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."

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.

How could teenagers who go to church so often know so little -- or at least believe so little -- of the historic Christian faith? And whose fault is it?

Trouble Brewing for the Future

Whether we blame parents, church leaders, the kids themselves, the culture, or some combination, one thing seems clear: Apparently, many church-going teens are not being challenged by the preaching and teaching of the true Gospel. How else can one explain the overwhelming assumption among teens that they are Christian, when they clearly are not?

Soul Searching suggested: "It appears that these conservative Protestant youth have not been very successfully inducted into their tradition's distinctive commitment to Christian particularity, evangelism, the need to accept all that the Bible teaches, and serious church involvement."

It should not be surprising then, that when many of these church-going teens leave home, whatever facade of Christian commitment existed in high school crumbles and falls away.

For example, a 2004 study released by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) examined church attendance by college students. UCLA researchers found that in 2000, just over 80 percent of college freshman said that they had attended church services frequently or occasionally during their last years in high school. During their freshman year at college, that dropped to 52 percent. And by 2003, as those freshmen were going through their junior year, only 29 percent could make that same claim.

Of course, some of that could be explained by the busy pace that many students experience as they go off to college. But Barna said his research indicated that many young people just don't see church playing a major role in their lives.

"One unmistakable indication of the brewing trouble comes from the response to a question concerning how likely teens say they are to attend church once they are independent," he said in Real Teens. "After they graduate from high school or move away from home, just two out of five teens contend it is 'very likely' that they will attend a Christian church on a regular basis, and another two out of five say it is 'somewhat likely.'

"What makes these figures most alarming is that questions of this type typically produce an overestimate of future behavior," Barna continued. "If we apply a 'correction factor' to these responses, we would estimate that about one out of three teenagers is likely to actually attend a Christian church after they leave home."

Unless Christian leaders want to contemplate a future -- much like that unfolding in Europe -- in which their youth abandon Christianity in droves, there must be a brutally honest re-examination of how we do church. After all, our youth are not only our political and cultural future, but they are our religious future as well.

That's a fact we might want to consider now, while those same teens are sitting in church with us, week after week.

Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is news editor of AFA Journal, a publication of the American Family Association. This article, reprinted with permission, appeared in the November/December 2005 issue.

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