Rituals can offer religious foundation to children

Special to Lowcountry LifeApril 21, 2012 

Parenting must be the hardest job in the world -- especially with so many trends to consider. Is educational programming on television bad for developing brains? Should food always be organic and local, or will someone one day determine that chicken nuggets are healthy?

The parents I encounter wrestle with these types of decisions daily -- not out of fear their children will one day write a memoir about how high fructose corn syrup destroyed their lives, but because they simply want happiness and success for their kids.

The latest trend in religion is saying that you're "spiritual but not religious." The claim is that the ritual of religion obscures the core values of the faith. Besides, families are so busy these days, why add another commitment when you can just pray on your own?

I imagine this must be a struggle for parents. Forcing broccoli and piano practice is hard enough, why take on something intangible like religion? Does it even make a difference?

In 2002, the National Study of Youth and Religion began a survey of more than 3,000 teens via phone and 267 in face-to-face interviews. They discovered a difference in religious teens, who tend "to hold more traditional sexual and other values than their nonreligious counterparts and are better off in emotional health, academic success, community involvement, concern for others, trust of adults and avoidance of risky behavior."

Religion is certainly not a magic answer to all the challenges of adolescence, but these statistics do seem to reinforce what we observe in kids who are involved in their congregations.

But what about the idea that Christian religious practice obscures who Jesus is? That the rituals distract from relationship? While there are certainly some things people do in the name of religion that either distract or obscure who Jesus is, it's important to examine the words of Christ and not the actions of his followers. Christ told Peter, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it ..." (Mathew 16:18). Christ would later instruct the apostles to "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mathew 28:19-20). Establishing a church and making disciples are not the words of someone who wants us to pursue a relationship on our own terms.

In my life, I have seen the benefits of ritual in religion -- especially through the tumultuous years of adolescence. Many times, as a teenager, I would wake up on Sunday morning and have no desire to go to church. The thought of praying on my own seemed very enticing. However, the beauty of religion is that it demands obedience to someone other than ourselves. It's not about self-discovery -- although that is often a nice side-effect. It's about discovering our call to love and give of ourselves.

This begins when we embrace the "ritual," the actions that have been passed down to us since biblical times.

This is why the statistics about religious teens make sense--and why it makes sense to encourage teens to pursue religion, even when it's a challenge to get them out of bed on Sunday mornings. The rituals of religion give teens a foundation and framework on which to build their relationship with God, an identity in which to find confidence when life is full of uncertainties.

Columnist Alison Griswold is the director of youth ministry at St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church. Follow her at twitter.com/alisongriz. Read her blog at www.teamcatholic.blogspot.com.

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