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WORLDVIEW: Faith & action: Teens crave both

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Kareem Elnahal is a young man with brains and guts. He also has a grasp of life’s most important questions -– something his elders seem to lack.

Elnahal graduated in June as the top senior at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, N.J., an institution ranked among America’s best high schools by Newsweek magazine. He’s headed for Princeton University in the fall. His future looks bright.

In his valedictorian’s address at the commencement ceremony, however, Elnahal didn’t exactly blow kisses to his teachers. Instead, he lambasted the school for offering an educational experience devoid of meaning.

“[T]he education we have received here is not only incomplete, it is entirely hollow,” Elnahal told a stunned audience, according to a report by Cybercast News Service. “Ladies and gentlemen, the spirit of intellectual thought is lost. I know how highly this community values learning, and I urge you all to re-evaluate what it means to be educated….

“Is there a creator? And if so, should we look to [Him] for guidance? These are often dismissed as questions of religion, but religion is not something opposed to rationality. It simply seeks to answer such questions through faith.”

School administrators were not amused, but many of his fellow graduates apparently agreed with Elnahal. They reportedly stood and applauded his words.

“I felt like the most important questions were not asked,” Elnahal later told Cybercast News Service, reflecting on his high school years. “Things like ethics, things that defined who we are, were ignored. So in that way I thought it was hollow.”

Hollow. If there’s a better word to describe the state of public education, I can’t think of it.

But this isn’t another attack on public schools; many teachers do the best they can in the face of a relentless tide of secularism and enforced “diversity.” This is a plea for listening to young people such as Kareem Elnahal.

I don’t know whether Elnahal is a religious believer or an agnostic seeker of truth. But he’s asking the fundamental questions most teens and young adults eventually ask as they search for meaningful ways to live. Classical education, whether public or private, once encouraged them to find the answers in a spirit of enlightened inquiry. Such inquiry is now considered off-limits, at least in the public sphere. Secularists have undermined the whole idea of education as the pursuit of truth; relativists deny objective truth even exists.

Students like Elnahal have the gumption to seek answers to the big questions anyway. More power to them.

Christians, meanwhile, have a different challenge as they approach the education of children and teens. In evangelical schools and churches, truth is readily available in its purest form. Biblical teaching and preaching are abundant.

The disconnect comes in application.

Today’s young people want to believe truth. But they tend to act on what they personally experience — and what they see acted out in the lives of their parents and other leaders — not what they “hear about” or read.

“Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” is a fascinating book published last year by Oxford University Press. It explores the inner lives of more than 3,000 U.S. teens, ages 13-17, who were studied by the National Study of Youth and Religion. More than 250 were interviewed in-depth by coauthor Christian Smith and a research team at the University of North Carolina.

The study confirmed some good news: In contrast to the notoriously rebellious baby boomers, most American teens today believe in God, listen to their parents (even if they pretend not to) and willingly adopt their parents’ religious views. Three out of four religious teens surveyed said they held beliefs that mirrored their parents’ faith. Half attend religious services at least twice a month, although two in three said belonging to a congregation was not essential to being religious or spiritual.

The bad news is the same as the good: Teens adopt beliefs and habits that mirror their parents’. If mom and dad practice a shallow faith with few demands, as many American Christians do, the kids follow suit.

“God functions for most teenagers as a combination cosmic therapist and divine butler,” Smith explained to the Los Angeles Times. “God isn’t part of history or everyday life; He is distant until you need Him to solve a problem or make you feel better.”

Does the word “hollow” come to mind?

Evangelical Protestant young people trail only Mormon teens in being the “most engaged” in practicing their beliefs, according to the national study. But the day-to-day treatment of God as “cosmic therapist and divine butler,” rather than Savior and Lord, accurately describes far too many evangelical youth -– and parents — regardless of what we claim to believe.

The antidote to watered-down, passive faith? The Apostle James has a no-nonsense prescription: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works’” (James 2:17, 18, NASB).

Don’t just teach the faith to your children; model it. Don’t tell them how to serve others; show them. Don’t just talk about missions and ministry during family devotion times or Sunday School; take your children with you to share Jesus with lost people on your street and in your community. Take a family mission trip across cultural lines, or across the ocean.

That’s the only kind of faith people will follow –- beginning with your own kids.
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice monthly in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges