Nuance. My gut tells me this is an important word in this discussion. Our role in teenagers’ spiritual lives is not primarily one as authority, but as example. That was not the case when they were younger. We adults – educators and parents alike – tend to fall back on direct influence. I think teenagers by nature are absorbing our perspectives indirectly. If we don’t grasp this, we will give undue attention to matters that may only be arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship, while not heeding the importance of the course we’ve charted.
I think the idea of nuance is important, because, on the one hand, I cannot help but disagree that spiritual formation is not our prime objective. At the same time, I cannot help but agree that if we treat it directly—over and above our academic objectives—any apparent short term gains will lead to long term failures in both academic and spiritual formation.
I say that spiritual formation is prime, because, paraphrasing Paul, if we produce brilliant academic students who don’t care for the gospel, we’ve produced obnoxious bells and nothing more. How not to do this perhaps is the substance of this discussion, given that the secular drift of academia happened in places once committed to the gospel as truth and light.
But I have to agree with the side of the discussion that wonders whether direct engagement with the subject will likely only happen at the expense of our academic mission. How many Christian schools with a strong spiritual reputation also have a strong academic reputation? It’s a shorter list than the alternative.
The allusion to schools as the new Campus Crusade strikes me, not only because I have a long history with Young Life, but because, properly considered, I think there is some wisdom there. The strength of their influence, in my experience, has been less in either’s teaching, which is in both cases simplified, evangelical theology, and more in the space both create structurally for voluntary relational role models. It is true that it is the ‘individuals’ within these organizations who influence lives. But that’s something we can value in our schools without sacrificing academic substance.
We could run our schools—and teach Calculus, Homer, and the Canons of Rhetoric—in an effective manner either personally or impersonally. In fact, bright students could teach themselves without us. What we bring to our students as classical or liberal arts educators is not only the ability to make the complex intelligible, but that we do so in a human way, thus humanizing both our subjects and our students. This is a Christian endeavor. What we provide on a spiritual level that para-church relationships do not is a confidence in the intellectual integrity of our beliefs. When students are taught by teachers they regard as both brilliant minds and examples of faith, they become equipped with two tools against secular sophistry: their own intellect sharpened, and the knowledge that intellects even sharper than their own have waded through the challenges to the biblical perspective of reality.
They will not see us as the la er, unless we, in natural and non-programmatic ways, reveal that to them. I qualify how we should do it, because if it is not genuine and personal—and no two teachers could do it in the same way—our students will treat us as authorities (hopefully respectfully), but not necessarily as examples—which is what would make us relevant.
Students’ days of basing their faith in the gospel (as text and as truth) on the authority of others will give way to the need to base faith on the authority of reason and personal commitment—as it should. If we want to influence them, that is how we should engage them.
Regarding the anxiety that we are not “getting to their hearts,” I cannot resist suggesting that it is an overwrought fear, akin to wondering, when a tadpole is halfway to adulthood, whether it really is a frog since it still has a tail. Every generation of youth are apparently uniquely in danger (including us when we were young), providing substance to Bruce Cockburn’s delicious lyric, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”
If we take seriously the fact that teenagers are newly meta-cognitive, newly (and overly) self- conscious, innately protective of their new-found autonomy from adults, and at the same, time lousy managers of their emotions, we would expect, and thus be nonplussed by their flat effect when we adults overtly try to engage them in personal, spiritual matters.
If we were not so impatient for them to appear as “fully formed adults,” when they are not yet developmentally so, and instead attended to the consistent but transient face of adolescent spirituality, I think we would sleep better at night.