Christian Smith is a sociologist of religion and culture, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for Sociology of Religion and Society, and Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion.  His unique and extensive landmark study of the religious and spiritual lives of American adolescents was conducted from 2001 to 2005, and published in 2005 as Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  It is a book that everyone who disciples teenagers should read.  Without going into all the data, which can all be found in the book, here are some of the significant conclusions I highlighted in my copy of the book:

  • “American adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 represent about 14% of all Americans.” (p. 27)
  • “Among the more religiously serious American teenagers, religious practices appear to play an important role in their faith lives.  For the committed adolescent, religion is not simply a matter of general identity or affiliation or cognitive belief.  Faith for these teenagers is also activated, practiced, and formed through specific religious and spiritual practices.” (p. 27)
  • “If there is indeed a significant number of American teens who are serious and lucid about their religious faith, there is also a much larger number who are remarkably inarticulate and befuddled about religion.  Interviewing teens, one finds little evidence that the agents of religious socialization in this country are being highly effective and successful with the majority of their young people.” (p. 27)
  • “Those teenagers for whom religious faith and practice are important tend to have religious lives constructed relationally and institutionally to intersect and overlap with other important aspects of their lives.” (p. 28)
  • “…parents and other adults exert huge influences in the lives of American adolescents – whether for good or for ill, and whether adults can perceive it or not – when it comes to religious faith and most other areas of teens’ lives.” (p. 28)
  • “…we think that the best general rule of thumb that parents might use to reckon their children’s most likely religious outcomes is this: ‘We’ll get what we are.'” (p. 57)
  • “…the vast majority of teens find their religious congregation to be a warm and welcoming place for youth.” (p. 61)
  • “Religion just does not naturally seem to appear much on most teenagers’ open-ended lists of what really matters in their lives.” (p. 130)
  • “In our in-depth interviews with U.S. teenagers, we also found the vast majority of them to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives.” (p. 131)
  • “…it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them about what they believed and how it mattered in their life.” (p. 133)
  • “Again, nobody expects adolescents to be sophisticated theologians.  But very few of the descriptions of personal beliefs offered by the teenagers we interviewed, especially the Christian teenagers, came close to representing marginally coherent accounts of the basic, important religious beliefs of their own faith traditions.  The majority of U.S. teens would badly fail a hypothetical short-answer or essay test of the basic beliefs of their religion.” (p. 137)
  • “Most U.S. youth tend to assume an instrumental view of religion.  Most instinctively suppose that religion exists to help individuals be and do what they want, and not as an external tradition or authority or divinity that makes compelling claims and demands on their lives.” (p. 148)
  • “We advance our thesis somewhat tentatively as less than a conclusive fact but more than mere conjecture:  we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds something like this:
    • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
    • God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
    • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
    • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
    • Good people go to heaven when they die.” (p.163)

At the end of Soul Searching, Smith offers a “concluding unscientific postscript” with some very helpful thoughts on the implications of his study for parents, youth workers and youth pastors.

  1. “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.” (p. 267)
  2. “…in general, parents and faith communities should not be shy about teaching teens.” (p. 267)
  3. “…it seems to us that religious educators need to work much harder on articulation.  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.” (p. 267)
  4. “…religious youth workers may have an opportunity to tap into teens’ strong inclination toward individualism to challenge their often highly conventional styles of doing religion and to bring faith issues out of the background and into the foreground of their lives.” (p. 268)
  5. “…religious communities might themselves think more carefully and help youth think more carefully about the distinctions among (1) serious, articulate, confident personal and congregational faith, versus (2) respectful, civil discourse in the pluralistic public sphere, versus (3) obnoxious, offensive faith talk that merely turns people off.  Most U.S. teens keenly observe the second and avoid the third of these.  Youth should be able to hear and embrace (or reject) what are the particularities of their own faith traditions and why they matter, without having to be afraid that this inevitably causes fighting and discomfort. (p. 268)
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