Youth culture, the future of faith

Youthful Christian musician Frank Edwards

Youthful Christian musician Frank Edwards

Stanely Mushava Features Correspondent
A dancehall punchline of profound implications on the interfacing of religion and youth culture flows: “More youths have to get spiritual; they take movies too literal”.

Youths, a critical demographic for the future of faith, are exposed to a range of influences which are increasingly undermining traditional Christian values.

In countries where the decline of religion has been precipitate, the generation gap has been cited as the main factor.

A closer look, however, further implicates the detachment of the church from youth culture.

A secular climate increasingly outlines the academy, public life, popular entertainment, new media and fashion statements of the day, while the church largely remains a special interest, packaging its message for the usual segment.

In the many sections of higher education, it almost passes for a given that secularism is the default intellectual position and not much is being said to fault the assumption.

Youths growing up immersed in these counter-attitudes are ceding their Christian values and growing into a religiously unaffiliated frontier.

Packaging outbound content with a language youths understand is the major challenge for Christian evangelism in the 21st century, if the secularisation of the world is to be reversed.

The Pew Research Centre primarily attributes the wane of faith in the US to generational replacement.

Youths are growing up without attachment to faith, increasingly tilting the balance towards atheism and agnosticism as adults exit the picture.

On the contrary, religion is on a positive trajectory in the developing nations of the Global South, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa now accounts for the greatest population of Christians, with one in every four believers domiciled in the region.

However, I argue in this instalment that maintaining the positive march of Christianity on the continent, and Zimbabwe in particular, will largely depend on the church making creative interventions in youth culture.

Failure to influence youth culture through the language they can understand such as the arts and new media is tantamount to giving up the future of faith.

Broad indices such as wealth distribution and population density have been enlisted to explain the growth of faith in Africa, which is relatively poorer and booming in population, and the decline of faith in Western countries.

However, the changing religious climate is more than a question of poverty versus affluence.

Secular tendencies in youth culture of the West have been instrumental in diminishing the influence of religion in the region.

The 2014 Pew Research Report shows how youths are the main game-changer. It goes without saying that prevailing attitudes among this demographic will continue to shape the faith map in the future.

“One of the most important factors in the declining share of Christians and the growth of the ‘nones’ (that is, the religiously unaffiliated) is generational replacement,” observes the Pew report.

“As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations,” the report says.

“Fully 36 percent of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34 percent of older Millennials (ages 25-33). And fewer than 6-in-10 Millennials identify with any branch of Christianity, compared with seven-in-ten or more among older generations, including Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers.

“Just 16 percent of Millennials are Catholic, and only 11 percent identify with mainline Protestantism. Roughly one-in-five are evangelical Protestants,” says the Pew report.

This should not come as surprise if one considers how the secular ferment has been coursing in the Western youth culture for decades.

Africa has been relatively insulated from the secular upheaval as the foremost social engines have been mainstays of moral conservatism, while strong family ties have ensured the continuity of the faith of the fathers.

This contrasts with the West where the family institution is increasingly dysfunctional, with secularly motivated changes in legislation, education and entertainment such as homosexuality on the assault.

“Hollywood is nothing but a highly paid pimp, who provides clientele for America — actors who will take off their clothes and prostitute themselves for money,” fumes Christian author Ray Comfort.

This partly feeds into the attitudes of the youths toward religion. There is a strong link between moral attitudes and religion. Renunciation of belief in God is necessary for individuals who want to live by their own rules as atheism brooks no moral accountability to God.

As popular entertainment encourages a permissive climate, with films celebrating promiscuity, extra-marital liaisons and gay sex are in vogue, getting nods from big media and even bagging accolades, Christian values are being increasingly contested.

On one hand, there are gnostically-themed films such as “The Da Vinci Code” taking aim at the foundations of faith. On the other hand, there are trending shows such as “Orange is the New Black”, flaunting lesbian sex as the new normal. This conspiracy of secular tendencies, grossing millions at the Box Office, precludes the place of faith whose idea of morality is set in stone, and encourages hedonism and situational ethics.

“Morality is not based on culture or time. It cannot be horizontal (determined by man). Morality must be vertical (determined by God), with an outside reference point. Its basis is the absolute nature of an unchanging God. The essential word in the Ten Commandments is ‘sacred’: sacred God, sacred words, sacred neighbours, sacred marriage, sacred things,” Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias explains the Christian idea of morality.

“Life without sacredness is relativism. The only way for a relativistic world to get rid of objective morality is to make Jesus look like them, which is just what Hollywood did in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2006) and in similar films,” he faults the slack, new normal.

If faith is being washed away in the West due to generational replacement as Hollywood-tutored and Internet-bred youths come aboard, Africa may not be spared due to globally oriented technology.

This is one game-changer ignored by forecasts on religion projecting a perpetually upward trajectory for religion in the Global South.

It is simplistic to project a boom for religion primarily based on growing population. If religion, particularly Christianity, is to maintain its stronghold in Africa, then Christians must be more visible in the public square, in the academy and popular entertainment.

Ray Comfort advocates for more creative concepts by Christians to reach out to the world, particularly the youths.

Setting the gospel on the back of quality entertainment is one route to this end. “Many years ago, if we wanted to send a missionary overseas, the only option available was to put him and his family aboard a ship, and it would take weeks for them to arrive at their destination,” says Comfort.

“It wasn’t uncommon for family members to die of malaria or other tropical diseases. Taking the gospel to the world came with great hardship and much sacrifice. While hardship and sacrifice are still necessary for the sake of the gospel, nowadays we can also click the ‘send’ button to reach people all around the world,” he says.

“Genesis Code” director Jerry Zandstra says there is need to bridge the faith-science divide in the public square and in popular entertainment. This is key considering that the false dichotomy of science against faith is one of the assaults being used against Christianity.

“Christians should remember that science is merely the discipline of coming to a better understanding of the world God created,” says Zandstra.

“Scientists should remember that people of faith have much to add to the conversation about the origins, purpose, and ultimate end of the universe and life on this planet. It is time to put aside this false argument and encourage both sides to seek mutual understanding and appreciation in the context of some healthy modesty,” he says.

I find it disappointing that instead of competing with secular entertainers on the global stage, some Christians have turned to seeking non-existent Christian themes in successful secular productions.

For example, at least three books have been written ostensibly setting forth supposed Bible themes in “The Hunger Games”.

In addition, Christian musicians are appropriating not only questionable themes but fashion statements which encourage secular tendencies.

On a summative score, redefining youth culture according to the gospel is the condition for the continuity of faith. To fail here is to fail everywhere.

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