Monthly Archives: January 2008

Are we modeling designer religion for kids?

In our lifetime, religion has moved from being intensely personal to being intensely marketed and advertised. What are the implications of this change in North American culture for our students?

In his new book Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face, James Twitchell takes the reader on a compelling journey from the Puritans through the megachurches and examines how religion has been merchandised and marketed. Some interesting points drawn from the book include:

  • The second most popular use of the Internet is for religious or spiritual purposes.
  • As denominations have become less important, people are putting together their own personalized spiritual plans.
  • Christian bookstores have grown by 285% since 1983 and experts expect the religious book market to increase almost 50% from 2004 – 2009.
  • While a new megachurch is born (by going over 2000 members) every three days, country churches are dying at a rate of one every eight days. While there seems to be more religiosity, the numbers of believers has not increased. The largest 10% of megachurches now contain about half of all churchgoers.Similarities between the medieval cathedral and the modern department store: both are concerned with salvation via consumption, getting the Word out (proselytizing/advertising), ranks of affiliation (devotion/brand loyalty), sacred texts (Bible/catalog), functionaries (clergy/clerks), signs of spiritual election (salvation/goods), holidays (religious/sales), heroic lighting (stained glass/spotlights), music (hymns/Muzak), and financial transactions (tithe/purchase and collection plate/cash register).
  • Branding and shifting – once a brand choice is made in later adolescence, it sticks longer – the reason why advertisers target teenagers. Estimates are that it takes $200 of marketing to get a 50 year old to change brands, but only $2 to get an 18 year old to do the same. 4% of adults in 1955 moved from the church of their parents as compared to about 50% today. Mainline denominations now account for only 16% of the U.S. population.
  • While the Catholic church’s voice has been raised against customization of religious belief, Protestant voices have largely been silent due to habits of individualism, ex. Reformation.
  • Social transformations such as lack of social class distinction generated by church affiliation, the rise of a divorce culture (children of divorce are 62% more likely to no longer identify with the faith of their parents), and the mobility of parishioner and pastors have contributed to the problem of “shopping” and “slipping out the side door.”
  • Megachurch marketing has intentionally tried to appeal to males: bigger is better, use of technology with a de-emphasis on traditional singing and emphasis on karaoke style singing, backing away from being lectured at/shamed, being purpose-driven and achievement oriented vs. relationally focused, and emphasis on sports facilities and male “pack/club” groups.

The megachurch was a reaction to churches that preceded it. The emergent church/village movement appears to be a reaction to the excesses and “shopping” nature of today’s megachurch. Let’s be aware of human weaknesses demonstrated in various church models and discuss them with students so that we may encourage in our kids an authentic and reflective personal relationship with Jesus Christ that results in hearts of gratitude and lives of service.

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The impact of family

There are at least four significant variables related to family and school experiences that account for two-thirds of differences in state scores of student learning success according to a new report recently released by ETS (Educational Testing Services.) You may also wish to view a New York Times article on the report.

These variables are:

  • Single parent families – Thirty-two percent of U.S. children live in single-parent homes, up from 23% in 1980. Forty-four percent of births to women under 30 are out-of-wedlock. 19% of children live in poverty and among black, American Indian/Alaskan native and Hispanic children the figure rises to 33%. The rate for “food insecure” female headed households is triple that for married couple families.
  • Hours spent watching TV – comparison of eighth-graders in 45 countries found that U.S. students spend less time reading books for enjoyment — and more time watching television and videos —than students in many other countries. 35% of U.S. 8th graders spent 4 or more hours daily on weekday TV viewing. U.S. teens also spent almost one more hour daily using the Internet than students in other countries, and less time reading for enjoyment or doing jobs at home.
  • Hours parents spend reading to kids – By age 4, children of professional families hear 35 million more words than children of parents on welfare. Sixty-two percent of high SES kindergartners are read to every day by their parents, compared to 36 percent of kindergartners from low SES groups.
  • Number of school absences – One in five students misses three days or more of school a month. The United States ranked 25th of 45 countries in students’ school attendance.

How could we use this information to help our parents in the nurture of their children?

What ways could our schools or churches reach out in ministry to respond to these needs around us?

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Trinity students visit CSI

Trinity Christian College students and Professor Pete Post visited CSI recently as part of their interim experience. Together we discussed the mission of CSI and considered the question of “Why Christian education?” The students shared learning games ideas that they have been developing as part of the interim class. They hope to have them compiled and available to teachers via the web or in CD format.
Trinity education students are also regular participants in the Nurturing Faith blog. I really appreciate their fresh and honest comments – they are closer to teen years than the rest of us and help to keep us connected and real as we consider nurturing faith in youth.

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Faith Enhancing Practice* #11 – Understanding student faith development stages

It’s a typical reaction in workshops with Christian teachers – I usually get some blank stares and very few hands raised when I ask the question, “How many of you have had any training in student faith development stages?” Most or all hands go up when I ask similar questions about study of Piaget, Erikson, or Kohlberg in their college courses. From these kind of anecdotal experiences, one could conclude that teachers in Christian schools have been well versed in Piaget’s cognitive development theories, Erikson’s psycho-social development stages, and Kohlberg’s moral reasoning thoughts in their college courses, but know very little about research relating to children’s spiritual development. It simply has not usually been part of their training.

Yet, if we see our mission in Christian schools and churches to equip students to transform the world for Christ, shouldn’t we at least have a basic understanding of how religious beliefs develop in adolescents, how children perceive God at various ages, what practices are most effective in working with children, how parental images impact children’s thinking, and even what types of differentiation may be needed to challenge children at different stages? What is our understanding of how children’s faith has been perceived and developed throughout history by church leaders and what recurrent themes and practices may be seen and built on to instruct our experience? (Marcia Bunge’s book, The Child in Christian Thought is an excellent resource here.) What can we learn from contemporary leaders such as Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, Catherine Stonehouse, Craig Dykstra, and others as to how to best engage adolescents and encourage their faith?

We live in a time when our understanding of child/youth development is still emerging and changing. When we see the seriousness and trust of youthful faith expressed by our children in our Children in Worship settings at church or in worship experiences at Christian schools, we gain respect for the level of faith and engagement with the Spirit that our kids demonstrate. Our level of respect for kid’s capabilities continues to grow when we see them mastering areas such as language acquisition or technological proficiency at very early ages. I hope we are moving toward seeing children as real people, rather than in ways that underestimate or diminish who God has created them to be.

While some would argue we live in a culture that is too child centered, our lack of understanding and desire for study of children in this critical aspect of better understanding faith development may ultimately diminish our effectiveness in nurturing their faith and meeting our missions. We need to demonstrate positive attitudes toward children that will serve to counteract a society that views children as consumers to be manipulated, economic burdens to be endured, or as aliens we must fear in the teen years. If we are taking seriously our responsibility to train teachers in the best discipline knowledge and professional pedagogical practices, then let us also give our teachers working in Christian education the kind of training they need in our colleges and seminaries around how students develop spiritually. In the end it is what matters most.

*(For an explanation and definition of Faith Enhancing Practices see my post of February 3, 2007 entitled “What’s the difference between teachers?”) If you are interested in seeing all 12 Faith Enhancing Practices modules at once, you can go to the Member Community Center and access them there.

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Catch them doing good!

Bob Moore, principal at John Calvin Christian School in Guelph, Ontario follows up his post of 12/17 with some specific examples of the kinds of student outcomes we seek in Christian education. Thanks again, Bob, for sharing!

The best way of measuring how we are doing is to watch the students. As it happens we have chapel every other week, and one of the things we do at the end of each chapel is to report back to the students about which students we have seen implementing our theme “From head to heart to hands and feet.”

Some of the boys in grade 6 got us off to a good start by demonstrating in a chapel what it would look like if they only responded to an injured friend with their head, and then re-enacted the scene with the head and their heart, and then re-enacted it again with their head, and heart and hands and feet. While I was watching this, I realized that Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan was pretty much teaching us the same thing. The priests and Levites saw the suffering of the robbers’ victim, but they didn’t respond with mercy or justice. When the Good Samaritan came, he saw, and he responded with his heart, hands and feet.

Here are some of the reports we have given at chapel: During a grade 7 computer class, a number of students were having difficulty following the assignment. The teacher was quite busy trying to help this one and that one, but couldn’t possibly get to all of the students who needed help. One student, Brody, was already well into, and almost done, the assignment. When he heard his classmates getting more and more frustrated, he stopped his work and went to help them with theirs. He could have ignored them. He knew that as soon as his assignment was done, printed off and approved, that he was going to be able to have some free time on the computer, but he knew that his knowledge could be used to help others, and put his own immediate goals aside.

Another report that we gave concerned an event that took place in the hallway between grade 2 and grade 4. Matthew came struggling in with his book bag and his half-opened lunch bag and his hockey stick and, oops, he dropped his lunch bag. His recess and lunch goodies rolled all over the hallway. Some of the students probably felt bad for Matthew, but one actually came over and helped him pick stuff up. When Ms. Blydorp commended Jacob, he replied, “Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?”

One of the youngest boys to get caught doing something good is a student in grade one. One day, I stepped into the boys’ washroom to check up on some unnecessary noise. I noticed that some of the boys had changed for gym class and had left their clothes dangerously close to the toilets. The younger boys were easily stepping over and around them, as though they were used to it. I started picking up a few things to put them in a safer place. As I took an armful towards the coat hooks, Jared also picked up a pair of shoes and a T-shirt, and brought them over to shelf. He could have adapted in the same way as all of his classmates, but when he saw that I had a concern, he shared it, and responded in a helpful manner.

The most recent report followed a Scholastic Book Fair held at the school. All of the students were invited to put their names in a draw for a $25 gift certificate. Most of the students were eager to put their names in, and eager to see whose name was drawn. There were not only lots of fascinating books from which to choose, but also lots of colourful school supplies and knick-knacks that could be used to entertain oneself in class (Oops! Did I say that?) When Sam’s name was drawn, his first thought was not for all the books and toys. He responded by finding his brother and sister to ask them what they would like when he chose his prize. Obviously, Sam could have spent the prize on himself, but he knew better. It wasn’t enough that he knew better; he did better.

It really does make a difference when a Christian school sets biblical expectations for it students, and makes a point of honouring those students who are living up to the expectations of letting knowledge move from head to heart to hands and feet.

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How are Christians perceived?

Part of preparing students to live out their faith is to have them understand the perceptions of others about Christianity. The short video below captures a sampling of what people’s perceptions of Christians are.

How might a video like this be used in an instructive way?

In an accompanying video below, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, poses the questions: How we can move past clichés to express what we believe? How can we creatively express the power of the Gospel – a message that is so simple and so deep at the same time? This video could be a helpful discussion starter with teens – and it would be particularly interesting to gain their reaction to Kinnaman’s own use of language (outsider) and metaphor (fort.)

Both videos are pointers toward a new book called unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters that came out in October 2007. I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet (and hope to share more info from it in a future post), but noted that it has been receiving positive reviews on Amazon.

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