A summary of research on faith and adolescence around the world

Editor’s Note: This synopsis was written as part of a Lilly Foundation grant to the Center for Youth Ministry Training.

The research in a nutshell

This collaborative work was birthed from a common concern among practical theologians around the world that globalization was changing the face of the adolescent world, including the experience of religion. Nine researchers from across the globe consider the interaction of youth, globalization and religion in their respective settings. Whether acknowledged or not, globalization is having an impact on youth and religion. A fact of the matter was the inconsistency in defining both globalization and youth across the world. Even still, the discussion from various locations is laced with sorting through the impact of globalization alone or cumulative impact of postmodernism and globalization.
The context of the research and/or theories behind it
This project was begun in the 1990s after the Academy of Practical Theology met at Princeton Theological Seminary. A resulting artifact of those meetings was the ultimate sponsorship of this ecumenical worldwide project by the Institute for Youth Ministry located at Princeton Theological Seminary. Researchers from eight different countries decided upon qualitative research to explore the effects of globalization on the adolescent experience of religious faith. Each chapter follows a pattern of a literature review, interviews with adolescents and a look at actual ministries all within the context of a specific country or region. The countries under consideration were Germany, Ghana, the United States, Russia and the Ukraine, Japan, India, and Argentina and Paraguay.
The practical theology method employed is proposed by Richard Osmer in the introduction and revisited explicitly in the final chapter. It includes the interaction of four moments: the descriptive/empirical, interpretive, normative and practice. [1]  With this being exploratory research, the descriptive/empirical was the moment most considered by researchers.  As suspected the literature reviews revealed a sparse amount of work done in this area if any. This heightened the importance for the researchers to offer a thick description of what was taking place in each context.

The major findings

Major findings are warranted and could be reported for each country considered. Below will be a summary sentence or two with the findings from each country with the caveat that this does not do justice the breadth nor depth of each.
Germany: There is a lack of articulated understanding of globalization though and awareness of the world and how adolescents may interact is a matter of fact due to European travel, music and the internet. There is also a strong sense of disconnect with official religion and traditional institutions.
Ghana: The charismatic church experience was primarily offered through both interviews and case studies. Spirituality is a way of life with two seemingly divergent approaches to the effects of globalization; namely that it is threatening the Ghanaian way of life or that the Ghanaian way of life is to be celebrated as a viable member of the global community.
United States: Identity is a major component of the conversation. Whether globalization as a term was used or not, youth are aware of the connection to the world through various mediums and an acceptance that God is present globally as well as locally. There is a mixed response to whether this often unfettered access to the world is described as negative, neutral or positive.
Russia and Ukraine: Globalization and Spirituality are not only acknowledged, but are taken seriously by those who are within the Christian community. They have grown up global and desire to be connected to the world through various multi-media and with other believers who share faith.
Japan: Japanese youth are acutely aware of the idea of globalization and recognize a position of both receiving and contributing to youth culture of the world. They hold the unique position of both embracing global culture through multimedia while not feeling their own culture being threatened or compromised. The strength of the church comes in nurturing its own with room to grow in the area of awareness of the needs of others.
India: Christians are in the minority in India. This fact coupled with the general acceptance of spirituality in India requires Christianity to not separate religion and spirituality. Youth are impacted by popular culture across the globe (primarily Western culture) but the church is behind in this conversation. With changing family cultures youth are looking to the church to speak to issues of community, unity, hope, employment and the future with great receptivity.
Argentina and Paraguay: The idea of globalization is centrally tied to economics and a concern over the future and employment for youth in Argentina and Paraguay. The church is seen as a hopeful refuge in a world approached with skepticism. For those active in faith communities, they draw great strength and are intentionally directed to issues of identity and global concerns.
Given that the very subject matter was youth, religion and globalization, the conclusion offers the intersection of each separate study. The research concludes with an admittedly brief reflection of the themes which emerged upon interpreting the research as a whole. The themes identified were as follows:
1. A disparity between hope and despair
Depending on where in the world one is located, there exists a prominent conversation regarding hope and despair. Experience, location and age impact this greatly.
2. Tension between identity and openness
Acceptance and pluralism is a key factor for youth across the globe. The idea of tolerance seems to be a universal value. While this is articulated strongly and often, there is also a stated value of particularity and local identity as being valued (and often an expressed concern of such being threatened.) This may “feel” contradictory when in reality it is being comfortable living with a seeming paradox.
3. Cross-generational discontinuity
While parents are still the greatest influence, adolescents are growing up in a world that is vastly different from that of their parents. Adolescents will often articulate a greater identification with others their own age around the globe than with elders in their own neighborhood. Technology has not only made this possible but has advanced the spread of the generation gap rapidly.
4. Cultural clashes with otherness
Adolescents are more aware of culture than previous generations. This is in part due to the prevalence of multimedia opportunities. This is also due to a prolific stream of information regarding daily encounters of clashes, violence, strife and even war due to cultural disparities.
5. Omnipresence of American popular culture within local cultures
There is a love/hate relationship with the pervasiveness of American culture across the world. In some cases, what was once considered American has become transnational and has been absorbed into local culture. The church has the unique position to remind all, within and outside of the US, that what unifies us is Christ and encourage models of youth ministry which are best suited to particular settings.
While each theme was addressed to greater and lesser degrees within each context, the themes provide a transcendent commonality. Different communities expressed their take on the theme in varying ways, landing in very different places around the same topic.

The implications for families and ministry

The concluding chapter offers an insightful list of “Youth Ministry’s Rules of Art in a Globalized World.” These rules are specific enough to offer teeth in a variety of contexts and permeable enough to not be confined to any one in particular.
1. The Christian story offers a hopeful alternative to despair.
This is both useful for those in difficult circumstances as well as more stable or affluent circumstances. The Christian story offers a vocational call and purpose in life reminding adolescents that they have a place in the global community and kingdom of God.
2. The Christian story offers a way of being in the world that refuses to capitulate to either rigid-self identity or unmitigated openness.
Growing up global affords the opportunity to come face to face with the other consequently the opportunity to reflect on one’s own identity. Through frequent opportunities of teachings, rituals, sacraments and interaction with community, a sense of meaningfulness is fostered both internally and as the external world is considered.
3. The Christian story spans cross-generational discontinuity.
While much if not most of the world has become age compartmentalized, the church still and increasingly offers cross generational interaction. The rules and rhythms of socialization are implicitly and explicitly offered across generations through intentional interactions on a regular basis.
4. The Christian story provides resources for mediating cultural clashes.
Admittedly, Christianity is and has often been on one side or the other of clashes. That said, there is a call to return to the deeply rooted Christian stance to be embracing of others and to recognize that embrace from others across the globe and spanning time. This may be achieved through the telling and discussions stemming from stories of those who have been a part of this cloud of witnesses to greater and lesser degrees from the past and present.
5. The Christian story offers a more global vision than the overwhelming influence of American popular culture.
The church may offer the gift of discernment freeing adolescents to be themselves in a world saturated with American popular culture. American popular culture need to be neither venerated nor vilified. It is present but learning to seek identity in Christ and the particularities in which God has placed them allows them to become wise consumers of what might otherwise be unreflectively accepted.
[1] For full explanation of each of these moments see Richard Osmer, Practical Theology: an introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008.
Books, websites, articles, etc. for further exploration:
Linhart, Terry, David Livermore. Global Youth Ministry: reaching adolescents around the world. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
Osmer, Richard. Practical Theology: an introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008.
See the Journal of Youth and Theology put out by the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry, www.iasym.net.