Thursday, April 21, 2005

"Um... [Pause] I Don't Know"

In a recent book review (Christianity, “Compliant But Confused: Unpacking some myths about today’s teens”; 4/12/05), Andy Crouch unfolds both the encouraging and not-so-encouraging findings of the recent National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which consisted of an in-depth phone survey of 3,290 teenagers and their parents as well as 267 in-person interviews. The authors of the NSYR, Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, expound on its data in their new book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

The encouraging news: First, American Christian teenagers overwhelmingly admire and practice the religion of their parents, just as other studies have shown that teens in general admire and like their parents. Second, teens generally like church, and in fact report that they would like to attend religious services even more than they currently do! Third, teens do not identify themselves as “spiritual seekers,” meaning that they identify with some form of Christianity and are not exploring alternative religions.

Now for the challenging findings which, as Crouch puts it, “should rock the world of every church in the country: In spite of their generally positive attitude toward religion, almost no teenagers, from any religious background, can articulate the most basic beliefs of their faith.”

One 15-year old who “attends two church services every Sunday, Sunday school, church youth group, and Wednesday night Bible study, in response to a question about his personal beliefs, responded “I don’t really know how to answer that.” When he was then asked “Are there any beliefs that are important to you?” he responded, [Pause] “I don’t know.” [“Take your time if you want”] “I think you should just, if you’re gonna do something wrong then you should always ask for forgiveness and he’s gonna forgive you no matter what, ‘cause he gave up his only Son to take all the sins for you, so…”

Crouch notes that this is one of the more articulate answers that Smith and Denton report. Interestingly, the teens give fairly sophisticated answers when asked about pop culture or sexually transmitted diseases, so it is not a question of being inarticulate in general.

Smith and Denton sum up the religion that teens hold in such high regard as “moralistic therapeutic deism” – “the belief that religion is about doing good and being happy, watched over by a distant and benign Creator whose purpose is largely to help us feel better about ourselves.”

But lest you think that I, or they, are lambasting these sincere teenagers, consider the logical deduction: If teens admire their parents and truly like church, where are they getting this nebulous, confused and watered-down faith? Ahem. I guess from their parents and their churches.

I think we owe them more.


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