Most American teens indicate that religious faith is very important in their lives. That is truly good news. In addition, they are far more influenced by the religious beliefs and practices of their parents and other adults than is commonly thought. The bad news is that religion is deprioritized and poorly understood by teens. This is the conclusion of Christian Smith, the Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor and Associate Chair of Sociology at the University of North Carlina, in the much acclaimed new book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Smith’s study is based upon the most extensive and ambitious national study ever conducted among American teens about their religious and spiritual lives. Kendra Creasy Dean, the author of another important study of youth, calls Soul Searching "a bombshell, and that is one long overdue." It shows, she says, that our assumptions about youth and religion have bene profoundly wrong. Instead of finding general apathy or hostility the study shows are that America’s teens are very interested in faith. There is further good news here, again news that might surprise some. The study shows a very strong correlation between religious commitment and positive social behavior. But the bad news is really bad if the church doesn’t get the message and act upon it.

Disturbingly significant trends show that these spiritually hungry teens are theologically illiterate. A generation of me-centered parents and spiritual leaders in the churches have taught these kids to think of God as a "private butler." The study reveals that we are undergoing a major transformation of faith across the board and this sea change is particularly prominent among our youngest adults. Youth are moving away from "the substance of historical religious traditions and toward a new and quite different faith." Smith calls this, quite appropriately I believe, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

To cite only one conclusion of Soul Searching, whether it is spiritual seekers or the religiously devoted it makes little difference. The majority of teens have an inclusive, pluralistic and individualistic view of both truth and the need for religious community. This trend is true even among America’s most strict and conservative faiths. Oddly enough, about 97% of teens do not mix and match religious faiths but follow only one. And parents still play a vital role in the one chosen. But the end result is that most end up with a view of God and faith that is widely divergent from that of historical and confessional categories. It seems apparent that the spiritual chickens of the boomer generation are now coming home to roost. Who can doubt that we need a great spiritual awakening among our youngest people? But I submit that a spiritual awakening, without a much needed reformation in terms of strong and articulated biblical doctrine, will only make things worse.

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  1. Michael Craven May 27, 2005 at 8:04 am

    This raises one of the most significant areas of concern for the Church in America; or at least it should be.
    My own experience with youth across the country is that they are tired of being talked down to, patronized, and entertained to death on matters of serious religious and meta-physical questions. They are looking for substantive answers and unfortunately finding very few within so many of today’s church’s that have embraced pop culture as a “tool” for reaching youth.
    Many youth leaders agree but find themselves bound within bureaucratic structures that only emphasize “big event” evangelism to the exclusion of just sitting down, opening the Word and reasoning together.

  2. Gene Redlin May 27, 2005 at 10:30 am

    Another blogger I admire very much is Julie Niedlinger.
    She wrote what I thought was the definitive comment regarding youth ministry in the church today. Follows:
    Sunday, October 31, 2004
    The way to God isn’t gross
    Mom and I drove two vehicles of kids to a party at a church in Devils Lake tonight. In an effort to keep an eye on them and make certain that none sneaked out of the building while under our watch, I stationed myself at the entrance with a book. (Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer – a riveting read so far).
    I had to suffer through high school kids coming in, listening and observing them and wondering how on earth anyone gets past that age. They do the most ridiculous things when they are surrounded by friends and feel invincible…and do they know any other word but “like”?
    Jim Vilandre, a local singer, had a concert for the kids after some games. He did a good job, and every kid got a free CD of his on their way out the door. I thought that was generous.
    But back to the “games”. One of the games was bobbing for apples in a fish tank filled with gold fish. Never mind the puke factor with all the saliva in the water…afterwards a bunch of kids went on stage and sucked down the live fish.
    OK. That is disgusting. I don’t even want to get into a fish’s bill of rights or anything…it’s just gross. Church youth activities seem to have the highest disgust and gross-out factor on the earth. It’s like this weird subculture that evangelical kids raised in youth groups get so used to, that ends up being a really bizarre thing. The grossest skits, the grossest things done by youth pastors, the grossest contests…do they teach this at Bible college before youth pastors are allowed to leave?
    “Son, we won’t give you this diploma unless you do three of the following to prove you’re ready to work with youth:
    1. shave half your head/beard
    2. bleach/dye hair/beard
    3. eat live fish/insects/worms
    4. drink a cupful of spit
    5. anything abnormal with jello
    6. etc.
    You do this, and you’re in. You’re ready to spread the word of God through gross-out and imbecilic games that will keep the kids attention for a while but eventually wear thin until you only have young junior highers show up and the high schoolers quit coming because of a lack of maturity and serious thought that they are secretly looking for. Here’s your diploma.”
    I understand it was a party and not a youth meeting or Bible study, so I’ll not freak out too much.
    But if you were raised in an evangelical youth group, you know what I’m talking about.
    They ain’t teachin’ apologetics, baby.
    posted by Julie Neidlinger on 11:37 PM
    I’m still practicing doing a live link, check it out, she’s a bright young lady.

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