Soul Searching, the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers

This is a strategic book. If I could, I would send a copy to every teaching elder in the PCA. It so clearly explains one of the main reasons why I wrote Making Kingdom Disciples, A New Framework. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University describes Soul Searching as extremely important and “the most ambitious study ever conducted among American teenagers about their religious and spiritual lives.” Donald E. Miller says, “this book is a landmark study of the religious attitudes and practices of American teenagers.”

Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at University of North Carolina, is one of the rising stars in the field of academia and he is also connected with the PCA. His earlier books have demonstrated his expertise as a respected scholar, researcher and Christian.

Earlier this year we reviewed the book Hurt by Chap Clark, which was an assessment of many studies and conclusions about the rising generation. Early in 2004 we reviewed a book by George Barna, Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions. They basically concur in their conclusions. We are failing the rising generation, at least within the church. This book by Smith, representing four years of research, study and evaluation of teenagers between ages thirteen and seventeen over a four year period, funded by the Lilly Foundation, not only verifies the earlier books but adds another dimension.

Soul Searching deals with the place of religion in the life of the teenager. Of the 3,350 teenagers studied from across the country, they found that teenagers were not anti-religious nor did they have to be taken to church against their will. During the teen years, they were interested in religion but not too much of it. They believe in a creator God. They also believe that God is there to help in time of crisis but does not get involved in their day-to-day lives. They believe in right and wrong but do not know how to make that determination.

They found that the people having the greatest influence and impact in the teenagers’ lives were their parents. Teens generally copied the lifestyle of their parents. That was a second nuance of importance, along with their interest in religion. When asked where they learned their faith and the things they believe, teenager after teenager said, “from my parents.” Some even mentioned the influence of the church in their lives.

The study included the following statistics, “three quarters of U. S. teens between 13-17 years old are Christians…about half Protestant and one-fourth are Catholic.” “Christianity, in other words, still very much dominates American religion numerically at the level of teenage affiliation.” The study even revealed, “many nonreligious U. S. teens believe in God, attend church, and pray.” Another interesting finding was that most teenagers do not mix or match their religion, that is they affiliate with one religion or no religion.

They found that among the different groups studied, Mormons were most likely to hold to the religious beliefs of their parents with conservative Protestants second, followed by mainline Protestant Catholics and black Protestant teens. Jewish teenagers ranked fifth though a majority do “lean strongly toward their parents.” This means, says Smith, contrary to much opinion, teenagers are not flocking in droves to alternative religions, though some are moving towards paganism and Wicca. Presently Muslim teens represent one-half of one percent of U. S. teens and Buddhists less that one-third of one percent.

As you read Soul Searching you begin to get a good feeling about teenagers and start making some course corrections in your understanding of teens and their religious attitudes; that is until you hear Smith’s conclusion. Even with all the data about teens and religion, Christianity and the church, the bottom line is Smith describes them as moralistic, therapeutic Deists. They believe in God but not a God who has much to do with their daily lives; however, he is there in time of great need, or a crisis. They also believe in the idea of right and wrong but are not always clear as how to determine the difference. They believe that God wants them to live good lives because good people are happy and go to heaven.

If you asked Smith where teens get this moralistic, therapeutic deism he would quickly remind you that his study reveales that the parents were the greatest influence in their life. They have taught this to their children. They want them to be religious because those teens interested in religion are less likely to get involved in drugs and other destructive things and they do better in school.

As I read this challenging book, I immediately thought of Barna’s and Clark’s books mentioned above. Barna said parents are not helping their children develop a biblical worldview and the church is not helping the parents know how to do that. Clark says similar things about the parents, who according to the younger generation are abandoning them in the sense of not helping them to know how to understand life and reality. Of course they are giving their children the best of others things but are not taking the time to help them have a biblical framework for life. So many say that their parents are leaving those things up to teens and not trying to push them in the area of religion.

Smith states that the church is one of the few remaining social institutions in which adolescents participate together with fellow believers of all ages and life stages. This gives the church a great opportunity to disciple young people. However, if moralistic, therapeutic deist is an accurate description of today’s teens, then we have to conclude with Barna that both the church and the home are not shaping the solid biblical foundations for the youth.

Smith says in conclusion this book is intended to be “among other things, a stimulus for soul-searching conversations among adults in various communities and organizations about the place and importance of adolescents in our lives and, in particular, the significance of the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers today.” He further concludes, “To provide a bit of initial input to those discussions, in this brief unscientific postscript we step out of our normal sociological roles-with more than a little trepidation-to try to imagine some of the book’s possible prescriptive implications for communities of faith. To be perfectly clear about our purpose here; we are academic sociologists, not religious ministry consultants or promoters. Nevertheless, detailed knowledge and understanding of the social world often raises real questions about cultural and institutional practices and commitments that can make real differences in people’s lives.”

Need we say more? Let this book challenge you as parents and church leaders to evaluation what you are teaching the rising generation. More importantly, let it challenge you to examine your beliefs and practices and the teaching of the church.

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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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