Our Teenagers, Ourselves: Soul Searching

By Chuck Colson

October 13, 2005

First, the good news: American teenagers are more religious than many adults seem to think.

And now the bad news: American teenagers are less religious than many adults seem to think.

Are you confused? Well, it’s not quite as confusing as it sounds, that is, if you read the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. The authors did an impressive amount of research, surveying and interviewing teenagers and their parents across the country. And they do a remarkable job of clearing up adult misconceptions about teenage spirituality.

For instance, adults tend to think of teenagers as rebellious. As a matter of fact, according to Smith and Denton, “about three in four religious teens in the United States consider their own religious beliefs somewhat or very similar to their parents’. . . . U.S. teens lean strongly toward similarity with their parents in religious belief.” A large majority of teens consider religion very important to them and believe that religion is a positive influence in the world.

Well, those are encouraging findings, but the worrisome part comes when the researchers start examining specific details of teens’ religious beliefs. They talked to Christian kids who attend church every week but can’t explain who Jesus is. Take Heather, whose mother teaches religious doctrine at their Catholic church. The fifteen-year-old told an interviewer: “I don’t really get the whole thing about how, well, with the Catholics, how God is Jesus and Jesus is God, I don’t understand that.” And Heather’s not the exception to the rule.

In fact, the survey results show that many religious teens just don’t get the point of religion. They unknowingly subscribe to a philosophy that Smith and Denton call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Instead of learning the basic tenets of their religion, teens are simply absorbing a belief that if you try to be good all the time, you’ll be happy—and being happy is what life’s all about. This philosophy, the authors suggest, “is colonizing many historical religious traditions and . . . converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.”

But before we start pointing fingers at teens, Smith and Denton tell us, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Teenagers aren’t getting this vague, consumer-based version of religion out of nowhere. The authors remind us that adults preach at teenagers about defying authority, spending too much money, watching too much TV, being sexually irresponsible, and more—and yet adults engage in these practices to a far greater extent than teens do. “We often say one thing but do something else,” Smith and Denton remind us—and that includes the religious among us. Teens who compartmentalize their faith, or just don’t take time to understand it, are a natural result of adults who do the same things.

Soul Searching is an invaluable book for understanding the religious lives of teenagers, and learning about how we can reach out to them. But even more important, it’s a much-needed reminder that the kids we’re so concerned about are in many ways simply reflections of us.

For further reading and information:

Today’s BreakPoint offer: Subscribe today to BreakPoint WorldView magazine—or get the student you know a gift subscription! Call 1-877-322-5527.

Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (

Oxford

University

Press, 2005).

Phil Schwadel and Christian Smith, “Portraits of Protestant Teens: A Report on Teenagers in Major U.S. Denominations,” The National Study of Youth and Religion, 2005. Written as a companion piece to Soul Searching.

Carlene Bauer, “God? Sure, whatever,” Salon,

29 April 2005

. Free day pass or registration required.

Tom Beaudoin, “Believing What They Need To,”

America

: The National Catholic Weekly,

19 September 2005

.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 031223, “Meeting the Need for Truth: Reaching Out to Teens.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 040331, “It’s Not Just the Kids: The Impact of Adult Sexual Behavior.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030821, “The Third Millennium Church: Young Believers and Embodiment.”

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030108, “A Turning of the Tide: Reaching the Next Generation.”

Robert Webber, The Younger Evangelicals (Baker Books, 2002).

Colleen Carroll Campbell, The New Faithful (Loyola Press, 2002).

waynem

About waynem

As a Minnesota based photographer and artist I have been greatly influenced by the Upper Midwest. I focus my skills and energies on portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, architectural and fine art work. My best work comes from images first painted in my mind. I mull over a prospective image for weeks or months, seeing it from different angles and perspectives, then finally deciding what to capture. The result is images that deeply touch people's emotions and powerfully evoke memories and dreams. My images are used commercially by companies and organizations ranging from Financial Services firms, mom and pop Ice Cream shops and The Basilica of St Mary to communicate their shared vision and values. Book and magazine publishers have featured my images on their covers. My photographs also grace and enhance the decor of many fine homes.
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3 Responses to Our Teenagers, Ourselves: Soul Searching

  1. Ellie says:

    that is so so true! and another thing i’ve found from personal experience (i admit this is kinda off topic) is the whole negative attitude towards teenagers is not all their fault. parents label their kids as being rebellious, and yes to a degree they are, but i’d say about half of the problem also lies in the parent’s court, because they’re fighting against their kids growing up. parents need to quit resisting their kids growing up, it only adds to the problem and creates a breakdown in the communication. it’s the teenage years when a kid needs to have their parent’s supporting them, not resisting them. i understand that it’s tough for a parent to let go, but it needs to be done.

  2. Ellie says:

    that is so so true! and another thing i’ve found from personal experience (i admit this is kinda off topic) is the whole negative attitude towards teenagers is not all their fault. parents label their kids as being rebellious, and yes to a degree they are, but i’d say about half of the problem also lies in the parent’s court, because they’re fighting against their kids growing up. parents need to quit resisting their kids growing up, it only adds to the problem and creates a breakdown in the communication. it’s the teenage years when a kid needs to have their parent’s supporting them, not resisting them. i understand that it’s tough for a parent to let go, but it needs to be done.

  3. Wayne M says:

    Good insight Ellie

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