Our youth sit in church with us week after week. If we were asked, we would not only acknowledge that they are our political and cultural future, but that they are our religious future as well.

As pollster and researcher George Barna said in Real Teens: A Contemporary Snapshot of Youth Culture, "the substance of our culture hangs in the balance with the changing of the guard every couple of decades. Why? Because once people hit their mid-20s and beyond, they are who they are, and the degree of personal change they undergo in terms of character and values is minimal."

So, do our young people comprehend the rich tradition and foundational truths of the historic Christian faith? Have parents and church leaders done an adequate job in passing along the torch to the next generation?

Sadly -- and one might even say alarmingly, given the stakes -- the answer is an overwhelming and resounding no, according to recent studies.

First, the Good News

Understanding the religious beliefs and practices of the nation's youth was the goal of Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, two sociologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They examined data from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), the largest and most detailed study of teenagers and religion ever undertaken. Both Smith and Denton were connected with that study: Smith as principal investigator of the NSYR, Denton as NSYR project manager.

The results of their research, which also included follow-up, face-to-face interviews with more than 250 of the youth who participated in the NSYR, were published in their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

On the surface, Smith and Denton find much that seems very positive about the religious lives of American teens. While stereotypical teenagers are said to be "deeply restless, alienated, rebellious, and determined to find something that is radically different from the faith in which they were raised," Soul Searching added, "that impression is fundamentally wrong."

Instead, what Smith and Denton learned from their interviews was that "the vast majority of American teenagers are exceedingly conventional in their religious identity and practices .... When it comes to religion, they are quite happy to go along and get along." (Emphasis in original)

The Barna Research Group has found much of the same thing. "Most teenagers think of themselves as Christians," he said in Real Teens. "For more than a decade, regardless of their beliefs and church attendance, more than four out of five teens [86%] have been describing their faith affiliation as Christian."

Furthermore, despite the many worrisome trends over the last 30 or 40 years -- the stripping away of Christian symbols from public life, the apparent triumph of postmodern relativism, the surging interest in New Age religions -- Soul Searching noted that "U.S. youth are not flocking in droves to 'alternative' religions and spiritualities such as paganism and Wicca. Teenagers who are pagan or Wiccan represent fewer than one-third of 1% of U.S. teens."

In fact, with mostly Christianity in mind, Smith and Denton said the data demonstrated that "there are a significant number of adolescents in the United States for whom religion and spirituality are important if not defining features of their lives."

Positive Life Outcomes

Moreover, that religious participation seems to be having a positive effect on youth. The researchers noted, "In general, for whatever reasons and whatever the causal directions, more highly religiously active teenagers are doing significantly better in life on a variety of important outcomes than are less religiously active teens."