Face it!
Ed Vitagliano
Ed Vitagliano
AFA Journal news editor

Third in a series.

February 2006 – Recent sociological studies are revealing a growing scandal within American Christianity. Many of our churchgoing teens are not Christian or, perhaps, are marginal believers who profess religious ideas that represent an astonishing departure from historic Christianity.

In fact, large swaths of our teens hold to views that are decidedly pagan, according to study results from University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. (See AFA Journal, 11-12/05, 1/06.)

The pair of researchers reported their findings in a stunning book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. They said, for example, that “57% of Catholic youth maybe or definitely believe in reincarnation, 46% in astrology, 48% in communicating with the dead, and 32% in psychics and fortune-tellers. … On the other hand, 33% of conservative Protestant youth maybe or definitely believe in reincarnation, 33% in astrology, 31% in communicating with the dead, and 21% in psychics and fortune tellers.”

When compared to the clear teachings of Scripture and Christianity, Smith and Denton said numbers like these were “astounding.”

Just as disturbing, according to the Barna Research Group, a polling firm that focuses on religious trends in the U.S., 63% of self-professed Christian teens do not believe that Jesus is the Son of the one true God, and 58% believe all faiths teach equally-valued truths.

How did this spiritual sickness happen and, equally as important, how can it be cured? Many of the problems and solutions can be found in the same places.

Home-grown religion
If “home is where the heart is,” then home is also where the religious heart of a young person is often shaped.

While many parents probably doubt that they have much influence on their teenagers – especially as compared to that of friends or the media – the opposite is actually true, Smith and Denton said.

“Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught by their parents,” the researchers said.

Even in the research for Soul Searching, Smith and Denton found “that the importance of faith for teenagers fairly closely tracks the importance of faith for their parents. Parents for whom religious faith is quite important are thus likely to be raising teenagers for whom faith is quite important, while parents whose faith is not important are likely to be raising teenagers for whom faith is also not important.”

Understanding this truth might be empowering to parents, or even alarming, they said. But it should not be ignored. The state of teenage religious beliefs in this country should be “understood as largely reflecting the world of adult religion, especially parental religion, and are in strong continuity with it. Few teenagers today are rejecting or reacting against the adult religion into which they are being socialized.”

So if the religion of churchgoing teens is increasingly non-Christian, and if their religious beliefs are to a large extent shaped by parents and other Christian adults, what does this say about the religious beliefs of the adults themselves?

In his book, Real teens: A Contemporary Snapshot of Youth Culture, pollster and researcher George Barna reaches the obvious conclusion: “Without a doubt, teen America’s confusion regarding truth is a reflection of the distorted and contradictory teaching … ” they get from the adults in their lives.

Moreover, beyond simply what adults say about religion is the manner in which adults live their lives in front of teenagers. “We may conclude that teenagers don’t think about moral truth often or deeply because they are neither challenged to do so nor is such behavior modeled for them,” Barna said. “Their attitudes suggest that they have a sneaking suspicion that this is a vital issue, but without the people they can trust and imitate devoting themselves to the matter, they have no trouble ignoring the issue.”

The critical importance of parents, then, is why Smith and Denton suggested that “the best way to get most youth more involved in and serious about their faith communities is to get their parents more involved in and serious about their faith communities” (emphasis in original). 

That would mean, they said, that instead of thinking of youth ministry in isolation, “our findings suggest that overall youth ministry would probably best be pursued in a larger context of family ministry, that parents should be viewed as indispensable partners in the religious formation of youth.”

In the end, they insisted, parents “most likely will get from teens what they as adults themselves are.”

Church’s failure
As for their churchgoing lives outside the home, teenagers actually have a positive view of their religious communities. Soul Searching revealed that “the vast majority of teens find their religious congregation to be a warm and welcoming place for youth.” 

Most churchgoing teens, for example, viewed adults in their congregations as sincere believers and not at all hypocritical. These youth had also had positive experiences when speaking with their minister “about a personal question or problem.” And with regard to matters such as family problems, alcohol or troubles at school, “most attending teens (70%) rate their congregation as a very good or fairly good place to talk about such serious issues.”

But this does not contradict the main thesis of Soul Searching, which is that many teens view religion as a therapeutic endeavor, more for their own personal growth and development than as something which brings them into closer communion with God. In this view of Christianity, repentance and faith in Christ have been replaced by feeling good about oneself and being a good person; absolute truth is exchanged for  relativism; and knowledge of Biblical doctrine is displaced by the rather ethereal view that all religious belief – or even no religious belief – is basically the same. 

If church leaders are disturbed to discover that this decidedly non-Christian faith is inhabiting the hearts of their youth, Smith and Denton suggested they take a long, hard look at the way they approach the education of teenagers.

The researchers stated: “Our distinct impression is that very many congregations and communities of faith in the United States are failing rather badly in religiously engaging and educating their youth.”

How can churches improve?
So what do Smith and Denton suggest churches do in order to bring their teens into a more genuine and vibrant experience of the Christian faith? Based on their research, the authors of Soul Searching propose the following (among other recommendations):

 Make teens a priority. While it might seem to make sense for churches to focus ministry on the people who pay the bills – that is, adults – ignoring teenagers or putting little priority on them can spell spiritual disaster for those youth.

“Religious congregations that prioritize ministry to youth and support for their parents, invest in trained and skilled youth group leaders, and make serious efforts to engage and teach adolescents seem much more likely to draw youth into their religious lives and to foster religious and spiritual maturity in their young members,” Soul Searching said. 

The authors added: “Stated negatively, when religious communities do not invest in their youth, unsurprisingly, their youth are less likely to invest in their religious faith.”

• Don’t apologize for religious instruction. Smith and Denton surmised that there is a hesitancy among many Christian adults to speak about their faith in a confident manner. But they insisted, “Faith communities have no reason to apologize for or be insecure about teaching their youth.”

In fact, teens are already familiar with adult confidence in other matters, so this apparent insecurity about matters of religion struck the researchers as puzzling. “Adults do not hesitate to direct and expect from teens when it comes to school, sports, music, and beyond,” they said. “But there seems to be a curious reluctance among many adults to teach teens when it comes to faith. Adults often seem to want to do little more than ‘expose’ teens to religion.”

But this approach to matters of faith fails to take into account the manner in which youth learn. It is not so much from a vague wave-of-the-hand in the direction of truth, but rather the clear presentation – by word and deed – of what adults truly believe.

“Teens learn everything they know from someone, somewhere,” Smith and Denton said. “Many youth actually consciously do want to be taught; they are open to being influenced by good word and example.”

 Expect teens to articulate their faith. One of the most striking things about interviewing teenagers about their faith, Smith and Denton said, was how inarticulate young people were about the most basic aspects of Christianity. 

This shortcoming was, they suspected, the fault of church leaders who failed to engage teens in vibrant discussions about their faith.

“We were astounded by the realization that for very many teens we interviewed, it seemed as if our interview was the first time any adult had ever asked them what they believed,” Soul Searching said.

Adults should not only busy themselves with teaching the precepts of the Christian faith, but also “expecting meaningful responses from [teens].”

The expectation from adults that teens could learn and then express their own faith would arise as Christian educators gave opportunity for self-expression.

“A major challenge for religious educators of youth, therefore, seems to us to be fostering articulation, helping teens to practice talking about their faith, providing practice at using vocabularies, grammars, stories, and key messages of faith” (emphasis in original).

 Invest time in teens. None of these suggestions, of course, are easy to implement, nor could they be implemented without sacrifice on the part of adults. 

“Adults should be aware, however, that better adult teaching of youth will require stronger adult relationships with youth. More important in the effective religious teaching of teens than, say, new pedagogical techniques will be the building of sustained, meaningful, personal adult relationships with the teens they teach,” Smith and Denton said. “This will require investments of time, attention, and readiness to be open and vulnerable with teens.”

However, if Christian adults insist on remaining detached from their teens, or little interested in their spiritual development beyond a halfhearted effort to expose teens to religion, the church will risk losing the greater part of an entire generation of young people.

Refusing to change – in the face of growing evidence of the need for it – might then be the greatest scandal
of all.  undefined 

Engaging and educating … how can churches (and parents) improve?
• Make teens a priority.
• Don’t apologize for religious instruction. 
 Expect teens to articulate their faith.
 Invest time in teens. 

(From Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers)