Here in New Bedford, the anti-gay attack at Puzzles bar in the North End sent shock waves through our community. How could an 18 year old man walk into a gay bar to attack the patrons with a handgun and a hatchet just because those men happened to be gay? Right now, many of us in New Bedford are trying to figure out what to do.
Scott Lang, our mayor, has called on churches and other religious communities to provide better support to youth. I’m all in favor of supporting teenagers, but I don’t think it works quite that way.
First of all, research shows that teenagers who go to church are far less likely to engage in risky behaviors of all kinds. The issue is not providing additional support to the teens who are already coming to church, the issue is the large numbers of teens who have no religious affiliation to speak of.
Secondly, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the way we get teens into our churches is to support their families. In a recent article about ministries that support whole families (instead of just supporting, say, youth), Rev. Phil Lund asks a rhetorical question:
…Why are so many of our current youth strategies and programs focused on trying to put the pieces back together after kids are already in crisis rather than on providing the early and continuing nurture that will keep them healthy and whole?
Phil’s answer is that congregations should be what he calls “authoritative communities,” and before you get your back up about that word “authoritative,” let’s find out what Phil really means. Citing a new book titled Hardwired To Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, Phil writes:
Authoritative communities are [multigenerational] groups of people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.
Authoritative communities have 10 key characteristics. Based on careful analysis of both the new science of nurture and the existing child development literature, the Commission on Children at Risk [authors of Hardwired To Connect] identified the following 10 principal characteristics of an ideal authoritative community:
- “Authoritative communities include children and youth.
- They treat children as ends in themselves.
- They are warm and nurturing.
- They establish clear limits and expectations.
- The core of their work is performed largely by nonspecialists.
- They are multigenerational.
- They have a long-term focus.
- They encourage spiritual and religious development.
- They reflect and transmit a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person.
- They are philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all people and to the principle of love of neighbor.” —[Hardwired To Connect]
This might provide a useful model to us here in New Bedford: make sure our churches and religious communities function as this kind of authoritative community.
More to the point for my own church, this should serve to remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing. You don’t come to church when you feel like it so you can hear some good music and maybe an inspiring sermon. You come to church to be a part of a multi-generational community that is shaping the life of the surrounding community, by transmitting what it means to be a good person, and by promoting equal dignity all all persons as set forth in the Golden Rule.
Not that that is easy. But the more of you who show up at church, the easier it will be, and the less likely it will be that we’ll have another incident like the one at Puzzles bar. And no, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, I’m trying to give you a good reason why you should get out of your comfy jammies on Sunday morning, leave behind the crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper, and go out into the cold to come to church. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, I’m telling you that you really do make a difference when you show up.