Have You Asked Your Teens What They Believe?

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What do the teens in your church believe about religion?

Christian Smith interviewed 267 teens in 45 states to understand their religious beliefs. He published his study in 2005, entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. What he discovered about their views of salvation was not very encouraging.

Grace wasn’t on their radar:

“When teenagers talked in their interviews about grace, they were usually talking about the television show Will and Grace, not about God’s grace (Smith, Soul Searching, p. 167).

Justification was used in the opposite of the Christian sense:

“When teens mentioned being justified, they almost always meant having a reason for doing something behaviorally questionable, not having their relationship with God made right (pp. 167-68).

Generally speaking, teens seemed to have discarded the Protestant gospel:

“Viewed in terms of the absolute historical centrality of the Protestant conviction about salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone and not by any human good works, many belief professions by Protestant teens, including numerous conservative teens, in effect discard that essential Protestant gospel” (p. 136).

Instead, they believed in what Smith terms Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which included plain old works salvation:

“One 15-year-old white conservative Protestant boy from Mississippi, for instance, explained, ‘If you do the right thing and don’t do anything bad, I mean nothing really bad, you know you’ll go to heaven. If you don’t, then you’re screwed [laughs], that’s about it” (p. 136).

In sum, while the vast majority of teens professed to believe whatever their parents or church believed, in practice, they could not articulate what those beliefs were:

“Again, nobody expects adolescents to be sophisticated theologians. But very few of the descriptions of personal beliefs offered by the teenagers we interviewed, especially the Christian teenagers, come close to representing marginally coherent accounts of the basic, important religious beliefs of their own faith traditions. The majority of U.S. teens would badly fail a hypothetical short-answer or essay test of the basic beliefs of their religion. Higher proportions of conservative Protestant teenagers than other Christian teens proved able to summarize the elementary beliefs of their tradition, though often in highly formulaic terms” (p. 137).

Surprisingly, Smith also came to this conclusion:

“it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how to mattered in their life” (p. 133, emphasis original).

No one had ever asked them what they believed! Not their parents, Sunday school teachers, youth pastors, or pastors. No one, until a professor of sociology

Let me be clear about something—no doubt adults had told these teens what to believe all their lives. If they’ve attended church, teachers and pastors told them what to believe Sunday after Sunday.

And the teens had probably been asked to answer questions about whatever materials they covered that day in Sunday school.

But no one had stopped to ask them what they personally believed. That’s a different thing. That’s not asking them to regurgitate information but to reflect on what they believe to be the case. And it turns out they didn’t believe in much more than fragments of their respective traditions:

“In most cases, as with these quotes, even when teenagers did offer specific accounts of their beliefs, they usually turned out to be snippets or fragments of what is in fact the larger belief system of their own religious tradition (p. 132).

We’re now living 20 years later. Those teenagers have grown up and are working adults with families and teenagers of their own. Have things gotten better or worse?

Here’s a challenge to every parent, Sunday school teacher, and pastor. Take your teen aside. Don’t put them in a group. Interview them one-on-one, asking what they personally believe, and listen to their answers. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • How important is religion to you?
  • Why is it important?
  • What difference does it make to your life?
  • Do you believe there is life after death?
  • What happens after you die?
  • What do you believe about salvation?
  • How does someone go to heaven when they die?
  • Why did Jesus have to die? Why did He rise again from the dead?
  • What is God like?
  • Why is God important to you?

That kind of interview will help you know what is really going on with your teens and how best to evangelize and disciple them.

And as you ask your teens those questions, see if you can answer them yourself!

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


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