Getting inside the heads of MB teens

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Survey suggests today’s teens less influenced by culture

by Norman Thiesen and John-Michael Thiesen

Norman Thiesen, currently professor of counseling at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, wants to know how attitudes and behaviors among Mennonite Brethren youth change through the years. To find out, he has surveyed MB youth at the same Mennonite high school each of the last four decades. The results give a glimpse into the minds of the next generation. 

The survey replicates the social and moral behavior areas of a 1968 national study on American youth, published by Zuck and Clark in “Christian Youth: An In-depth Study.” Although the language is now dated, Thiesen retains it for the sake of consistent comparison.

Thiesen calls the overall results of the 2008 survey “encouraging” and speculates that MB youth today are more willing to conform to scriptural standards and less influenced by surrounding culture. At the same time, he cautions against over-generalizing the results, pointing out that the survey uses a small sample size from a limited geographical region and may not represent all MB youth. Results are tabulated in percentages and do not necessarily indicate statistical significance. Furthermore, he points out, the responses indicate only the opinions of youth, not necessarily actual behaviors.

Following is the 2008 report, organized into five categories: social behaviors, social and political issues, dating and marriage, sexual behaviors and adherence to scriptural commands.

Social behaviors

Not surprisingly, attending movies at a theater has become nearly entirely acceptable among MB youth, with a 99 percent approval score, an increase of over 30 percent from the 1968 survey. Conversely, the connotations of watching late TV have increased in negativity, with an approval of only 69 percent and a significant rise in disapproval since 1968. 

This loss of approval of late TV is difficult to explain. One possible reason is that with the increase in cable TV and adult programming, late TV shows are assumed to be less acceptable. At the same time, movies are clearly no longer an issue for our youth. It is possible that movies are seen as more acceptable because there is a choice, whereas there is little variety in late TV.

While dancing has found general approval among MB youth, a significant number still question its acceptance for Christians. Overall approval of dancing has increased, but it is still below the 98 percent approval rate, and over twice as many youth disapprove this decade than in 1968. It also remains the highest in uncertainty of the social behaviors. I believe social dancing will continue to grow in acceptance, but due to the innate sexual tension of dancing it may never enjoy the same approval as movies.

Drinking and smoking have remained largely disapproved of by a significant majority of youth. This may be due in part to responses from a bygone Christian era, since few today would openly argue that Scripture teaches against drinking or smoking. Drinking in excess is undeniably wrong, though drinking in moderation is a matter of personal preference. Smoking can only be argued against for health reasons, but the same argument would apply to being overweight; I doubt 85 percent of young people would say it is wrong to be obese. Perhaps a defining question distinguishing between moderate and excessive drinking would provide more insight in future questionnaires.

One interesting observation is that in all areas except movies, the acceptance percentages have dropped and the disapproval percentages have risen from 1998 to 2008. From 1968 to 2008 the only areas showing marked increase in acceptance were movies and dancing.

Social and political issues

Though racial attitudes are changing across American culture, the attitudes of MB youth toward living in an integrated neighborhood and/or attending an integrated Sunday school class have not. It would seem that discrimination of some level still exists within about 10 percent of our youth and has remained relatively constant for the past 40 years. Interracial marriage, on the other hand, has increased in acceptance by over 55 percentage points since 1968, though little in the last decade. Still almost 10 percent feel it is wrong and one in seven are uncertain as to its acceptability.

It is difficult for me to explain why approval of integration is not 100 percent. For acceptance to rise only a few percentage points in this area over the past 40 years is deeply disappointing for me and, I hope, for the MB community at large. The natural question is, on what basis are our youth declaring disapproval or uncertainty? For a modern Christian to derive this bias from Scripture would be truly shocking and display a disturbing trend in biblical understanding.

Interracial marriage should enjoy 100 percent approval as well. While there are practical issues involved in interracial marriage, there is no violation of Scripture. For the good news, the approval in this area has increased over 55 percent in the past four decades—a move in the right direction. We can only pray and seek to better train our youth to view all of humankind as equal creations in the image of God our Father.

Holding political office and serving in the armed forces is generally accepted by over 80 percent of the youth. Acceptance of military service for Christians has risen by 20 percentage points since 1968. Our traditional separation in these areas seems to be greatly diminished. Other socio-political MB distinctions of the past seem to be fading or at least not viewed with such former negativity. Serving in the armed forces has become an issue of personal conscience instead of moral right/wrong, which I believe is a positive change for our youth.

Views on capital punishment have remained relatively unchanged in 40 years.

There is also a marked trend showing a renewed respect for law and authority. Driving beyond the speed limits finds its highest disapproval with this group and has increased markedly in disapproval compared to the past two surveys. Showing disrespect to teachers and damaging property have remained stable throughout the past four decades. So while some issues in this category reflect poorly on our youth, others provide encouragement for their future.

Dating and marriage
One pleasant surprise was an apparent move toward a conservative/traditional approach in some areas of dating and marriage. Kissing on the first date has the lowest approval and highest disapproval of the past four decades. This is a fairly dramatic difference with the 1988 youth, who approved at the 75 percent mark with less than 10 percent disapproving. Going steady before age 16 shows the same pattern. Dating a non-Christian also finds its lowest approval and highest disapproval with the present generation. In fact, it has dropped almost 25 percentage points since 1968. This appears to be a movement in a more conservative direction.

Attitudes toward dating and marrying a Roman Catholic have not changed dramatically throughout the years, though marrying a Catholic is far more acceptable and has less disapproval than in 1968. This could signify greater interaction with Catholics or a recognition that within the Catholic Church there is a definite “born-again” segment.

Marrying a non-Christian and marrying before 16 also have not changed significantly over the years, though only two-thirds think it outright wrong.

In all categories, expect marrying before 16, around 25 percent of the youth are uncertain as to the appropriateness of behaviors in this area. Also of interest, within this category the lowest disapproval and highest approval is in the 1988 group.

Perhaps the excesses of the past for which our generation was responsible have been shown through time to be hollow and unfulfilling, encouraging more responsible behavior. This is only my perception of the matter, and those who work regularly with youth today may be able to shed better light.

My major concern in this area is that only two out of three consider marriage to a non-Christian as wrong. This is in direct defiance to the clear scriptural injunction against being unequally yoked together. It also indicates, sadly, that young people do not recognize the importance of common belief structures for a successful marriage. In regard to Roman Catholics, insofar as we may consider many to be saved, the issue of being unequally yoked is non-applicable. Yet the same problem of belief structures, especially those relating to our understanding of Biblical beliefs and behaviors is still valid. The greater the differences here, the less wise the relationship, even if they fall within the category of believers.

Sexual behaviors
Petting and necking before marriage finds its lowest approval and highest disapproval in this generation. Telling off-color jokes is twice as acceptable in 2008 as it was in1968, but it remains unacceptable to almost three quarters of our youth. All other categories have remained relatively stable throughout the years evidencing only a minor fluctuation in percentages.

This area also surprises me when compared with other surveys of American youth and their sexual behaviors. One explanation is these responses reflect merely ideals and do not express the real behaviors of our youth. It is also possible that the greater openness and willingness to deal with sexual issues in the church is paying off. This is another area in which I must concede an explanation to others more specialized in working with today’s youth.

Immoral thinking, filthy joking and premarital sex are all explicitly disapproved of in Scripture. Youth have not changed much in their disapproval of these areas in the past 40 years. Masturbation, which is not directly addressed in Scripture, has a surprisingly high disapproval.

Scriptural commands
Losing one’s temper is now disapproved of by less than 30 percent. Over half either approve or are uncertain as to its appropriateness. Giving less than a tenth has the highest approval of the four decades. In all other categories the fluctuations from 1968 to 2008 are relatively minor. The largest fluctuations are with the 1988 and 1998 youth. 

If we are to agree that each question from this section is relating to a scriptural command, then we must also wonder why the disapproval rate is not 100 percent for each question. I question the survey authors’ original decision to categorize some of these issues as commands. For example, I am not confident that personal devotions and giving fall under strict command in the New Testament. They ought to be done, but the amount or time is never dictated. Other areas I would hold as commands and wonder why they find such high acceptance within our youth.

Final thoughts
Though some matters of discouragement are present, I must conclude the overall results are encouraging. We can only trust that the actual behaviors of our youth are consistent with their expressed standards and beliefs. We cannot accurately apply these results as a generalization for the greater MB youth of America, but it is my hope that they are representative in some manner. 

Either way, it appears at least the surveyed youth are no longer as intensely influenced by the surrounding secular culture as those in the 1960s. In contrast, in some areas we see great conformity to Scriptures with the youth of this generation. That is something to celebrate and hopefully increase in the next decade.

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