Banked Beliefs Are Killing the Faith of Teenagers

Banked beliefs are “beliefs that do not fit in with other beliefs.  They are remembered or stored away, but do not affect the way a person acts, except perhaps, when there is occasion for those beliefs to be “regurgitated”.”**  In other words, these are beliefs that we learn and only recall when the setting is just right.  For many youth this seems to be the primary type of belief that our youth groups are perpetuating.  Students learn the content of a set of beliefs, and they “bank” them away for use in the next Sunday School lesson or for the next time their parents quiz them on what they are learning at church. What they “learn” does not influence they way they live their everyday life.

This is to be completely contrasted with “actual beliefs”  which are the beliefs that a person holds that influence their behavior and action. Often people do not articulate these out loud, but understanding their culture and observing their life lived out will tell this tale.

Teens carrying around "banked beliefs"

Over the past year this contrast has kept rising to the surface of my conversations with both teenagers and youth workers.  For the youth workers they wonder how a student can so readily and rightly regurgitate information about Scripture, God, church and faith – but yet live as though they know none of it.  For teenagers the conversation is often more complex because they say they like youth group, like their youth workers and like (as one student put it) “the Jesus stuff”, but when pressed about how it changes their behavior or separately asked about the actions of their life, there seems to be no internalization of this faith.

All this to say that it seems to me that the great myth of modern youth ministry (and perhaps modern ecclessiology) has been that “information equals transformation”.  If we simply give the students the right information – in a cool and relevant way I’m sure – then they will be changed and make the right decisions and their behavior will be changed to the way we have prescribed for them.  This operates out of the faulty assumption that we are rational people who are sometimes capable of emotion, when in fact the converse it true – we are emotional people who are occasionally capable of reason.

If we hold to this second claim – that we are primarily emotional people – then the way we do youth ministry simply has to move beyond sharing information.  I would like to briefly propose that youth ministry has to start with engaging the world of the teens and people we are living life with, seeking to understand and reflect on their culture.  In joining them in their place, and joining God where He is already at work, we reveal an intention that is “rooted and grounded in love” and moves well beyond the simple desire of giving students more information so that they can change their behavior. The movement towards really knowing the person and caring for them as for Christ, is a movement toward our emotion. I would also like to propose that we live a faith together that is “caught” as it is being taught.  In this way the students we love will see the lives we live for Christ, the brokenness that we also bring, the healing that Christ has begun in us and all-encompassing actual beliefs we possess. But the information is also important – but only in the lived out life of faith together – because it gives words and expression to the larger things going on in our lives.

I am not arguing here for an emotionalism that capitalizes on students, though many have discovered that this does move people.  I am rather arguing for the deeper level of emotional youth ministry where we actually know the teens we are working with, their struggles, doubts and fears and they know ours.  This type of ministry moves beyond building up the “banked beliefs” that do not affect our daily lives and moves towards a much more messy and wonderful faith that impacts how we actually live our lives.

Anybody else see these “banked beliefs” at work in their youth ministry?  What actions do we take to help move past “banked beliefs” to “actual beliefs”?

** The main ideas behind “actual beliefs” and “banked beliefs” come from Philip Hughes, “The Use of Actual Beliefs in Contextualizing Theology”. East Asian Journal of Theology, 1984.

 

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