A Faith of Their Own, Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents

We have reviewed Soul Searching by Christian Smith, and Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean, and this book A Faith of Their Own form a trilogy of studies which have grown out of the study led by Christian Smith, The National Study of Youth and Religion. The authors were involved in that study and have taken them to the findings to deeper conclusions. The NSYR refers to the largest study to date on the American teenager between 13-17 years.

Christian Smith concluded that while contrary to popular opinion that young people were turned off to religion, they were actually quite religious; however he described their religion as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Dean used the phrase “almost Christian” to describe that same group of 3, 370 teenagers. Now Pearce and Denton write about the need for these teenagers to develop a faith of their own.

The authors write, “It is time we set aside the overly vague and misleading notion that adolescence is a time of dramatically declining religiosity. Instead, we must focus on appreciating the complexities of how adolescents experience and live religion across time and better recognize the role of parents, social networks, and religious institutions in supporting and challenging religious refinement in adolescence.”

Whether the adolescent appears to be religious or not, they are quite religious but they may not express their religion by attending church or other religious institutions. It is not unreal, they conclude, for a teenager to rarely attend a religious service and yet consider themselves quite religious.

Growing out of their studies Denton and Pearce have described five categories of adolescents that shed light on their religious and spiritual aspects of their lives. Teenagers need to come to grips with a faith of their own, but they need help from parents who are the most influential in their lives and other adults. They need to dialogue with and be listened to by the adult generation. Many teenagers go through those years on their parent’s faith but do not own it for their own; therefore as they reach young adulthood, their religion is not sufficient to sustain them.

The authors, in pursuing their research, underscore the importance of listening to and then responding to the teenagers’ thoughts about religion. They write, “By listening to youth talk about their faith we gain more insight into their own perceptions of religious stability and change in their lives.” This emphasis reminded me of something said by the late Francis Schaeffer in response to a question.”If I have one hour to spend with someone, I would listen for 55 minutes and then respond for the next five.”

With teenagers, studies show that while they want more time with their parents, most parents spend around three and one half minutes talking to their children daily. Parents do not know how to communicate effectively with their children thus robbing them of tremendous opportunities to dialogue with their young people.

When you put the three books together, including A Faith of Their Own, we realize that young people consider themselves very religious; however, this may communicate a false message to us because of their moralistic therapeutic deism, or almost being a Christian, or of not having a faith of their own, that is, a faith they own as their own. The bottom line according to the authors, “By taking seriously the ways that youth view their own religious lives, adults may be better able to meet youth wherever they are in the process of religious refinement and guide, challenge, and support them through the process.”

This is an important book because it focuses on the next generation and their religious and spiritual lives. Kenda Dean writes regarding this book, “If you know and love a teenager, you’re going to need this book.” I agree and therefore commend it to you.

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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