Soul Searching Among America's Youth

John ArmstrongRenewal

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.