Any religion without intentional practices that lead to identity development and without at least a rudimentary ethic is nothing more than a system of justification that benefits the believer primarily in the area of assurance or mental health. I was reminded of this idea at lunch today with the Reverend. We were talking about youth ministry in particular, but recent developments in Southern Baptist membership and lack of growth, as well.
The idea occurred to me during another interminable conversation about what constitutes a reasonable definition of "Christian" with students. The conversation usually begins with a discussion about self-identification, and this is what triggered the memory today. The SBC is considering altering their constitution to narrow the definition of what kinds of churches qualify as cooperating churches. In short, deviations from the Baptist Faith & Message could possibly be addressed by disfellowshipping, including issues like women's roles and sexuality (no surprise there).
The Executive Committee of the SBC wants to clarify what it means to self-identify as a Southern Baptist church. That is not a bad idea, quite frankly, but more on that in a bit. What I find somewhat amusing is that the venerable old Baptist traditions of church autonomy and the priesthood of the believer are being abrogated by what is clearly an attempt to establish orthodoxy by means of creedalism (the BF&M is a creed, folks) and what amounts to a Baptist interdict--the ancient papal tool of excommunication of an entire population.
This is, of course, a terrible way to engender identity formation, but since the fundamentalist usurpation of SBC leadership--now more than 30 years ago--coercion has been the primary means of crowd control and enforce orthodoxy in the SBC. Mohler and Patterson may not like each other, but they are shockingly similar creatures with similar methods; they just happen to be arguing for different versions of orthodoxy on a Reformed versus Baptist axis, both of which do in fact qualify as a version of traditional Christianity.
So, a point of agreement referenced earlier. Self-identification is most often a terrible idea, but we chafe at the idea of not allowing it. The American gospel for sure includes the doctrine that all people are endowed with the right of self-determination. I won't disagree with that, but I will say that self-determination is most decidedly not the same thing as self-identification. As a journalist I'm often force to allow an interviewee to tell me what faith she practices, from bacon sandwich-eating Muslims, to flag-waving Christians, to sabbath-ignoring Jews, if a person says he is something, he is that thing. That's how Americans do self-identification.
This is problematic precisely because it allows each individual to determine for herself the content of a particular faith. Why even practice the faith if you have no intention of actually practicing the faith? Why construct a new religion and simply borrow the vocabulary of a traditional faith? Why not join the millions of others who have simply walked away and taken up residence in a metaphysical cafeteria of options where new, individualized faiths can be tailored, much like a playlist or vacation itinerary?
I have no issue with the SBC wanting to clarify what it means to be Baptist, but in truth, they abandoned actual Baptist principals a long time ago. The leadership and the overwhelming majority of the pastors should simply stop calling themselves Baptist; it's laughable that they attach their movement to John Smyth and Roger Williams, but that is certainly their right. No one can enforce historical orthodoxy, and conservatives have been taking the Lord's name in vain for a long time when it comes to truth telling.
My larger concern in the conversation was about youth ministry, though, especially as it relates to identity formation. I asked the Reverend how it was possible for an entire industry to get something so utterly wrong. How does evangelical Christianity have a methodology of youth ministry that is guaranteed to fail, but that can support entire ancillary ministries: magazines, conferences, M.Div. programs, books, mission trips, music and musicians? How do they not understand that unless you actually encourage identity formation those kids will leave within a year or two of leaving home?
I get them in my classes all the time, and they don't even know what they are supposed to believe, such that the self-identification question leads inexorably to Christian students realizing that the answers they have been given are insufficient to actually answer hard, hostile questions. They have no idea how to sketch the parameters of Christianity and Christian belief in such a way that Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestantism in all its riot of diversity all qualify in a big tent way as Christian. They have learned the most anemic form of revivalist dogma, such that Christianity is individual salvation, and ethics, if mentioned at all, are only meant to reveal how desperately bad we humans are, and how awesome Jesus is for saving us. Never mind actually following Jesus. Don't let anything inside your vagina until you're married and don't be gay, and you have parsed the entirety of youth ministry Christian ethics.
Identity formation is difficult. It takes years, and it takes modeling and mentoring. It takes a commitment to a way of being in the world that is antithetical to rapid growth and feel-good revivalism. (If evangelicals understood how much they are shaped by revivalism, they would change their tactics, at least I hope they would.) The entire methodology of youth ministry right now, which seems to consist of inane worship times where individualism and bloody Jesus are front and center, bad apologetics where answers for questions that will never be asked are given, proselytizing where the Billy Sunday/Hybels/Warren/Bright models dominate, and the elevation of social/sexual issues to the pinnacle of theological importance, is guaranteed to create not people whose identity is formed as Christian, but people whose identity is formed as nominally Christian, and only in terms of soteriology. All the rest is a matter of how I, as a Christian, define Christianity. Absent a robust understanding of faith, and more importantly, actual practice of the faith, these kids will not survive college with their faith intact, and if they do, they will not learn what they ought in college, as they will spend a good percentage of class time trying to gather the tattered remnants of a faith that answers nothing except, "Where will you go when you die?"