The State of Piety in Mainline Youth Ministry

I have been working in mainline Protestant church youth ministry since 2008, and during that time I don’t think I have done much of anything to help young people cultivate a Christian piety*. That’s both bad and good.

First the good.

Piety can easily be equated with the whole of faith in a way that leads the believer to imagine herself in the driver’s seat of her relationship with God and of God’s working in her life. I don’t know how many times I heard, as a pious young adult, that if I didn’t pray regularly or correctly, didn’t spend daily time reading and meditating on the Scriptures, the God “couldn’t” work in my life. There are few things less Christian that the assertion that God’s intervention in our life depends upon the quality of our pious devotion. The gospels are pretty much the story of God’s apprehension of the impious. We call that grace.

Teaching young people to pray and study their Bible as a tool for achieving God’s favor is poisonous to their faith.

Also, the churches I’ve served have not been marked by open displays of personal piety among adult congregants, at least not the kind of displays I was taught as a young adult. The piety in mainline churches differs somewhat from the “daily walk” urged upon the faithful from the evangelical pulpits I’ve sat beneath. It has more to do with corporate worship participation–praying unison prayers and listening to the Word read and proclaimed–than private prayer and devotional reading, and instilling a piety in teenagers that is out-of-step with what the grown ups in their church actually do does only walls them off from adult participation in the congregation.

But the goodness of pious practices should not be overlooked, and I fear, both in my own discipleship and in my shepherding of teenagers, it mostly has been. Maybe as a nervous reaction to the overzealous piety of my own youth, or maybe out of laziness, or maybe even as an attempt to stand firm on the assertion of God’s initiative toward us, without our knowing anything of it or doing anything to earn it, but something has muted the insistence on personal piety.

What characterizes the piety of your congregation? How are young people being taught it?

*Here’s my shorthand definition of “piety”: personal practices that connect the claims of faith with one’s daily experience. In my own experience, daily prayer and Bible reading have been the most prominent elements of personal piety.


3 thoughts on “The State of Piety in Mainline Youth Ministry

  1. hmmm, personal piety. Good question. Bible reading is not one, it is so riddled with ambiguity, old world tribalism, judgement. Verily, I tell onto you, I find the texts alienating and diminishing. I can respond to it in a deeper way by connecting to other peoples observations and responses when they lift out and polish the positives. That’s when pastors are helpful. I am a prayer and service person.

  2. if you want to have your mind stirred a bit about what practices can really change us, read How God Changes Your Brain. amazing stuff. has been making me think that maybe our number one top priority should be helping teenagers develop a 10-minute daily practice of meditation and prayer, followed by a bit of faith-based singing (you’ll see why when you read the book).

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