Literacy Matters—In Church
Why churches have important roles to play as literacy sponsors for teens.
Recent national studies report that the majority of American teens identify as Christians and claim that their religious views are important to them. This is good news for churches and church youth ministries.
Unfortunately, it's not the whole story. These national studies also report that these same teens have difficulty articulating their beliefs. When these teens do talk about their Christian beliefs, they express a sort of "moralistic therapeutic deism," a cacophony of feel-good and self-serving beliefs that look very different than those within traditional Christianity.
For those of us involved and interested in teens' faith formation—parents, pastors, youth leaders, church members—these findings raise some interesting questions. What's happening here? Where are teens picking up on these "feel-good" beliefs? Who's to blame?
An easy target, of course, is to blame teens themselves. As a society, we often hold dismissive and reductionist views of teens—we cast them as a monolithic group of unmotivated, peer-obsessed, and hormone-driven people. Our views of their social-networking habits, fashion decisions, and various group memberships give us rationale for these conclusions.
And yet, those of us who regularly interact with teens know that there's much more to them than these characterizations and stereotypes. In my former work as a high school teacher and now as an educational researcher, I've been amazed at the diversity of teens' experiences, delighted by the creativity and resourcefulness that they demonstrate in various contexts, and impressed with their articulation about things that matter to them. My experiences with teens don't negate these "moralistic therapeutic deism" findings from recent national studies, but they do prompt me to go beyond blaming teens for being self-centred and inarticulate.
In her recent book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean also goes beyond blaming teens. She argues that many parents, pastors, and church youth programs have watered down the Christian message and, in doing so, have given teens the idea that they're supposed to feel good about themselves and that little is expected of them in terms of living out their faith. She challenges those of us involved with teens to make radical revisions to what we're doing and specifically encourages us to recover a sense of mission and to model ways of being Christian that demonstrate a "consequential" faith.
Radical revisions can be daunting. One way to think about and respond to this issue is through the lens of literacy sponsorship. As an adolescent literacy researcher, I examine the texts that teens read, write, and view, and their interactions around those texts. I explore who or what encourages, teaches, and supports or conversely discourages and withholds these texts. In short, I study the people, institutions, and commercial forces that sponsor teens' literacy. This concept of literacy sponsorship, originally coined by literacy researcher Deborah Brandt, allows us to identify the particular literacy sites and experiences that surround teens' church involvements. This lens provides us tangible ways to examine what and how we might be encouraging teens to live out and articulate their faith.
On one level, church as a literacy sponsor seems so obvious. After all, so much about church is based on one central text, the Bible. There's also the plethora of other printed texts that are embedded in church life—Sunday school worksheets, Bible devotionals, sermons, church newsletters, weekly bulletins.
Furthermore, the church has played an important historical role in literacy learning on a societal level. When the Bible was translated into the language of the common people, for example, it allowed church members to interpret the Bible themselves. Churches also have been places where marginalized people could learn to read and write. Particularly for the African American church, churches were places where congregants learned to read and write, and in and through that, develop and maintain separate identities from those in power.
The idea of literacy sponsorship, however, draws attention to more than just texts themselves. Sponsorship also includes the beliefs, values, and purposes that shape how and why people use literacy. This is why, while churches have mattered to literacy, literacy also matters to churches. It matters because the reading, writing, listening, and viewing that takes place in churches serves as ways to attract, minister to, and educate its members. It matters because the literacy experiences we have in church influence the ways we think, talk, and live out our faith. Hopefully, this then connects to the rest of our lives as well.
When we frame this in terms of Dean's findings, thinking about churches as literacy sponsors draws attention to the specific ways churches encourage their teens to think, talk about, and live out their faith. It allows us to ask the following questions: What are the texts that churches offer to their youth? What might this suggest about how churches view youth? How are churches encouraging youth to participate with such texts? How do churches expect youth to interact with particular texts?
Recently, I interviewed twenty-one teen boys. I expected these teen boys to talk about the usual suspects involved in literacy learning and development—parents, families, and schools. I also expected them to talk about new and emerging literacy experiences such as playing video games, texting, and viewing sports online and on television. What I didn't expect them to talk about were their church involvements. But, talk they did. Over half of them talked, to some extent or the other, about how their church involvements were significant in their lives.
The boys in my study attended a variety of denominations that differed in terms of theology, worship style, and congregational demographics. These differences had implications in the ways that literacy was sponsored. Furthermore, the boys were involved in different ways and in different capacities. Some of the boys were nominally involved, only attending Sunday services. Other boys were involved with church activities throughout the week. Though two boys attended the same church, their literacy experiences at that church differed dramatically because of the kinds of church activities they participated in and how often.
Texts for teens and teens alone
One of the first things I noticed in what the boys said about their church involvements was how often they mentioned using texts geared specifically for them. For example, one of the boys in my study talked about reading a teen boy version of the Bible and a related devotional. Another participant showed me the teen devotional used in his youth group. While this isn't surprising in and of itself, I was surprised at how much these "teen texts" were embedded in entire experiences that were separate and different from the rest of the church community. Many of the boys talked about attending weekly youth group activities during the week. In one boy's church, there was a separate youth wing complete with an indoor skate park. There were even separate worship services for teens led by a youth pastor and a youth worship band.
The point here is not to decry these attempts to appeal to teens. I don't think that texts geared for specific demographics are bad in and of themselves. However, I do know that in an effort to appeal to specific demographics, the creators of such texts (publishing companies, youth groups) need to make assumptions about these demographics. And, more often than not, these assumptions are "safe" and fall to the lowest common denominator, to general stereotypes.
These assumptions are embedded in the marketing, layout, and content of text. The devotional series for teen boys, for example, claims to have a "humorous, cheeky, and sometimes gross style." The version of the Bible (in blue, of course) comes with "special entry spaces for everything from fun doodles and sketches to quick responses to texts." It also has "gross and gory facts" displayed throughout.
Do teen boys need "gross and gory facts" in order to want to read the Bible? Does the Bible or a devotional need to be packaged in "humourous, cheeky, and sometimes gross" ways in order to keep their attention? Are teen boys only capable of "doodling" and writing "quick responses" in response to reading Scripture?
I saw similar kinds of assumptions about teens and teen boys in the ways that youth group and youth-related activities were described to youth. The website description of one of the boy's youth group reads:
We realize that you don't want to just sit in church and listen to someone preach. We know you love to skateboard, chill with friends, play Guitar Hero and engage in amazing worship . . . There's killer events like cookoffs, friend day, potlucks, study breaks, youth rallies, beach nights and other nights of just plain chillin'!
Are teens really opposed to "just" sitting in church and "listening to someone preach"? Do they all love to "skateboard," "chill with friends," and "play Guitar Hero"? Will it only take "killer events" to get them to come to church?
Examining these church-related texts is important work to do because it can reveal assumptions we make about teens that are exaggerated or even simply not true. Perhaps in our efforts to find and create texts that "connect" with teens, we sell them short in terms of what we think they like or want. Smith and Denton's study tells us that many teens see their faith as being important in their lives. The boys in my study also expressed this. Perhaps we need to reconsider some of the texts we use with teens. Many go to church because they want to be there. They're not just coming for the skateboard parks or the pizza parties. They're not just reading devotionals because of the fun graphics or the references to popular culture. They desire more. They are capable of more.
Talking about and around teen texts—it's all about me
In listening to the teen boys in my study talk about their church involvements, I also noticed similarities in how they were encouraged to read and respond to texts. For many of the boys in my study, the talk that surrounded the texts they encountered in church emphasized their personal experiences and interpretations—at times, so much so that it seemed to be the basis of authority in their lives.
One boy, for example, described his youth group by saying, "We don't talk so much about God but about what God wants you to do and how to make the right decisions." Another boy outlined for me the a typical youth group session. He said,
First you shoot baskets inside for a bit. We hang out at the beginning and then we have a talk session, they'll show videos so we'll stay interested, a talk, show another fun video and then you go to your group and you say the most important things or favourite things in life and you come back out and share. Your group does it on a big piece of paper.
What is interesting to me in these examples is how these boys seem to be encouraged (explicitly or implicitly) to read and respond to the texts they encounter in church. In both of these examples, the focus seems to be on the boys' personal experiences. God is mentioned but only within the context of their individual experiences, on the authority that they, as uniquely positioned teenagers, bring to Biblical principles.
I highlight this because I think it reveals potential differences between what churches say they believe and do and what their sponsorship of church-related texts might suggest. A youth group that doesn't talk much about God? Youth group sessions that only focus on fun activities and on the "important things or favourite things" in teens' lives? My guess is that these boys' youth group leaders wouldn't describe things in quite the same way.
Perhaps in our efforts to attract and maintain teens' attention in youth group activities we focus too much on "fun" and not enough on substantive content. Perhaps in our efforts to help teens make connections between Scripture and their daily lives we overemphasize the role that their personal experiences play in their faith development.
Based on what some of the boys said to me, it seems that today's teens are smarter than we give them credit for. The one boy's description of a typical youth group session demonstrates that he "gets" what is planned for him. At first he gets to do what he wants, then youth group leaders use a video "so we'll stay interested" and then there are a variety of predictable activities.
Is this really all teens are capable of doing? Are the experiences around texts that we provide for teens merely peer group in nature? Is it any wonder that many of our teens express their faith in terms of a feel-good theology? What do these experiences suggest to them about what is involved in living with "consequential" faith?
Taking teens more seriously
Thinking about churches, pastors, parents, and youth ministries as literacy sponsors allows us to identify the specific texts and talk around those texts that exist within particular church contexts. This can be difficult to do. For one, many of the church-related texts we use are so embedded in our experiences at church that we might not even consider them to be "texts." I've focused on more traditional (print) texts here, but there are also many unspoken "texts" that get communicated. A designated youth room—and its size, location, and furnishings, for example—represents a text within a particular church setting. Youth presence in a church service represents another.
Thinking about churches as literacy sponsors also allows us to examine the embedded assumptions within these texts. Texts are always written or designed for particular purposes and with particular audiences in mind. Analyzing teen texts for these purposes and audience constructions is important to do. The participants in my study didn't fit the dismissive views of teen boys that are so prevalent in popular media and other contexts. They talked about their church involvements in articulate and insightful ways. Church mattered to them. They could handle much more than what many of their teen texts expected of them.
Finally, thinking about churches as literacy sponsors allows us to examine how particular texts encourage or conversely discourage teens to think about, articulate and express their faith in their daily lives. We can become more aware of the possible discrepancies between what we think we are training and teaching our teens and the actual messages that teens are receiving in and through these texts. In short, it allows us to begin to move toward radically revising the way we model and share our "consequential" faith.