Soul Searching 7: In The Background

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As we continue our look at teen religious trends from Christian Smith Soul Searching, today we take a look at just how important teen reported religion to be to them when interviewed and asked specific questions. (Full Series)

Many report specific reasons why religion is important to them by giving practical examples of how religion helps them cope with various life struggles. They report that religion “works” for them.

When talking about teens who practice a more direct and deliberate sort of faith, Smith reports…

Such exceptions tended to come from conservative Protestant and Mormon traditions, but not exclusively so, and certainly not all conservative Protestant or Mormon teens practiced religion intentionally in the foreground of their lives. But viewed as a whole, for most U.S. teenagers, their claims to religion’s importance notwithstanding, religion actually appears to operate much more as a taken-for-granted aspect of life, mostly situated in the background of everyday living, which becomes salient only under very specific conditions. (Kindle Locations 2707-2711)

How does he come to this conclusion?

The first tip-off to the largely invisible and backgrounded nature of religion in the lives of most U.S. teenagers is what they talk about in general, wideopen discussions as being most important, central, and interesting in their lives. We talked with the teens we interviewed about what they get enthusiastic or excited about, what pressing issues they are dealing with, and what forces and experiences and routines seem to them most important and central in their lives. Most teenagers talk about friends, school, sports, television, music, movies, romantic interests, family relationships, dealing with issues of drugs and alcohol, various organized activities with which they’re involved, and specific fun or formative events they have experienced. What rarely arises in such conversations are teens’ religious identities, beliefs, experiences, or practices. Religion just does not naturally seem to appear much on most teenagers’ open-ended lists of what really matters in their lives. This is not surprising. It simply reflects the fact that there is very little built-in religious content or connection in the structure of most U.S. adolescents’ daily schedules and routines. (Kindle Locations 2712-2720)

Smith goes on to report that American teens are very inarticulate about what they believe. The vast majority of teens – from all religions – can’t explain what they believe. Smith does note that conservative Protestant and Mormon teens were occasionally the exception to the rule. As someone who has worked in churches in some capacity for about 16 years – the majority of that with teens – this matches my own observations. Friends of mine who work with Christian kids in church  and private school settings are often dismayed at how little these teens – most of whom have been in church all their lives – actually know about Christianity.

This pervasive teen inarticulacy contributes to our larger impression that religion is either de facto not that important for most teens or that teens are getting very little help from their religious communities in knowing how to express the faith that may be important to them. (Kindle Location 2732)

I suspect a bit of both, but I think the culprit lies mostly at the feet of those responsible for teaching these youth. Nobody can understand everything about their faith. We all have questions, but even a moderately interested person sitting in a church should be able to pick up something of value.

This next paragraph is particularly damning of Mainline churches, but I think it goes to the point that, generally, churches are not passing down the faith in a way that today’s youth actually understand what they believe.

Mainline Protestants were among the least religiously articulate of all teens. Consider, for example, this 17-year-old white mainline Lutheran boy from Colorado: “Uh, well, I don’t know, um, well, I don’t really know. Being a Lutheran, confirmation was a big thing but I didn’t really know what it was and I still don’t. I really don’t know what being a Lutheran means.” This 17-year-old white mainline Presbyterian boy from Kentucky managed an only slightly stronger answer: “Um [pause], I don’t know, I just, uh, just like anybody else I guess. There’s nothing really to say, I don’t know, just the Presbyterian beliefs. Just like I believe in all the sin and stuff and going to heaven and stuff, life after life.” Similarly, here is what one 15-year-old white mainline Methodist girl from Michigan—who, note, attends two church services every Sunday, Sunday School, church youth group, and Wednesday-night Bible study—offered regarding her own personal religious beliefs:

T: [Pause] I don’t really know how to answer that.

I: Are there any beliefs at all that are important to you? Really generally.

T: [Pause] I don’t know.

I: Take your time if you want.

T: I think that 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. (Kindle Locations 2747-2760)

I could go on, and Smith does, listing examples from across the Christian spectrum of teens giving similar answers with most mentioning that they believe you should be moral, and a few saying that God forgives you no matter what because of Jesus.

There were, of course, some teenagers who were impressive in explaining what they believe, what they doubt, why they think what they think, what it means to them, and how it influences their lives. Religiously devoted teenagers were more articulate than nominally religious teens, for obvious reasons. And older teens tended to be slightly more articulate than younger, but not by much. However, impressively articulate teens were few and far between. The vast majority simply could not express themselves on matters of God, faith, religion, or spiritual life. (Kindle Locations 2779-2783)

I’ll give here one more quotation. Smith recounts an interview with a conservative Protestant girl from Idaho.

I: When you think of God, what image do you have of God?

T: [yawning]

I: What is God like?

T: Um, good. Powerful.

I: Okay, anything else?

T: Tall.

I: Tall?

T: Big.

I: Do you think God is active in people’s lives or not?

T: Ah, I don’t know.

I: You’re not sure?

T: Different people have different views of him.

I: What about your view?

T: What do you mean?

I: Do you think God is active in your life?

T: In my life? Yeah.

I: Yeah, hmm. Would you say you feel close to God or not really?

T: Yeah, I feel close. [yawns]

I: Where do you get your ideas about God?

T: The Bible, my mom, church. Experience.

I: What kind of experience?

T: He’s just done a lot of good in my life, so.

I: Like, what are examples of that?

T: I don’t know.

I: Well, I’d love to hear. What good has God done in your life?

T: I, well, I have a house, parents, I have the Internet, I have a phone, I have cable. (Kindle Locations 2828-2850)

I’ll stop here for today. This should give parents, pastors, and anyone who works with teens some food for thought. No, I’m not saying that we need to create a bunch of robotic, doctrinal, academic kids. But knowing what we believe and why is one of the very critical foundational aspects of growing into mature followers of Christ. A faith that has no firm foundation focused intensely on Jesus Christ will not stand the tests of life. This research coupled with the fact that we are losing at least 60% of our teens once they leave home indicates that we are not giving them a robust view of Jesus, what he has done, what he is doing, and what he will do. The numbers say we’re losing 60% of our teens, but I contend that you can’t lose what you never had. We never had them, and they never had Jesus.

We have made faith in Jesus about how he “works” for me, and not about how I should rightly submit to the God who is radically restoring all of creation. We have exchanged our future hope of glory in the promised resurrection into the New Heaven and New Earth for our best counterfeit life now. Too many of our teens are losing the grand vision of our cosmos changing faith in Christ, and this is tragic.

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