The Strength Within: Graduating Student Studies Notions of Identity in Trenton Evangelical Churches

By Tom McLaughlin

As Marcus Woods explains, when researchers study urban youth, they typically focus on negative issues plaguing inner cities, such as violence, drugs, and the lack of opportunities.

“Youth who don’t have these issues are often viewed as anomalies or resilient to these issues,” says Woods, a graduating student in Rutgers University–Camden’s Ph.D. in childhood studies program. “However, there are many urban youth who are making positive choices, and proving that there really isn’t one archetype that accurately depicts these youth.”

Adding another dimension to the existing research, Woods focuses his dissertation on African-American youth members of two storefront, evangelical churches in Trenton, examining how these young people make choices and shape their identities in accordance with the religious culture.

Open bible and christ.“There is an all-too-common trajectory that you hear about and here are youth who have chosen to go a different route because of their faith,” says Woods, a Ewing native and current Philadelphia resident. “They have decided not to do drugs or have premarital sex, and stay in school, and I thought that it was important to understand their basis for making these choices.”

Woods began the intensive, 18-month study with detailed, participant observation. He typically sat in the back of the churches – equipped with a notepad, pen, and computer – and took copious notes on verbal and non-verbal communication and behaviors.

“I was recording details like what was said, the facial expressions, and where people sat in relation to one another,” he says.

The information was then used in part to inform a series of one-on-one interviews with church youth and elders, exploring how these youth perceive their identities and, in turn, are perceived by their elders.

According to Woods, in order to understand how these youth shape their identities, it’s first important to understand the religious context. As he explains, members of these churches make a great effort to distinguish themselves as being separate from the world around them. Believing that they are “saved and sanctified,” they strive to exhibit attributes and qualities that are different from the secular world.

“God saves you, and because of that, you don’t drink or curse, or lose your temper,” he explains. “They believe that there should be distinction between someone who is really religious and not really religious. They should carry themselves a different way.”

Woods discovered that, among the church youth and elders, the perception that youth were less religious was universal across the board. However, they differed on why that was the case. Elders focused on dogmatic reasons, such as youths’ style of dress, how they talk, and their choice of friends. Meanwhile, younger people focused more on their “one-on-one connection” – or lack thereof – with God.

“Younger people weren’t too concerned about their style of dress; to them, it has nothing to do with their spirituality,” says Woods.

marcus-woodsFurthermore, Woods explains, these churches also place a great distinction between the spiritual and physical worlds, with the spiritual superseding the physical. To that end, youth will often resort to tactics that show a greater concern for their spiritual life than their physical wellbein

g, such as fasting from food, videogames, or Facebook.

“They have this idea that if I gave up Facebook for a week then I would get closer to God, because I am showing that I am sacrificing these things that aren’t as important,” he says.

Over the course of the study, Woods also found time and again that the younger church members are very cognizant that “much of their lives are lived in a world where adults are in control.” In light of this, they have come to use music as an important means of exerting their control. Although the church is very hierarchical, he explains, with adults assuming the majority of the official responsibilities, the youth are put in charge of the music. When it is “worship time,” the youth – typically comprised of several singers, a drummer, and a piano player – are welcomed to the front of the room, handed microphones and instruments, and given the opportunity to lead the service.

“Music isn’t just a part of the service that happens; this is a major part of the service where youth are given the power to take over,” explains Woods. “They pick all of the songs, how long they sing, and who is allowed to sing with them. They really dominate the church, even if it’s only temporary.”

Woods also discovered that social media has become vitally important for church youth in establishing their identities. Being more tech-savvy then their elders, they host public Facebook pages for the church and circumnavigate elders by organizing events or practices, such as a group fast or game nights, through social media. Furthermore, Woods notes, he often discovered a disconnect between the personas that youth displayed on social media and in real-life.

“I hadn’t initially intended to study this phenomenon, but after viewing their Facebook pages, I would see that there were those who were very spiritual in real-life but not as much on Facebook, and vice versa,” he says. “This is a different way that they are establishing their identity – of them saying who they are.”

Woods adds that education – especially higher education – is an “unmarked frontier” in these churches, which are comprised of predominantly working-class members. It is generally believed that young people should be educated, but that God’s knowledge is superior to worldly knowledge. Consequently, he says, there is a fine line between getting an education and believing that an education makes an individual smarter than God.

“The secular and spiritual worlds are always in competition, so education becomes this tricky area to navigate,” says Woods.

The graduating Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. student now plans to expand his research by studying these notions of identity for youth in other religions and from other cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

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