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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Features

The Faith of the Next Generation

If the faith of today’s youth is any indication, the future of Christianity in America could be in jeopardy, says Christian Smith, keynote speaker at Seattle Pacific University’s Day of Common Learning and Church Leaders Forum on October 19, 2005. Smith based this troubling assertion on the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), the largest-ever study of the religious beliefs of American teenagers, which he directed.

A five-year project begun in 2001, the NSYR interviewed 3,370 randomly chosen teenagers, ages 13 to 17, in 45 states. The initial findings, chronicled in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, uncovered a disturbing state of affairs: The vast majority of America’s teenagers — most of whom call themselves Christians — believe in and practice a religion that bears little resemblance to Christianity.

Smith, the Stuart Chapin Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and his Soul Searching co-author, SPU alumna Melinda Lundquist Denton ’96, call this new religion “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or “MTD.” “My firm belief,” says Smith, “is that MTD is the actual, functional, de facto religious faith of the majority of American teenagers from a variety of religious and nonreligious traditions.”

Among the study’s most significant findings, two stood out. First, contrary to popular notions fueled by the media, most teens today are not religious “seekers” rebelling against their parents’ religion. Instead, they willingly accompany their parents to church. Second — here’s the troubling part — these teens, even those regularly attending Christian churches and youth groups, are hard-put to articulate the first thing about what they believe. And when coaxed by the study’s 17 trained interviewers, the teens eventually described a religion largely devoid of any notion of Jesus, grace, judgment, salvation, or the cross. Rather, the creed of their faith goes something like this: “God’s out there somewhere, and if you just do what makes you happy and avoid being really bad, you’ll go to heaven when you die.” This faith is characterized by what Smith and Denton call “benign whateverism,” otherwise known as indifference. “MTD is wide open, accepting, and tolerant,” says Smith, “so it fits well with the general whateverism we observed in the youth.”

Did the findings surprise Smith and Denton? Yes and no. “The first part didn’t surprise us as much as the second,” says Denton, a Ph.D. candidate at Chapel Hill and full-time project manager for the NSYR. “Children are socialized into certain families and communities. Knowing the socialization process and how powerful it is, we were not all that surprised to find that teens are going along with what their parents are doing religiously. We were surprised at how little they were able to talk about or understand what it was they were following.”

How has MTD gained such a hold on America’s youth? There appear to be two main culprits: an absence of biblical grounding and an absence of conversations about faith.

Teens interviewed for the NSYR were largely unable to back up statements about their faith with an awareness of Scripture. “Without that grounding, they were at a loss,” notes Denton. “We would ask them, ‘What do you believe?’ and because they didn’t have Scriptures with which to talk about their faith concretely, it was difficult for them to answer the question.”

Says Smith, “I’m repeatedly told by experienced Christian college Bible and theology professors that biblical literacy has declined in recent decades. In a junior high Sunday school class I taught not long ago in which we were discussing the Exodus, one girl interrupted and asked, ‘Who is Moses?’ I nearly fell over.”

Seattle Pacific is not immune to the problem of biblical illiteracy. Longtime Professor of Theology Frank Spina has seen the trend firsthand: “It’s generally been the case that my students believed they knew the Bible, whereas they actually knew scattered theories about the Bible. There has been a clear diminution over the years. I’ve often told my students, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that their ignorance of the Bible was impossible to exaggerate. There’s almost no part of my tongue in my cheek anymore.”

But it wasn’t just biblical knowledge that was lacking. The NSYR also uncovered an absence of “faith conversations.” “For many we interviewed,” says Smith, “it seemed as if this was the first time anyone had ever asked them what they believed. Some of them actually said, ‘I don’t know, nobody’s ever asked me that before.’ By contrast, there was a lot of clear articulation about subjects they’d been drilled on, such as drinking, drugs, and STDs.”

If children never talk about what they believe, they never develop a “faith language,” argue Smith and Denton, and consequently have difficulty coming to understand what they believe. Faith language is a second language, an acquired language, they write in Soul Searching: “Religious faith, practice, and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality.” In other words, it’s hard to know what you believe until you talk it out.

The primary goal of the NSYR, according to Smith and Denton, was to generate discussions in families, churches, and communities about the faith of America’s teenagers — and, ultimately, the future of Christianity in America. And from these discussions, they hope, will come new energy and direction on the part of those individuals and institutions who most influence youth.

At Seattle Pacific, where all students are required to take three Foundations courses in “Christian Formation,” “Christian Scriptures,” and “Christian Theology,” biblical literacy has become one of the “signatures” of SPU President Philip Eaton’s 10-year plan, 2014: A Blueprint for Excellence. “We are committing ourselves — faculty, staff, students, trustees, alumni — to the hard work, the discipline, of becoming biblically and theologically educated,” says Eaton. “In a day of growing biblical and theological illiteracy, this commitment is critical if we are going to engage the culture with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Denton, who spent four years at SPU, believes colleges and universities can help shape the religious lives of students. “What we sensed was missing in teens was the answer to the question, ‘What does religion have to do with the rest of my life?’” she explains. “Many Christian universities take the stand that ‘we’re a Christian university inasmuch as we require chapel.’ My experience at SPU was much more integrated than that. What it takes is a university community that recognizes that our faith and our language of faith intersect with every other facet of our experience. For instance, hurricane relief efforts: Are we talking about why we’re doing this? Just about any university could have those same issues and activities going on. How is our response different because we’re Christians?”

In the end, however, SPU or any other Christian university can do only so much. “I’m not sure a college alone can solve the problem,” says Smith. “I think it ultimately has to get back to churches and families.”

That’s one reason the researchers are taking their findings to the clergy, such as those who attended the recent SPU Church Leaders Forum. Nearly 200 Seattle-area youth pastors and other church leaders who work with teens heard Smith’s presentation of the NSYR research, followed by a discussion session about the role of the church in the faith development of youth.

But the results of the study weigh most heavily on parents, says Smith, a father of three. The NSYR has profoundly impacted his parenting, especially of his two teenagers. “It has encouraged me to be more intentional, purposive, authorized to teach them,” he says. “As a result, I have talked with them more, discussed theological issues. I put together a year-long introductory course on Christian history and theology for my kids, using age-appropriate readings and videos.”

He adds, “Many parents of teens say, ‘my teen doesn’t listen to me anymore,’ but I believe in most cases that is wrong — most teens in fact are still very influenced (for better or worse) by their parents and other significant adults in their lives, whether people realize it or not.”

Denton, the mother of an 8-month-old, agrees. “I think the main point we’ve tried to make is that parents matter,” she says. “Some parents don’t want to intrude, assuming their children don’t want them involved, but for the most part, teens really do want their parents involved, and their involvement really makes a difference. I think it’s important for parents to say, ‘This is a household where faith is embraced, and we engage that conversation. It’s not something that’s just between you and God; this is something that we deal with as a family.’”

Moralistic therapeutic deism, Smith told his SPU audiences, is converting believers of all faiths to its “vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness. The question we must then ask is this: ‘What is a good and faithful response — by parents, by professors, by youth pastors, by each of us?’”

— BY Kathy Henning


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