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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Vol. 30 No. 2  Fall 2003

Challenges to Discernment in Religious Education

Doug Magnuson, Michael Baizerman, and Kristin Lundgren

Dean and Foster1 suggest "discernment"—the ability to "name God’s work in the world"—as the goal of youth ministry, and we would add that it is the goal of any work with youth in religious settings, including education. They describe conceptual problems that get in the way of education in discernment. We believe the problem is not only conceptual; there are also social and cultural challenges to discernment. Discerning God, a vocation, or morality requires a "horizon"2 of intelligibility and coherence through which and against which persons distinguish between God and "not-God," between my vocation and those of others, and between the moral, immoral, and non-moral. As part of a larger study3, we found many examples that illustrate the complexities of discerning God in contemporary society. These examples suggest that religious education has a singular opportunity that secular youthwork and education cannot address.

The Project on Vocation, Work, & Youth Development*

The Project on Vocation, Work, and Youth Development, funded by the Religion Division of the Lilly Endowment, interviewed 135 youth between the ages of 14 and 24 using open-ended, long interviews with the purpose of collecting youth stories about themselves that reveal their self-understanding or self-interpretation in the settings and institutions of their lives: religion, school, work, family, extracurricular activities, and friendships.

The research goal was to explore whether the stories of youth could be interpreted using a philosophical anthropology of "vocation," of persons living in response to a "call," metaphorically or not, with the idea that the theological language of vocation may be a fruitful alternatives to the difficulties of thinking about young people psychologically or sociologically.

The research team chose youth from subcultures where it was thought that useful dimensions of the experience of vocation might be found. The sample categories were a) youth who were members of or associated with churches and their youth programs; b) volunteer members of YouthWorks*Americorps in Minnesota; c) members of Exploring, a national, career awareness and youth development program; d) Hispanic youth living in northern New Mexico; e) youth who demonstrated characteristics of "resilience," thriving in spite of challenging life circumstances and f) youth who struggled in spite of having stereotypically middle-class American advantages. The participants were from every geographic region of the United States, except Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. Seventy-seven were female, 58 were male, 74 were from rural areas, and 61 were from urban or suburban areas. There were 89 Caucasian, 15 African-American, 8 Native-American, and 21 Hispanic participants. Of those youth, 63 expressed some form of religious commitment or familial religious affiliation.

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