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THE SPIRITUAL TREND OF OUR YOUNG PEOPLE'S
REV. CHARLES M. SOUTHGATE, AUBURNDALE, MASS. You will note the limitations of this title. It is not a general estimate of young people's societies, for defence or for criticism; it is not primarily an examination of methods; it is the statement of a single point: the spiritual trend of our young people's societies. Now that is a welcome word! While church clerks and scribes of conference and council are lamenting the decline in members added, scholars attending, and dollars given, this program committee comes to a man and says, “ There is a spiritual trend in our young people's societies;. will you talk about it half an hour?" Whom when we saw, we “ thanked God and took courage.” For it assumes the most vital force of being, at work in a most vital lifecentre.
Just what do we mean by a spiritual trend? Spirituality takes in more than the virtues — honesty, truthfulness, purity; more than the graces to be courteous, generous, “kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another”; it is the source of these. It is the spirit of man having to do directly, personally, with God himself. A trend, of course, is a movement in a certain direction. So that a spiritual trend in young people's societies means that these fresh souls are coming to be more and more familiar with thoughts of the King eternal, immortal, invisible; at home in the chambers of his palace and fond of the heavenly viands which grace the banquet of his love. It means that the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus is making them free from the law of sin and death; that they are coming more and more to mind the things of the Spirit and not of the flesh; are gradually bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit; that they are walking with God, are pleasing God; they worship him in spirit and in truth. This age has received many descriptive adjectives, but I do not remember hearing it called a spiritual age; rather, a materialistic age, commercial, money-loving, pleasureloving; the age of iron, of steam, of electricity; of exploration and expansion; of clubs and federations; anything but a spiritual age. And if our young people in their organizations are actually becoming more spiritual, it is a blessed relief and assurance, for they are the possessors of the future. In the main, as they are to-day, the church will be to-morrow. They are already part of the church, and in estimating its characteristic temper one can as little leave out those between ten and thirty years of age as those between thirty and fifty.
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Yet if we look for certain types of spirituality we shall be disappointed. Who can forget, in this city, that rare saint of God, Edward Payson, with his solemn meditations, long hours of prayer and days of fasting, his searching self-examinations, and the atmosphere of another world which thrilled in his sermons, pervaded his conversation, and breathed about him wherever he moved? You will not find that in our young people, any more than you will find it in the average adult Christian, or, shall we say, in the recognized leaders of the church. For good or for ill, that manifestation of the spiritual mind has ceased to be characteristic. For good or for ill, our conception of God and of the Christian life has changed. Our thought of his almightiness does not set him off over against man in a heaven of bliss from which he looks down, strict to mark iniquity, vouchsafing peculiar and somewhat rare bestowments of grace on those who hold themselves somewhat aloof from this earth's joys and cares. We think of him as pervading all his world with an immediate presence of patient, eager help, and free companionship with willing souls. We have doubtless lost something of awe as we have gained something of nearness, and doubtless need to be watchful in these changes. But in missing certain manifestations we are not to overlook others. Especially in studying young people, we must remember that youths and maidens are not by temperament what we have been accustomed to call spiritually minded ; least of all, boys and girls. Let me give an illustration : At one of the shining beaches of Maine, this summer, when a family were called together for prayers after breakfast, the three boys hung back. It was almost nine o'clock, some special fun was on hand, and the crowd was waiting for them outside. “Father, can't we go without prayers this morning?” The father thought he would give them a little test, so he said : “ Now you are Christian boys; do you really think you can love Jesus just as well, please him in your play, and have him with you just as much without prayers as with them? If you do, you need not stay.” “And,” as he said to me, “ you should have seen those kids scuttle !” But on an afternoon when they had strolled out to a point opposite their cottage, one of those little fellows said: “O mother, I wish Jesus was here now, then we should not have to go clear round, but could walk right across the water.” Here is a question : Are not as many of our young people, our little people, living every day with a happy trust in Christ, trying to please him in study and play and work and duty, as one could find two generations ago? A man does not need to be fifty years old to remember how solitary was the child who joined the church before he was eighteen or twenty; and now look at the crowd there is to welcome him! Christian nurture has its perils ; mature and marked conversion its great advantages. A generation, at least, must pass before we can determine the broad outcome of the present movement. To name a single point, what is the relation, if any, of a teaching which secures early, almost unmarked conversion, to the growing infrequency of the conversion of adults, especially of men? But whatever the need of modification and guidance, it is a blessed thing to find millions of young people and children joyfully owning their allegiance to the divine Master, and plainly growing in favor with God as with man; for youth is the time for the discovery of God and his close presence in his world. Youth is the time for idealizing life, and setting the heart on making that ideal actual. “ Your young men shall see visions.” Visions are the discerning of things loftier and holier than cominon eyes behold. Then, if ever, it is good to live and noble to aspire. To do some generous service, lift some of the world's old burdens, to bear a knightly part, whoever else may be selfish or craven, this is for youth to resolve, or else for no age. Now is the time for the great decision. As one finely puts it: “There is a crisis when every faithful son of God is agitated by a fierce controversy between the earthly and the divine elements of his nature. Self and the flesh seductively whisper, ‘Thou hast a life of many necessities ; earn thy bread and eat it; and pay thyself for all thy trouble, with a warm hearth and a soft bed.' The voice of God thunders in reply: 'Thy life is short, thy work is great, thy God is near, thy heaven is far; do I not send thee forth, armed with thought and speech, and a strong right hand, to contend with the evil and avenge the good ? Indulge no more, or I shall leave thee : do thy best and faint not: take up thy free will, and come with me.' By some such conflict does every great mind quit its ease to serve its responsibilities.” If we can see our youth entering into that controversy, and coming forth crowned with that decision, God knows how we will rejoice; and God knows how we will strive to secure it, and to guide to its rich fulfilment.
With this conception of what it means for our young people to be spiritually minded, it remains to look for such a tendency in our young people's societies. What societies? It will not do to draw our facts from the few we may have known or observed as pastors. We cannot determine a trend from the experience of one year, or five. To make the conclusions worth much, our study must cover a wide range of both locality and time, and we must have their record available for investigation, and here we seem restricted to a single movement, the Young People's Society of Christian Endeavor. In numbers it is immense, societies by the tens of thousands, members by the million. In extent, it is found in every continent and on the scattered islets of the sea. In age it has the record of twenty years. In aim it is distinctively religious, and a spiritual trend should be looked for here if anywhere. The Christian Endeavor Society may or may not have been in the mind of the committee choosing this subject; they may or may not have remembered that Portland has a church dignified with a tablet stating that here was its birthplace. The individual members of this Council may or may not be personally disposed in its favor. But in any case I can find no other group of societies to which to apply the tests of a spiritual movement with the hope of reaching conclusions of sufficient solidity to appear before this body. The subject, then, seems, not to narrow, but to broaden itself to this : The Spiritual Trend in our Young People's Societies of Christian Endeavor.
Their origin leads us to anticipate such a characteristic. The first society was formed by a pastor with a company of young converts about him; he must keep them for Christ; he must lead them to grow up in Christ. A carefully organized society seemed the best means. But what should be its form ? The answer came through a process of selection. Many kinds had been tried by others and by himself. For a while they did run well, then something bewitched them and they fell away. The conclusion was not a hit-or-miss venture, a happy thought, but the outcome of persistent experiment and disheartening failure. Lyceums, literary and social societies, the ordinary young people's meeting, all had been eliminated by the process of exclusion. This remained : a religious
society with a distinctly spiritual aim and a definite pledge, and this was started, its first constitution being practically the constitution of to-day. Those young people looked at it and said, as have so many since, “ It is high ; I cannot attain unto it.” The pastor himself was almost daunted at the demand he was making. “He was afraid” —it is his own confession — that its strenuous pledge would not commend itself to the young people; that they would be afraid of its strictly religious character; that they would not find enough of the oyster supper and pink tea element in it to win their approval; but, ever since, his weak faith and lack of knowledge of young hearts has been rebuked by their acceptance of this constitution and by the loyal adhesion to it of millions of like-minded youth.” It is not our province to deny the value or depreciate the results of other attempts so often and so honestly made, and as little to withhold a welcome from substitutes for or modifications of the Endeavor Societies which seek the same lofty aim. If other forms are found to promise better spiritual results, that fact serves equally to justify the assertion of a spiritual trend. We simply note the fact that this organization, when it finally came into the field, has shown itself possessed of the force, both intensive and extensive, to become the model and inspiration of a movement organized, widespread, for city and village, for north, south, east, west, for church and for jail, for academy and college and camp and battleship, for San Franciso and Shanghai, for Boston and for camps of Boer prisoners in Ceylon and St. Helena; for the vastness of London and for the tiny bits of rock and soil that float like lilies on the bosom of equatorial seas. Societies by the score have been started in faith and nurtured in prayer, by pastors and by the young people themselves, seeking to appeal to the peculiar tastes of the young, or stiff with the conservatism of church dignitaries; but just this one has been able to meet the risen Lord's great command, as singing in response :
I'll go where you want me to go, dear Lord,
I'll say what you want me to say,
I'll be what you want me to be.
And this is just the society which has made the most daring challenge to the spiritual life of young people. This high and definite spiritual aim was the divine vitality in that grain of mustard planted