Soul Searching 3: Teen Church Attendance


Today, as we continue to look through Christian Smith’s Soul Searching, we’re taking a look at teen religious service attendance.

Before I show you the table, some definitions:

  • CP = Conservative Protestant
  • MP = Mainline Protestant
  • BP = Black Protestant
  • RC = Roman Catholic
  • J = Jewish
  • LDS = Mormon
  • NR = Not Religious

Smith broke American teens down into these seven categories as these are the most statistically relevant. What follows is a table showing the percentages of U.S. teen church attendance broken into those seven categories. The column showing “U.S.” shows the percentage of church attendance of American teens taken as a whole group. This table shows the information captured table 6 of the book.


Smith’s analysis:

Perhaps surprisingly, table 6 shows that U.S. teens as a whole report that they would like to attend religious services even more than they currently do. Fully 5 percent more than those who report actually attending services once a week or more say that they would like to attend weekly or more (45 compared to 40 percent). And 7 percent fewer than those who attend only a few times a year or never say they would like to attend religious services that infrequently (32 compared to 25 percent). In other words, U.S. teens as a group profess to want to attend religious services not less, but actually more than they currently do. Some of this difference may be mere wishful thinking, with the effect of making the teens feel better about themselves more than actually motivating them to attend religious services more often. On the other hand, at least some of the teens we interviewed did report uncooperative parents and transportation problems preventing them from attending religious services more often than they did. In any case, these findings provide no evidence supporting the belief that significant numbers of teens would like to stop attending religious service and are only doing otherwise because their parents are forcing them to attend. (Kindle Locations 804-813)

What we’ve seen through my last two posts is that teens are typically not as rebellious against religion as common myths would have us believe. Their reasons for going may be varied, but they do, on the whole, want to go to church. This is encouraging.

Something else this data points to is that some teens are involved in some capacity with congregations other than their own. Mormons are by far the least likely to attend other churches with RCs and CPs being somewhat less likely than MPs or BPs. Experientially, this doesn’t surprise me. Coming out of a CP background, we were discouraged from interacting with other churches for fear they would lead a astray with their “liberal” ways. This also shows that most teens are content to stay within their own religious circles. There isn’t a lot of crossover. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation.

The last thing we’ll look at today is the percentage of teens that report to feel a “closeness with God.” This particular phrase seems wide open to multiple definitions, but it is still valuable in that it tells us that teens sense the presence of God, or at least, they desire to do so. Here’s what Smith says,

The numbers:

  • 36% report that they feel very or extremely close to God.
  • 25% feel some degree of distance from God
  • 3% do not believe in any God to feel either close to or distant from.


To the extent that survey answers provide reliable measures, then, we can conclude that slightly more than one-third of U.S. teens experience an intimate relationship with God, another third feel something in the middle, neither intimate nor distant, and almost one-third either feel distant from or do not believe in God.(Kindle Locations 837-839) …

…This time, however, Mormon teens do not top the charts. Rather, black Protestants and conservative Protestants rank highest on closeness to God, with nearly 50 percent of each reporting that they feel very or extremely close to God. Forty-four percent of Mormon, 40 percent of mainline Protestant, and 31 percent of Catholic teens say they feel very or extremely close to God. Only 10 percent of Jewish teens—whose traditions, note, may or may not place God at the center of Judaism—report the same, a mere 1 percent more than the report of nonreligious youth. Viewed from the other direction, 64 percent of Jewish and 63 percent of nonreligious teens either feel distant from or do not believe in God; about one in four Catholic and mainline Protestant youth feel distant from or do not believe in God; between one in six and one in four Mormon and black and conservative Protestant teens feel the same. (Kindle Locations 840-846)

So what does all this mean? I read it to be saying that religious practice is important to teens, and that they tend to sense benefit from it.

Well, there’s something else for you to chew on today. My next post on this topic will likely be on Monday, and we’ll start getting into the specific religious and spiritual beliefs and experiences of American teens.