Becoming Christian-ish: Research in a Nutshell

“We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that it is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition… It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by quite a different religious faith.” [1]

–Christian Smith and Melinda Denton,
from the National Study on Youth and Religion

Setting the Stage

The National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR) reported that a majority of American teenagers described themselves as Christian, but in reality they espouse a version of Christianity the researchers termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Kenda Creasy Dean was one of the study’s researchers. Almost Christian is response to how the church should move forward in light of the findings. This study guide will explore the findings of the National Study on Youth and Religion and use Dean’s work in Almost Christian to reflect on how we can respond to this study.

The National Study on Youth & Religion

Since 2001, a team of researchers headed by sociologist Christian Smith (University of Notre Dame) has been studying the spiritual lives of American adolescents in what is arguably the largest study ever conducted around youth and religion. The study has produced numerous articles and reports (available at youthandreligion.org) and in addition, two books summarizing the findings. Soul Searching, released in 2005, details findings from an initial phone survey of 3,000 young people and their parents, along with data collected through extensive face-to-face interviews with a subset of study participants.

In 2009 Smith released a second book, Souls in Transition, which documents follow-up research on the same group of young people as they have entered college and the workforce. The overall goal of the project is to investigate both the influence of religion on American teenagers and the practices that religious communities employ for the spiritual formation of young people.

This landmark study on the faith lives of American teenagers reveals that while a majority identifies with a religious congregation, many adolescents:

Lack the ability to speak articulately about their faith;

Believe that religion itself is not terribly important to daily life; and

Subscribe to a watered-down belief system that the authors call  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The study attempts to take stock of what American teenagers really believe and how they practice their faith while assessing the influence of parents, peers, churches, and other factors upon adolescent faith. For Christian youth ministry, the study may reveal ways in which current attempts at forming adolescent faith are either succeeding or failing miserably.

Major Findings

The study uncovered numerous findings about the faith of the American teenager, such as socio-economic influences and geographical factors. Those influences, while important, are outside the scope of this project. Generally, the study revealed seven major findings that have direct importance for youth ministry.

1. Most American teenagers have religious beliefs.

Current studies on the faith of the American teenager often report that students are hostile toward religion. Smith’s report actually points us in a different direction. He reports that roughly two-thirds of American teenagers believe in a god who is similar to the God of the Bible.[2] More than 84 percent of teenagers identify themselves as religious, and the vast majority of them (75 percent) claims to be Christian.[3] Half of American teenagers report that religion is “very important” or “extremely important” to them.[4] Forty percent of teenagers attend religious services weekly or more often.

2. Organized religion doesn’t matter much to most teenagers.

The NSYR reveals that teenagers have inconsequential feelings about religion which means it doesn’t make a difference in their everyday lives. For most teenagers, religion is a “very nice thing,” but not something they care much about. Teenagers do not look to religion to frame their identities. Religion is unimportant to them. This apathy led Smith to describe the dominant teenage attitude toward Christianity as “benign whateverism.” A majority of teenagers report that they have close friends with whom they have never discussed religion.

3. For a significant minority of teenagers, faith does matter.

While benign whateverism is rampant, Smith identifies a minority of teenagers as “highly devoted.” Faith is a guiding force for this subset of students. These teenagers are more likely to be evangelical or Mormon than mainline or Catholic. They are more likely to have married, highly educated parents who also attend religious services often. They are more likely to be girls than boys, and more likely to be younger teenagers than older. They are more likely to be involved in a youth group, and to have close friends involved in a religious group. For these teens faith is consequential; it matters in their everyday life.

4. Adolescents are incredibly inarticulate about their faith.

The NSYR found that teenagers suffer from an impoverished ability to talk about their faith, possibly because they are rarely encouraged to critically think through their faith. Even those who reported that religion was important to them were often woefully unable to express what they believe or why their beliefs are important to them. The study found that youth were very articulate about other subjects. Smith suggests that this religious inarticulacy is due to churches “failing rather badly in religiously engaging and educating youth.”[5]

5. Religious vitality differs by tradition.

Mormon youth ranked incredibly high in their ability to articulate their faith, and the effects their faith has on their lives. Conservative Protestants came in second along with Black Protestant teenagers. Religious vitality among mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic teenagers was lower.

6. Highly religious teenagers fare better than less religious teenagers.

In terms of a variety of life outcomes, Smith found that highly religious teenagers are doing better across the board than their less religious peers. Whether they realize it or not, more religious teenagers fare better than less religious teenagers in terms of “risk behaviors, quality of family and adult relationships, moral reasoning and behavior, community participation, media consumption, sexual activity, and emotional well-being.”[6]

7. Teenagers mimic the religious devotion of their parents.

The NSYR found that parents are the greatest influence on teenage faith. Teenagers tend to share beliefs similar to their parents, subscribe to the same religious tradition, and attend religious services with a similar frequency.[7] This is good news, but also deeply troubling in light of the invasion of what Smith terms “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” into the American religious landscape.

*****

[1] Smith, Christian and Denton, Melinda Lundquist. (2005). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press. pg. 171

[2] Smith reports that 65 percent of teenagers believe in a God who is a “personal being involved in the lives of people.”  Roughly 30 percent of teenagers believe in a “spiritual force in the universe.”

[3] Soul Searching, 68.

[4] Soul Searching, 40.

[5] Soul Searching, 262.

[6] Soul Searching, 218.

[7] Soul Searching, 68.

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