What Teenagers’ Faith Means for Youth Work

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By Yonat Shimron

Chapel Hill, N.C.—For the increasing number of faith-based programs that serve youth, an extensive study of teenagers’ religious beliefs offers both uplifting and sobering findings.

On the one hand, American teens see religion as a positive influence on their lives and their communities. Few are alienated from their faith or actively seeking alternatives.

Nevertheless, these teens are unable to talk about what their faith means or to engage in serious moral reasoning around it. “Many adults are afraid to teach teens about religion,” says study author Christian Smith, director of the National Study of Youth and Religion and professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There’s a sense of, ‘We’ll expose the kids and see what they do. They’ll pick it up, hopefully.’ ”

The impact of this thinking is evident in Smith’s landmark study, which included telephone interviews with 3,370 youths, ages 13 to 17, and follow-up, face-to-face interviews with a subset of 267 teens.

The results confirm what many have long recognized: Religion is a protective factor that has a positive impact on practically every aspect of a teenager’s life. Teenagers who are involved in religious activities are less likely to engage in delinquent risk behaviors, such as taking drugs and committing violent crimes. They are more likely to do well in school, enjoy good relationships with their parents and peers, and have a positive outlook.

Asked, for example, “how often life feels meaningless,” 56 percent of the most religiously involved teens said “never,” compared with 30 percent of the least religiously involved.

But the study, funded with a four-year, $4-million grant from the Lilly Endowment, also found that adults tend to isolate teens in peer groups, although teens want more adult interaction and instruction.

“Sociologically, ties to adults are really valuable to teenagers,” says Smith, at his Chapel Hill office. “Religious communities should say, ‘We need to get more serious in involving teens.’”

The results of the study are detailed in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, recently published by Oxford University Press.

Several religious groups have culled the data relating to their particular faith traditions and are identifying ways to respond. “We simply must give teens more experience in trying to formulate what they believe,” said Richard Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and the editor of a book on the study’s conclusions for Southern Baptists. “Too often teenagers are under the teaching of very well meaning leaders who tend to speak to youth rather than having a dialogue with them.”

The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry recently issued a 67-page analysis of the study’s findings as they relate to Roman Catholic youth.

Central Findings

The researchers divided American youth roughly into three groups: those who attend church or synagogue weekly; those who attend occasionally; and those who are not connected with any religious practice.

Among the major findings: Eighty-four percent of teens say they believe in God, with 12 percent expressing some ambivalence and 3 percent saying they definitely do not believe in God. About half the teens said faith is “very” or “extremely” important in their lives. Only 8 percent said faith was not important at all.

Nearly eight in 10 teens say they expect to attend the same congregation when they are 25 years old.

These results confirm that few teens are rebelling against the faiths of their parents or seeking out alternative spiritual paths. People who work with teens say it’s no revelation that faith has a positive influence on youth. But for many faith-based youth workers, one of the most surprising findings was that kids can’t articulate their faith very well or engage in sustained moral reasoning.

Asked what her religious beliefs were, one 15-year-old black Protestant girl from Florida, for example, said, “Be kind.” A 17-year-old white mainline Protestant girl said, “I’m not one of those people who, you know, believes in these specific things. But I celebrate Christmas, and, you know, that kind of thing.”

This inability to talk coherently about their faith surprised researchers. Smith writes, “It was our distinct sense that ... our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life.” He coined a term for the kind of faith the youngsters seemed to be practicing: “moralistic therapeutic deism.” For most teens, religion doesn’t mean much beyond trying to be a good person. God, according to these teens, is a being who tries to help people accomplish that, but doesn’t demand much else.

Parents take a similar approach, Smith says. He found that while parents are willing to insist that teens practice a musical instrument or a sport, many are reluctant to teach about their faith. Add to that the increasing competition for adolescents’ time – most teens spend far more time in school, at sporting events or watching TV than at religious events – and it’s clear that learning about their religion is not a top priority for many American teens.

At the same time, one of the study’s central findings is that the strongest predictor of how teenagers will turn out religiously is the faith of their parents. Parents who are religiously devoted have teenagers who are religiously devoted, and vice versa. Even those youth who attend organized youth activities at a church or synagogue are more likely to be influenced by what goes on at home than by those activities.

Implications forYouth Work

Where does all this leave faith-based youth workers?

Teenagers want and appreciate adult guidance in matters of faith, Smith says. The study found that 61 percent of teens said they would like to have adults in their congregation whom they could enjoy talking to.

Carlye Daugird, a youth minister at the 1,000-member Chapel Hill Bible Church, says all the youth programs are shaped around helping teens understand what they’re going through and how their faith can help. If the message isn’t getting through, she says, maybe it’s because teens are still unsure how to speak the language of faith.

Another factor: While faith-based organizations have expanded their work with youth in recent years, many of their activities are based more on spirituality and morality than on the tenets of the particular religion carrying out the program. Even many of those that do focus on a religion make sure to leave spiritual room. Consider the approach of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which works with an estimated 15,500 Jewish teens across North America.

“We’re interested in having teens explore Jewish heritage and religion, but we’re interested in having them form conclusions,” says Matthew Grossman, executive director of the Washington-based organization. “We’re not defining conclusions for them.” In response to the study, the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, which issued the analysis of the findings as they relate to Catholic youth, is looking for ways to integrate Catholic teens into the life of the church so that they may benefit from intergenerational ties with other adults. Twenty-three percent of the youth in the survey were Catholic, second only to Protestants, who comprised 52 percent of the respondents.

“Our tendency is to separate kids out,” says Bob McCarty, executive director of the Catholic federation. “The research is saying that’s a mistake. We have to integrate young people into the life of the church.”

Possible strategies include outreach to help support parents in talking to teens about their faith and joint mission projects for adults and teens, such as a trip to Appalachia to repair homes. The federation plans to hold workshops across the country and to develop resources to help congregations carry out such efforts.

Other religious groups, including the Southern Baptists, are still sifting through the data and looking for ways to further engage teens.

Professionals who work with youth say that if religion has a positive impact on teenagers’ lives, religious communities ought to be recognized as important resources in the larger community.

“Faith institutions often are not connected to youth-serving institutions, such as 4-H, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs,” says Eugene Roehlkepartain, senior adviser at the Search Institute, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that disseminates research about youth development practices. “There are connections we need to learn from.”

For example, Roehlkepartain says, youth pastors might meet with soccer coaches to work out scheduling conflicts so that teens and their parents aren’t forced to choose one activity over another.

Smith’s solution: Engage the teens in front of you. Although he thinks churches with professional youth pastors are better poised to reach out to teenagers, one person can’t do the job. The entire congregation has to reach out to develop relationships with teenagers.

One Indiana church that expanded its outreach to teens found that pairing teens with the right adults is the key.

At West Newton Worship and Youth Center, a Pentecostal church, teens are split into cell groups by grade. Each cell is led by a husband-and-wife team. Each Sunday at 6 p.m., teens from the church and community gather at the gym next to the church for some games, then for discussions about various issues.

“We found that when we get kids with the right people, they’re willing to talk about problems, such as drugs, alcohol, sex, problems in the home,” says the Rev. Russell Wilson, the youth pastor. “Getting people teens can trust is the key.”

Last year the Lilly Endowment gave Smith and his researchers another $1.1 million for a second survey, to be conducted this summer, to assess whether the benefits of religious involvement withstand the test of time.


Christian Smith National Study of Youth and Religion The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (919) 918-5294 youthandreligion@unc.edu
Bob McCarty, Executive Director National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry Washington, DC  (202) 636-3825 www.nfcym.org