As spelled out in Soul Searching, these "highly religiously active" teens were those who attended religious services weekly or more; said faith was very or extremely important in everyday life; felt very or extremely close to God; were currently involved in a religious youth group; prayed a few times a week or more; and read Scripture once or twice a month or more.

Data suggested that, compared to their less religiously active peers, more religiously active kids were less likely to engage in illegal substance abuse; use the Internet to view pornography; get lower school grades (i.e., usually Cs, Ds, and Fs); get suspended or expelled from school; be described by parents as fairly or very rebellious; lie to parents; or to have engaged in sex before marriage. Less religious involvement also correlated to a poorer self-image, greater sadness and feelings of depression.

Conversely, Smith and Denton said, the more religiously devoted teenagers were, the less likely they were to believe in relativistic morality, and the more likely they were to say they cared about the needs of the poor and the elderly, as well as "about equality between different racial groups."

While admitting that other factors may enter into this equation -- such as personality types -- the researchers stated: "Something about religion itself causes the good outcomes for youth. By general implication, teens who increase their religious involvement should, net of other factors, reduce their chances of experiencing negative and harmful outcomes," and vice versa.

Non-Christian Christian Teens?

But if the religious lives of teens in the U.S. seem encouraging on the surface, there are troubling currents beneath the foamy whitecaps. As researchers probed deeper, what they found should shake churches to the core.

Barna, for example, after noting that 86 percent of teenagers claimed that they believed in God, asked, "But what is the nature of the God they embrace?"

A strange god indeed, as it turns out. In his book, Third Millennium Teens, Barna revealed this stunning fact: 63 percent of church-going, supposedly Christian teens said they believed "Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and all other people pray to the same God, even though they use different names for their god."

In other critical areas of Christian doctrine -- e.g., the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, the reality of absolute truth -- the majority of church-going teenagers simply do not hold to views that are orthodox.

Smith and Denton said these statistics hold true, for the most part, even in conservative Protestant churches. There is "a large current-day gap between what most conservative Protestant pastors and leaders want their teens to assume and believe and what many conservative Protestant teens actually do assume and believe," Soul Searching said.

However, the sad fact is that very few of the nation's youth appear to be Bible-believing Christians.

To obtain a clearer picture of what youth actually believe, Barna used specific questions in his polling that were designed to allow a peek behind more generalized answers such as, "Yes, I believe in God." For example, in determining if a teenager is actually an evangelical Christian, Barna Research asked nine questions which focus on core evangelical beliefs, such as whether or not a person believes salvation is possible by grace alone.

Using this more probing method, Barna found that only 4 percent of U.S. teens can be considered evangelicals. More distressingly, that number is actually trending in the wrong direction. That 4 percent figure "is a far cry from the 10 percent measured in 1995," he said.