Behind the count

The deficit of social capital and what we can do

Cody Ray Charland | Oct 3, 2011

I’m slowly realizing the effects of my little league baseball career.

Since I didn’t grow up in the church, the dirt diamond was my temple. Every spring, summer and fall were filled with active times of worship with my congregation of teammates and the closest people I would ever have to youth pastors: My volunteer coaches.

And while I can’t remember exactly what they said, I remember their tones, treatment, and teaching. The coaches who yelled a lot, those who were patient, or even the ones who smelled like cigarettes all helped shaped me. (But for the record, I’m not a smoker.)

All adults who interact with adolescents play a critical part in shaping them into adults. Researchers call these intentional relationships “social capital.” Calvin College professor Corwin Smidt defines social capital as any facet of social relations that serves to enable members of society to work together to accomplish collective goals.” [[Corwin Smidt, Religion as Social Capital (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2003), 2.]] In other words, simply being “friends” cannot be considered social capital unless there is also a greater purpose. There must be some form of teaching, leading, and conscious care layered into the bond.

All kids have a vital need for close and intentional relationships with older generations. Yet research suggests that this need is largely going unmet in our society.

Internal Factors of Social Capital

Social capital theorists divide the components that make up this currency into two subgroups: internal and external. Internal factors are any effects that originate within the family unit. In our North American context, the family is traditionally the greatest source of social capital.

Yet families can also threaten kids’ internal social capital in several ways. Families and their structures tend to be in a constant state of flux. Sociologist David Elkind writes, “Research findings about abuse, incest, and addiction in nuclear families together with the sociopolitical revolutions of the 1960’s and 70’s and the astronomical rise in the divorce rate, have all contributed to the postmodern dethronement of the nuclear family.” [[David Elkind, Ties That Stress (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 31.]] As traditional structure diminishes, so does function.

In addition, family time has decreased over the past few decades. Children have lost ten to twelve hours of parental time per week each decade since 1960. [[Elkind, Ties That Stress, 34.]] That time, meant for social capital at its purest (from parents) and original (in addition to siblings and other family members) forms, has created a deficiency in the homes and lives of our adolescents.

When I was nine years old and my parents had recently divorced, my time spent playing baseball increased dramatically. While I quickly found that I wasn’t the next Ken Griffey Jr., I was encouraged by my mom to play even more baseball. Looking back, I now know she wanted to surround me with older males who could lead and teach me. I began to see these coaches as fill-in fathers, if only for a few innings at a time.

External Factors of Social Capital

Most social capital research also seems to indicate a widening relational gap between adolescents and the external factors of social capital, typically meaning adults outside the family. Elkind reports that “adolescents have much less support from the older generation in meeting the demands of the transition to a secure adulthood. And this despite the fact that the demands for today’s adolescents are much more difficult to satisfy than were those of the modern era.” [[Elkind, Ties That Stress, 169.]]

This adult absence has resulted in an over-reliance on another demographic, the peer relationship. The reasons for this split can be traced to one key origin, according to our Fuller colleague Chap Clark: “The young have not arrogantly turned their backs on the adult world. Rather, they have been forced by a personal sense of abandonment to band together and create their own world—separate, semisecret, and vastly different from the world around them.” [[Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 28.]]

The peer “external factor” is one of the most powerful influences in the life of any adolescent. Friends are more influential than ever before. The shift in strength of this new role can be traced to one critical event in the past 100 years: the formation of the mandatory high school. According to historian Thomas Hine, “With the requirement that many adolescents spend a majority of time away from the family and now with other students, high school gave teenagers the chance to set standards of their own.” [[Thomas Hine, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999), 23.]] High school has become the proving grounds of independence for adolescents in our culture.

During my sophomore year of high school, my baseball season lasted from Valentine’s Day to Halloween. Teams became like families because of all the time we spent together with practices, tournaments, and the absurd amount of driving involved. My teammates were easily the most consistent and influential people in my life, sometimes for the worse.

As adults, we often attempt to push teens towards independence and responsibility with every opportunity we can afford. Yet adolescence is a time where kids still need a lot of help from adults. It is a time of confusion, discovery, and growth. Hine writes, “The second decade of life is when one’s personhood becomes defined in terms of the wider world.” [[Hine, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, 304.]] We as a society need to assist this transitional period instead of ignoring or rendering it irrelevant. There is no magic bullet to remedy the issues that adolescents face. Yet, the debt of social capital is one of the main vessels contributing to the problem of systemic abandonment.

How We Can Respond

While we can’t say that the issue of abandonment is the only obstacle to the faith of adolescents, research suggests that abandonment has escalated to the point that the church needs to address it. Churches are one of the best ways to generate social capital both inside and outside of the church body through events, leaders, students, and other outreach focused activities. Here are a few ways we can respond in youth ministry and the broader church to increase social capital in the lives of kids:

1. Raise awareness.
The widespread abandonment happening to adolescents needs to be brought to light in the church. Churches need to acknowledge and welcome the winding road of spiritual, social, and intellectual maturity through adolescence. As Chap notes, “Faith is a long, complex journey, and adolescents need someone who will walk alongside them as long as it takes.” [[Chap Clark, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 189.]]

2. Help adults spend time with students.
Probably the most obvious investment opportunity is for adults to simply spend time with kids. Church can be a place where students safely participate in intergenerational activities that increase social capital. By consistently being in the same environment as adults, kids undergo noticeable positive change. As one set of researchers sums up, “During adolescence, personal integration is facilitated not only by abstract ideology but also by having that ideology lived out in the flesh. Spirituality often provides opportunities for adolescents to interact with peers and build intergenerational relationships as well.” [[Lerner, Phelps, Roeser, Positive Youth Development and Spirituality: From Theory to Research (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), 58.]] In other words, the church can be a community that increases social capital along with increasing faith.

In their research with adolescents, Fuller psychologists Pam King and Jim Furrow found that religiously active adolescents reported higher levels of social interaction and trust with their parents, immediate friends, and the significant adults in their lives. [[Pam King, and Jim Furrow, Religion as a resource for positive youth development: Religion, social capital, and moral outcomes. Developmental Psychology, v40, July 2004: 703-713.]] Further, intergenerational relationships within the church are consistently found to be positive sources of influence in kids’ morality, goals, beliefs and values.

3. Go to Kids.
For decades, parachurch organizations like Young Life and Youth for Christ have been advocates for a “get into their world” approach to evangelism. From the perspective of ministering to the whole kid, entering the lives of kids where they live and interact everyday also helps build their social capital. This, in turn, increases their likelihood for thriving as adolescents and more successfully entering healthy adulthood. Borrowing from the Young Life “contact work” model, [[Chuck Reinhold, Biblical Perspectives on Contact Work.]] adults from all across the church can go to kids in the following ways:

  1. Attending local high school sports, arts, or academic events to root for students.
  2. Becoming coaches, substitute teachers, and tutors.
  3. Creating natural gateways through which students connect to the Body of Christ. In order to do this effectively, adults need to still go to where the adolescents are, but not in just geographical terms. Adults need to find out what teenagers like to do and incorporate that with the primary motive of revealing Christ.

While none of these suggestions are revolutionary, the point is clear: We need to care enough to go and meet kids where they are. As Search Institute’s Peter Benson notes, “It’s not that adults don’t care. Most do. They believe it is important for adults to guide, support, encourage, and be role models. Most just are not actually engaged.” [[Peter Benson, All Kids Are Our Kids. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 207.]] Without this engagement, social capital falls to the wayside. On the other hand, Smidt speaks to the ultimate societal outcomes of increased adult presence in kids’ lives:

“The importance of social capital is tied to its capacity to bind together autonomous individuals into communal relationships. Social capital serves to transform self-interested individuals exhibiting little social conscience and weak feelings of mutual obligation into members of a community expressing shared interests and a sense of the common good.” [[Smidt, Religion as Social Capital, 5.]]

In order to reduce the social capital deficit, adults need to be intentional incarnational witnesses. We need more than just small group leaders, mentors, or coaches. Whole communities of adults need to start intentionally living for adolescents.

Honestly, a lot of the baseball teams I played on were awful. Even Disney couldn’t rescue some of those seasons. Yet on every team, there was a loud, cheering, and encouraging group of adults lathered in sunscreen and bug spray. They were there to support us no matter the outcome. We needed them not only to drive us to the games, but also to help us make it through the long, grueling seasons.

What if the Church was known for this? What if your specific church was that committed to increasing social capital?

Action Points

Where do you see an obvious need for care among the adolescents you know?

  • If you have a support team (volunteers/staff), what would they say?
  • What about the teens you already know? Ask them what kinds of support they need.

What resources do you have to attend to these demands for adolescents?

  • Who or what can help?
  • How can they help?
  • What if these needs go unmet? What happens if they are fulfilled?

What are your goals for increasing social capital?

  • Since social capital is difficult to measure, how will you know if what you’re doing is working?
  • It would help to have a limited number of objectives, to make your goal more practical and attainable.

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Cody Ray Charland

Cody Ray Charland is a second year MATM student at Fuller’s Pasadena campus. He holds a BA in Physical Education from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. As Project Assistant with the Fuller Youth Institute, he handles social media, and helps with writing, technology, and research. He was formerly a Young Life leader as well as Youth Pastor at Port City Community Church in Wilmington, NC. Cody enjoys the outdoors, all things Tar Heel, and barbecue.

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