Congregations, spirituality, and adolescents: a practical theology of becoming and flourishing
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In critical dialogue with the tradition of American Protestant youth ministry in the 20th and 21st centuries, this dissertation aims to generate novel insights into how congregations influence adolescent development and thriving. Using a mixed-methods approach, I explore recent shifts in the focus of the theology and practice of youth ministry in dialogue with the lived experiences of adolescents in mainline churches in the United States. Questions of adolescents in churches are particularly relevant to mainline Protestant congregations that are declining in membership and cultural capital. The questions are also relevant to adolescents who face complex economic, ecological, and social challenges that are unique to the 21st century. Some of these challenges are due to cultural notions that simultaneously idolize and vilify adolescents. To address these issues, I draw on social scientific resources to reconsider the term adolescent, arguing against G. Stanley Hall’s famous definition of adolescence as a time of universal “storm and strife.” Instead, I employ feminist anthropology, Positive Youth Development, and social constructivism to redefine adolescence as part of a lifelong process of becoming. In the dissertation, I begin by tracing the history of adolescence and American Protestant youth ministry since 1900. I then introduce three churches in which I carried out ethnographic work to gain deep insight into the lives of adolescents while clarifying the stakes and outlining concepts that are developed later in the dissertation. Youth ministry practices and theories are embedded within and intersect with social theories, economic theories, denominational histories, and the realities of life in the 21st century. To understand adolescent experience, therefore, I undertake an analysis of adolescent experiences alongside the broader sociocultural and intellectual currents that shape these experiences. I then approach the same questions quantitatively, developing a shared language to render intelligible the different ways adolescents thrive in diverse contexts. I next place the ethnographic and quantitative research in dialogue with several theological and philosophical thinkers, arguing for a non-essentialist view of both religious identity and adolescents that emphasizes pluralism, intersectionality, and the contestation of meaning. I reconstruct adolescence in congruence with a broader view of human becoming, within which connection, human plasticity, and reciprocity are vital. Finally, I suggest that a kenotic ecclesiology can help churches continue to promote the flourishing of adolescents, and indeed, of all living things.