When children are in their early elementary school years, their minds are actually at the peak time for easy rote memorization. And yet, many Protestant churches begin formal confirmation instruction years after this formative period. What are the effects of this lapse in time? Too often, young teens fall away from their church after confirmation—a trend that will hurt future generations of families.
After assessing current trends in the faith development of youth, Dr. David Rueter wrote Teaching the Faith at Home: What Does This Mean? How Is This Done? to reveal why the historic model of teaching the catechism early in the home is key in keeping families connected to the Church. Part 1 focuses on laying a foundation for understanding the history, purpose, and theological reasons for catechesis. And Part 2 takes a practical look at strategies and models for catechetical instruction that can be shared at church and used in the home.
The following excerpt from chapter 3, “What Went Wrong?,” discusses how postmodernism has affected the way many people think, which in turn has affected the way they approach religion.
While it is a rather tricky thing to attempt to assess the nature and cause of systemic change, it is critical to do so in order to get a handle on the reality facing our young people as it relates to their time of study in confirmation. This chapter will attempt to paint a picture of the societal landscape in which many of our youth find themselves immersed. Please note the qualification “many.” Whenever one attempts to assess one’s own culture and the subcultures within, or to assess the impact of cultural shifts on emerging generations, one is of necessity going to paint a picture that while hopefully an accurate generalization, is nonetheless a generalization and must be understood within its inherent limitations. Thus, the youth that you encounter may be radically different from the trends described here. Please take from this chapter that which you can apply to the reality of the culture in your part of the country or corner of the globe and the reality of the culture of the youth in your congregation.
The Influence of Postmodernism
To begin this assessment, I believe that we need to come to terms with the ways in which postmodernism has influenced and, in places, radically reshaped how people view and interact with matters of religion and spirituality. Notice right from the start my choice to distinguish religion and spirituality. I have done so with deliberate intent. Postmodernism has created in the minds of many a separation of religious faith and spiritual faith. You have perhaps encountered a young person who has said something along the lines of, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” This simple statement encapsulates a good deal of the spirit (to abuse a pun here) of the age formed through postmodern philosophy. For some years now, there has been a growing interest in all things spiritual. This emphasis on the spiritual, however, resists the structure of the traditional form of a specific religion. The structures of religion are seen as restrictions to the freedom of individuals to follow their own spiritual path and encounter God or some other higher power, as they desire it to be.
There is a lot going on here. Fundamentally, there is growing distrust of organized religion (however “organized” religion actually is) and an insistence on the right of individuals to define the terms of their spirituality on their own. This seemingly radical departure from the way in which religious truth claims were viewed in the past has been a part of the culture in which our young people have been marinating since they were very young. Consequently, what are we to do?
Well, actually, I would suggest that we first ask from where this philosophy came so that we might then know how to respond. In short, postmodernism is a sign of the failure of the Age of Enlightenment. The belief that humanity was capable of answering all questions through the might of our own reason proved to be a task we were not able to achieve.
The postmodernity influenced young person has grown up with what has become a seemingly natural distrust in the power of human reason to grasp real universally applicable truth. Thus, you end up with arguments against “Western logic” as if the law of contradiction, for example, is an invention of the Greek philosophical tradition, rather than the discovery and codification of a universal law that does, in fact, govern the way in which the world does and must work. In a false attempt to be open to anything, the postmodern mind is closed to truly knowing much with any certainty.
I have noticed that people now talk about what they feel about a subject rather than what they think about it. This subtle shift, I believe, is actually seismic in its impact on the way in which we see the world. Rather than thinking and applying our minds rationally to reach a conclusion or position, we are encouraged to feel our way to what is “right.” Thus, our emotions supplant the life of the mind. Rather than thinking through the moral implications of a position, young people have grown up learning to empathize and formulate their positions on that basis. So for example, it becomes increasingly hard to talk through confessional doctrinal positions on the role of women in the Church or any number of topics related to sexual ethics. Rather than discussing the factual effects that such actions might have and pairing that with God’s establishment of laws that conform to the realities of the world He created, we instead work with students who are more inclined to take positions based on a desire to see all people feel affirmed, regardless of the personal choices of those individuals. Thus, they end up accepting only the teachings of Jesus that they are comfortable with, rather than relying on His full counsel, especially the counsel in which He condemns sinners who forsake His efforts to rescue them from bondage to sin.
Now let me be more precise than that. There is still truth, and most people in some way or another believe that certain things are true and others are false. What changed in our understanding of truth? Rather than holding to a correspondence view of truth in which the veracity of a claim was determined by testing it against observable evidence or other forms of verification, a move toward a coherence view of truth took place. In a coherence view of truth, individuals must only be consistent within their own system of thinking for truth to be truth for them. The key here is the “for them” part. Truth has increasingly moved out of the realm of universal applicability and into a more self-referential construct.
A shift has taken place between what is known as a fact and what is an interpretation of a known fact. When the line between facts and interpretations blur, there is a natural weakening of understanding facts as anything more than mere personal interpretations. Thus especially in the case of religious beliefs, we have reached a point in which people view doctrinal positions as preferences or opinions more so than attempts at understanding universally applicable truth. Instead, we are left with the mere competition of the ideas of individuals that are valid only to those individuals who choose to believe them valid. . . .
While the Reformation rightly placed the Bible in the hands of the laity, the implication that is often drawn from this in postmodern thinking is that the very interpretation of Scripture is left up to the individual. The postmodern thinker sees no authority in the Bible, since the individual is the only authority to which one is responsible. Thus, many students seek primarily to understand each passage by what it means to them, rather than finding the meaning of the text as defined by the authors (human and divine). Unlike the reformers who placed the Bible into the hands of the laity, trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth claims contained within to all, the postmodern thinker is more interested in his or her own perspective. He or she ends up performing an eisegesis of the text (reading one’s own meaning into the text), rather than performing an exegesis of the text (drawing the original meaning out of the text). In so doing, the postmodern approach to Scripture allows one to draw together interpretations from across theological and even religious traditions. Claims that were seen as inherent contradictions a generation ago are held out as novel and perfectly acceptable viewpoints.
Therefore, we end up with a sort of spiritual stew in which each individual feels free to adapt the recipe, tossing in ingredients as he or she sees fit. I personally enjoy the mash-up of music genres (at least when well done) as well as the mash-up of foods (a pastrami pizza that I get in Long Beach, California, is a fantastic case in point). However, if we perform a theological mash-up, we end up constructing a belief system that might suit our personal tastes, but may well be rife with logical inconsistencies making evangelism and apologetics all the more difficult to present to our unbelieving neighbors. Why would they wish to buy into a system of beliefs that we put together, when they can simply construct their own variation to suit their own tastes? This is unfortunately the false message received by our culture in response to the proliferation of denominations. They wrongly draw the conclusion that theological disputation implies the lack of universal truth, when in fact it merely implies the sinful inability of individuals and churches to agree upon what is true on all counts. We do not separate due to a low view of truth, but the opposite. We maintain distinctive beliefs in a quest to adhere as strictly as possible to the truths of Scripture; we simply lack the capacity to ensure that we will always reach the same conclusions as other truth-seeking followers of Christ. Thus, we are left with students who are instructed by the larger culture to view spirituality as so very personal that holding to a confession is seen as antiquated and very much against the spirit of the age. . . .
The center once founded upon the eternal now rests upon the truly temporal. We have put ourselves in the place of God. Thus, the metanarrative is unnecessary; only the story of reality as it is shaped around us is of true personal import. This is the thinking that we may encounter in our congregations and in the students presented to us for instruction in the faith. Therefore, we must adjust our approach. We can no longer assume that the assertion of a truth claim will be examined on its merits. We may encounter teens who will agree that our claim makes sense and cannot counter the argument. Yet, they may still reject the adoption of the truth claim and refuse to make any sort of corresponding adjustment in their life or belief system merely because they don’t believe that they really have to if they don’t really want to. Teaching doctrinal truths changes if there is no longer even a concern with whether they are right or not, but only whether one likes what they say or not.
In an ideal world, one would posit that you ought to be able to argue your way through this haze of sloppy thinking. However, this might not be pragmatically possible. If that is how students think when we confront them with the Gospel, then as a point of fact, that is how they think, or more accurately feel their way through an issue. This means that my initial approach in persuading a teen about the truth of the Gospel may not strategically be through the head, but rather through the heart. Once the heart is engaged, naturally my goal would be to get the mind engaged, and in fact retrained to think properly. However, if my initial goal is that Christ be a part of this youth’s life, I cannot merely bemoan his lack of critical thinking skills and be done with him. I am called to do more.
 Heath White, Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 97–98.
 White, Postmodernism 101, 117.
Selected paragraphs from chapter 3 of Teaching the Faith at Home: What Does This Mean? How Is This Done?, pages 43–50 © 2016 by David L. Rueter. Publishing by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.