I moved across the country a few months ago and in the ensuing weeks I have found myself regularly interacting with two distinct groups of young people. After a decade of vocational youth ministry in the local church I have taken a job at a therapeutic boarding school for pre-teen girls. As part of the residential staff, I am responsible for helping with day-to-day life tasks. I make sure that teeth get brushed, homework gets done, and the inevitable disagreements end without too many tears.
On Sundays, though, I volunteer with the youth group at the moderate, mid-sized, Southern church my husband and I attend leading a small group and helping out during youth choir. We live in a town that is growing in popularity and attracting all kinds of outsiders, but most of the families at our church have been there for generations. The babies are dedicated at the same altar where their parents exchanged wedding vows.
My assumption has been that I am interacting with two completely different groups of students. I’ve joked about my own cognitive whiplash as I move from the treatment center to the Baptist church and as I struggle to remember if this is the group of youth that has silent “moment” before meals or if this is the group that gladly closes their lengthy prayers “in Jesus’ name.” I’ve viewed the two groups as a juxtaposition of religious and non-religious affiliations, my “church kids” and my “secular kids.”
In the past few weeks, though I’ve come to find that like most assumptions, this idea of “church youth” versus “secular youth” has come more from my preconceived ideas than from actual fact. As I’ve buckled down and really paid attention to the thoughts and beliefs that undergird these two groups, I’ve found that my definition of “secular” is anemic at best and nonsensical at worst.
At a very surface level, we often use the word secular to distinguish between the sacred and the mundane. Occasionally we use “secular” to support the idea that some people and institutions are a-religious. Instead, I’ve come understand that the entirety of the world we live in is secular – that “religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others and this contestable.”
There was a day, in our not-too-distant collective past, that everyone everywhere believed in a powerful, transcendent being (God) and attributed the goings on of the world to that being. That was a nice world, but the sun has long set on that day and as a society we have moved into a way of being that allows us to construct meaning and significance without any reference to a divine or transcendent being.1This is the essence of our secular world. It is “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”2It is the acknowledgement that our world affirms legitimate ways of being that find value and worth within this immanent frame.
Our church youth group has spent the fall studying the seven “I Am” statements of Jesus found in the Gospel of John. I am the Good Shepherd, says Jesus. I am the Bread of Life and the Light of the World and the True Vine. We culminated, this past Sunday night, with I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We started the lesson in our small groups, discussing the nature of truth and what it might mean for Jesus to be the Way to the Father. Not one of the students in my church small group maintained that
Jesus was the only way to God. In fact, they insisted that while following Jesus was a good idea, surely there were other, just as legitimate paths. They contended that there were plenty of other options for finding meaning and significance to life than just through the prescribed doctrine found in one particular religious text.4
This from the group that has grown up in the church building, so different from the boarding school girls? As we move into a new understanding of our secular age, we must move away from categorizing things or people or institutions as secular and embrace a more full idea of “secular” that encompasses the very air we breath — and the air our young people breathe. Our youth ministries must acknowledge that the young people in our churches on Sundays exist every day of the week within in a society that recognizes belief in God as one option, but surely not the only sane belief. As youth workers we must move past an assumption that there is any sort of inherent difference between the church kids that attend our Sunday schools and the friends we meet on the sidelines of Friday night football games. Our invitations to follow the way of Christ must come from a place that understands that acknowledges that this world affirms many paths and that the straight and narrow is the often most difficult.
I still interact with two distinct groups of young people. They are still separated by geographical location and life situation, but I can no longer think of them as fundamentally different. My career change has not transitioned me from the church and into the secular world, but instead helped to open my eyes to the fact that I have been there all along.
1 This movement is the focus of James K.A. Smith’s How Not to be Secular , a fascinating commentary on Charles Taylor’s How to be Secular and should not be missed!
2 Smith, 21-22
Laura Addis has been involved in youth ministry since 2000 in both staff and volunteer roles. She currently works as a residential mentor at a therapeutic boarding school for preteen girls and as a staff consultant for Ministry Architects. Laura lives in Asheville, NC with her favorite husband, Tate, and is most spiritually disciplined in the fall when she is busy praying and fasting for her beloved LSU Tigers.
This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM