It added that "religiously committed teenagers are more likely to volunteer in the community. They are more likely to participate in sports and in student government. More generally, these young people appear to have higher self-esteem and more positive attitudes about life."

If America continues to secularize the environments in which children are raised, Hardwired insisted that teens will pay the price. "Denying or ignoring the spiritual need of adolescents may end up creating a void in their lives that either devolves into depression or is filled by other forms of questing and challenge, such as drinking, unbridled consumerism, petty crime, sexual precocity, or flirtations with violence," the report said.

Authoritative Communities

The key solution to the problems facing our children and youth, according to the commission, is what it called authoritative communities.

"Authoritative communities are groups that live out the types of connectedness that our children increasingly lack," the report said. "They are 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."

Among the characteristics that define an authoritative community: It is a social institution that is warm and nurturing; establishes clear limits and expectations; is multigenerational; has a long-term focus; reflects and transmits a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person; encourages spiritual and religious development; and is philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all persons and to the principle of love of neighbor.

The commission stated: "We believe that building and strengthening authoritative communities is likely to be our society's best strategy for ameliorating the current crisis of childhood and improving the lives of U.S. children and adolescents."

It is startling to see a scientific body make such a resolute call for a change in public policy that, among other things, praises the role of religion in our culture. And the commission's report seemed to understand the uniqueness of the approach it had recommended: "For what may be the first time, a diverse group of scientists and other experts on children's health is publicly recommending that our society pay considerable more attention to young people's moral, spiritual, and religious needs."

A Challenge to the Church

The model of authoritative communities presented by the commission members should look at least vaguely familiar to Christians -- because it sounds suspiciously like the New Testament model of church life.

Thus, as heartening as it may be for Christians to see a scientific body give a "thumbs up" to religion, the recommendations made by the Commission on Children at Risk in its Hardwired report present a challenge to the Christian church.

Is the church providing these things? Is it, in fact, an authoritative community, or is church more of a social club? According to the scientific data collected in Hardwired, only one of those models will help our young people. Children and teenagers need to have a wider circle of relationships intertwined in their lives to help underscore the values that, hopefully, they're getting at home.

This challenge to the church is a twist on the old joke that portrayed scientists as climbing a mountain -- a metaphor for knowledge -- only to discover at the top that the theologians were there all along. The story is sometimes used by Christians in a smug manner to indicate that believers have the truth, and they are simply waiting for scientists to discover that for themselves -- taking the long road, of course.

However, the church continues to lose ground in our culture -- and lose its youth to the world. The embarrassing reality could be that, at least in terms of understanding the principles of community, Christians will scale the mountain and find that the scientists were waiting for us.


Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is news editor for AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article appeared in the January 2005 issue.

A copy of Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities is available for $7 from the Institute for American Values, 1841 Broadway, Suite 211, New York, NY 10023, phone: 212-246-3942, Internet: www.americanvalues.org, E-mail: info@americanvalues.org.

© 2005 Agape Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.