Have you ever seen a kids Bible board-book? The kind where the pages are really thick and (supposedly) dribble-proof. They often have these cutesy images of meek-and-mild bible scenes (usually complete with bunny rabbits) in glossy primary colours. And because you can only fit a few pages into a board-book before it becomes a door stop, these “Bibles” are forced to summarise all of Scripture into about 10 stories, each edited down to a few short sentences, wrapped up in a neat moral application.
There are now quite a few of these wonders of modern publishing lying around our house. Gifted by well-meaning relatives or friends, they have been leafed through, read and referred to (as well as gnawed and chewed) many times. I am grateful for the thoughtfulness that has gone into stylising Scripture so that parents can sit on the couch with their kids in their lap reading and rehearsing the stories which have shaped our faith.
Yet there also lies a danger in these distilled and glossy versions of often rugged and perplexing narratives. If reading and rehearsing doesn’t at some stage transition to grappling, wrestling and tussling we may wind up with kids wondering if they have been lied to, instead of being gifted with a rich inheritance.
You Lied To Me!
Sharon Ely Pearson contributes to the building faith blog and shares some fascinating insights into the process of growing faith in your people. She recounts an interesting exchange between herself and her son that I’ve also heard recounted in various ways by parents in Australia. She recalls:
My son (now 28) was raised in church. He attended an Episcopal summer camp since he was 6-months-old (Labor Day Family Camp) and has every summer since (he continues to be part of their summer staff). He can answer just about any Jeopardy question regarding religion. He knows the Bible inside out. Or at least I thought he did, until he came home from college after taking a religious studies course to tell me, “You lied to me about the Bible stories. God isn’t so nice.” He had read scripture with adult eyes, this time without a … candy-coating.1
Walking Away From Faith
There is a growing body of research that is uncovering a staggering degree of faith rejection taking place through the years described as emerging adulthood. Irrespective of denomination, socio-economic or cultural background, late teens and ‘twentysomethings’ in Westernised countries are leaving the church in droves and walking away from their inherited Christian faith.
American research across the last six years identifies that between 40% and 84% of those once active in faith during their teen years are now ‘spiritually disengaged’ in their twenties.2
Australian research is telling a similar story. Although no survey or research effort has generated a specific percentage, the first warning signs began to be identified as early as 1997, when the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) highlighted the fact that late teens and twenties were found to be increasingly “underrepresented” in the demographic profile of the church (“underrepresented” is the way statisticians say ‘there’s something going on here!”).3
Subsequently, the Spirituality of Generation Y study reported that:
[our research] reveals quite dramatic losses of young members from [various] churches … while the large increases in ‘No-Religious Identification’ leaves little doubt about the main destination of this exodus.4
More recently, Hughes has identified that, of young Australians who had been identified with a Christian denomination in the 2001 Census, 500,000 decided to describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ in the 2011 Census. In other words, for the last decade 50,000 young people drift away from the Christian faith annually. For many of these young people, ticking the ‘no religion’ box was the first time they had filled out a census form, having now become independent of their family.5
What is happening in this juncture between adolescence and young adulthood? What is transpiring that causes emerging adults to look on faith with new eyes? And why is it when they look again they consider themselves duped into belief and accuse their nurturers of falsifying faith?
Board-book Bibles and a Faith that Must Grow-Up
So what does this epidemic of Christian faith rejection amongst emerging adults have to do with board books? Let me give you an example. Bibles that have been stylised for kids tend to focus on the classics stories – like Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lions Den, the birth of Jesus and maybe the feeding of the 5000 (because it involves a child). One story that always seems to make an appearance is Noah and the Ark. One version boils the story down to these short lines:
“Build a big boat,” God said. Noah loved God. He would obey God.
Look at the boat that Noah built! It is bigger than three houses.
“Put animals on the boat,” God said. So Noah put many animals on it.
Noah and his family went on the boat. That’s what God told them to do.
One day it began to rain. It rained and rained.
Water went over the trees. It went over the mountains.
But God took care of Noah and his family. They were safe on the big boat.
“Thank You, God,” Noah said. He was glad now that he obeyed God.
The way this story has been edited highlights two major themes: 1) obedience; and 2) being cared for / being kept safe. Now, from the perspective of developmental science, this makes a lot of sense for toddlers . Kids do not arrive with an obedience circuit already hard-wired in. Neither do they automatically know that they are cared for and are safe. These are things kids may pick up along the way, depending on the context in which they were raised.
However, try selling these themes to a late teenager or twenty something. Quite apart from the questions that might arise in a young person’s mind from the world of science, archaeology and biology, you can almost imagine the inner dialogue:
Right … so what you are saying is that a capricious God orchestrated a mass genocide in order to create a story to pass down the generations that encourages people to be obedient and only then God will care for them.
At this point, reading and rehearsing must transition to grappling, wrestling and tussling. Glossy primary colours, bunny rabbits and simplistic moral applications just won’t cut it any more. Faith is growing up and becoming more complex, and the way we read and engage with scripture must also, otherwise the Bible – and maybe even faith itself – may simply get left behind in the attic of quaint childhood artefacts.
Engaging Scripture @ NEXT
Because NEXT is purposefully designed with emerging adults in mind, there will be no board-books, no simplistic reading of scripture, and no shying away from challenging and perplexing perspectives it often contains.
But more than that, we believe that if you are going to live a life informed by Scripture, where you learn to hear God’s voice through his Word, then it is really important to grow skills in grappling, wrestling and tussling – what bible scholars call ‘biblical interpretation.’
NEXT is divided into CORE and elective elements – all students undertake the CORE, which includes a year long engagement with scripture in order for you to develop skills of interpretation that can set you up for a lifetime of biblical engagement – not just a year.
You can read more about the NEXT CORE experience here.
For some, the Bible is “Sacred Scripture” while for others, its just plain weird or irrelevant. Each week we will explore this ancient text together in order to discover the BIG story told by Scripture as well as to develop your own skills in interpreting the Bible so that you can learn to hear God’s voice from within His Word. We’ll also spend a fair bit of time exploring the life of Christ, piecing together the impact of his revolutionary life. Tackling this part of NEXT means you can complete the Diploma Unit BS0131W Engaging the Bible.
1. Sharon Ely Pearson, “Church School Can be Bad for Your Health,” http://www.buildfaith.org/2013/08/06/church-school-can-be-bad-for-your-health/ (accessed 6th August, 2013). [Emphasis added]↩
2. The wide variation depends in part, on the research methodology used, as well as how being ‘previously active’ and now ‘disengaged’ (spiritually) was defined. Examples of such research include: Barna Group, “Barna Update: Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/147-most-twentysomethings-put-christianity-on-the-shelf-following-spiritually-active-teen-years (accessed 1 May, 2012)., Scott McConnell, “Lifeway Research Finds Reasons 18- to 22-Year-Olds Drop Out of Church,” http://www.lifeway.com/Article/LifeWay-Research-finds-reasons-18-to-22-year-olds-drop-out-of-church (accessed 1 May, 2012)., S. Wright and C. Graves, Rethink: Decide for Yourself, is Student Ministry Working? (Wake Forest, NC: InQuest Publishing, 2007), 67.↩
3. See J Bellamy and P Kaldor, National Church Life Survey Initial Impressions 2001 (Adelaide, SA: Openbook, 2002). The NCLS were also making some initial observations as early as 1987 – see for example Peter Kaldor, Who Goes Where? Who Doesn’t Care? (Homebush West, N.S.W: Lancer Books, 1987).↩
4. M Mason, A Singleton, and R Webber, The Spirit of Generation Y: Young People’s Spirituality in a Changing Australia (Mulgrave, Victoria: John Garratt, 2007), 76.↩
5. Philip Hughes, Margaret Fraser, and Stephen Reid, Australia’s Religious Communities: Facts and Figures (Melbourne: Christian Research Association, 2013).↩