

The second insight I noted from the book was the demands that college places on students experiencing it for the first time, and the impermanence of their responses.  From p. 54:
In his interviews with 125 students as they transitioned from high school to college, sociologist Tim Clydesdale discovered that most college freshmen are overwhelmed by what he called "daily life management" - managing school and social networks (friends, authority figures, romantic partners). Clydesdale observes that rather than diving into figuring out who they are, students store away important parts of themselves (often including, but not limited to, their spiritual identity) in an "identity lockbox" when they enter college.
Reading about the concrete-to-abstract brain development of teens sort of crystallized some things I already knew or suspected.  This idea of being overwhelmed with college and re-inventing yourself was more of a revelation to me.  Most importantly here is the idea that some of these changes are only temporary, and intentionally so.

I grew up with the idea that "good Christians" always engaged in certain activities like going to church or reading their Bibles.  If you stopped doing those things, you were backslidden or on the slippery slope to unbelief.  Perhaps there needs to be more nuance to that perception.  Perhaps we need to make room for genuine struggles and uncertainty.  When we observe young people questioning their faith or shunning the traditional church services they grew up on, maybe this abandonment is just for a season.  Maybe we shouldn't panic.  Maybe we need to maintain our relationships so when they're ready to return, they feel like they have a place to belong again.

The scary part is that college kids can make enormous, life-altering (and sometimes life-shattering) decisions in those seasons of wandering.  We'll have to think more carefully about that in future articles in this series.

The third extremely helpful insight was the extension of adolescence over my lifetime, such that maturity comes much later now than it did in my generation.  From p. 52:
Today's academic community generally agrees that developmental life has changed so dramatically over the last few decades that it now takes young people into the mid to late twenties to begin to settle as adults.  We now have physical evidence, for example, that cognitive maturity is increasing: MRI studies reveal that it takes ten years, from roughly ages fifteen to twenty-five, for the brain to complete the process and arrive at full physiological adulthood.
Wow.  Been griping about "kids these days" or the perpetual childishness of millennials?  Yeah, well, that's real.  Extended adolescence isn't so frightening by itself, but when you consider what kind of terrible life choices teens can make (or have forced upon them), it starts to get troublesome.  Even worse though is the very last paragraph of the book (p. 211):
The level of responsibility and competencies required of children from very early ages has risen exponentially over the past decade, and yet the ongoing adult support and guidance offered to them without a self-serving agenda has diminished at roughly the same rate.  We are convinced that children and teenagers have never experienced less social capital than they do today and that they experience more stress than any generation in history.
So let's put all these things together: 1. Teens' brains transition from concrete to abstract during adolescence.  2. Teens going to college are often overwhelmed with the responsibilities of managing their own lives and sometimes compartmentalize important things like church.  3. Adolescent development is changing and getting longer.

Dare I say it?  Education is not the answer.  What's happening to adolescents today is cultural and developmental, and it's happening over a period of time that we barely control their educational experience.  Even if we filled their brains with apologetics before it starts happening, they'll still completely change their own perception of those apologetics.  Just knowing answers to where Cain got his wife or why the Bible is reliable is not enough.

Something else is needed if we want young people to remain committed to Christ.  We'll talk about what that might be in our next post.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Have you read my book?  You should check that out too!