Soul Searching 5: Teen Religious Experience


Continuing our cruise through Christian Smith’s Soul Searching, let’s take a look at what teens say about their religious experience.

For the table…

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


My readers know I’m interested in American expressions of Christianity and their history. In this table, we see some interesting historical correlations. Teens who are part of traditions that emphasize personal commitment and experience have more personal commitments and experiences. Conservative Protestantism (broadly represented in Evangelicalism) is the child of Pietism and Revivalism. Our Revivalistic roots means that we put a very high emphasis on individual commitments to follow Christ. Our Pietistic heritage views outward personal experience and expression as the sign of our inner spiritual life. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that CP teens score highly in these areas. Our starting point dictates our results.

Mormonism was stirred in the same historical pot as American Evangelicalism, and is the product of its purely American roots. We shouldn’t be surprised that Mormon teens have the highest percentage of meaningful religious experiences. American religion has always prized individual emotion and experience in worship often at the expense of community, unity, theology, and intellect. Don’t read me to be saying that emotion and experience are wrong, only that these are the particular emphases of purely American religion. It will bug some people to read this, but free church Evangelicalism and Mormonism are kissing cousins culturally and sociologically speaking. Both popped out of the same stew, with one group maintaining orthodoxy, and the other abandoning it.

We can’t judge the validity of belief by our individual experiences. Experience indicates nothing about truthfulness. If it did, we should all become Mormon.

By way of contrast, the Mainline churches were mostly born in the Old World and share a different set of priorities shaped by the concerns of their day, namely, the Reformation. They emphasized right theology, and re-training Roman Catholics through catechism and liturgy. Catechism and liturgy are certainly not devoid of emotion and experience, but these are not their priority. Positive experience can be an outcome of grounded historical worship and teaching, but is not its goal.

One last point: Worship emphasis can’t be separated from the message. What you emphasize in worship is what you will create in the person, so we need to be clear and thoughtful about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. (I know, I know, I’m beating this drum over and over and over…)

Smith has a lot of data in this book about teen church involvement, the influence of parents, and the influence of youth pastors. I’m going to skip by that information. I think it’s important, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in detail. In the next post from this book, I hope to dive into Therapeutic Moral Deism. That might take a couple of posts, and then we’ll be winding down this series.

Thanks for stopping by.