- Theological Education
In A Faith of Their Own teens rate the personal significance of religion highly; less so the institutional part.
A common assumption among both clergy and scholars is that the time between the end of childhood and the beginning of childbearing is the least religious period of a person’s life.
Not necessarily, according to a new book by a pair of sociologists. In A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America's Adolescents, Lisa Pearce and Melinda Lundquist Denton, argue teenagers are interested in religion. But they often want to “do religion” apart from institutional structures.
“It’s not automatic that adolescents are negative about religion,” says Pearce, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Our interviews suggest they’re thinking of these things. They’re looking for things to be passionate about. The potential is there.”
Pearce and Denton’s book draws on the massive National Study of Youth and Religion, which included telephone surveys and in-depth interviews. The project, supported by the Lilly Endowment, has already produced two other books, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.
In this volume, the two researchers follow up with 2,530 young people, aged 16 to 21, who had first been surveyed about their faith and religious habits in 2002.
In looking for common patterns in the survey responses, the sociologists came up with five types of religious profiles among the teens:
• Abiders, representing 20 percent of the teens. These are the adolescents with the highest levels of religious interest and practice. They not only believe in God, they pray regularly, attend services, volunteer and are most likely to say their religion is the only true faith.
• Adapters, 20 percent. This group shows high levels of personal religiosity. But compared to the Abiders, they are more accepting of other people’s faiths and attend religious services more sporadically. The Adapters are most likely of all the groups to help others in need.
• Assenters, 31 percent. These teens say they believe in God, but they are minimally engaged with their faith. Religion is tangential to other aspects of their lives.
• Avoiders, or 24 percent. They believe in God but do not engage in any religious practice. Their God is a distant one and they often don’t name a religious affiliation.
• Atheists, representing 5 percent. The opposite of the Abiders. They don’t believe in God and don’t attend services.
Overall, the researchers found a modest dip in religious participation between the two waves of their study.
“On average there’s a slight decline in practice and beliefs, especially religious service attendance” says Denton, assistant professor of sociology at Clemson University. “But there’s not the precipitous drop-off people might have expected.”
Denton says one of the more interesting findings was the degree to which teens felt that formal religious services were optional.
“There’s a sense that religious services are helpful but not critical to faith,” she says. “I didn’t hear about the importance of engaging in religious community.”
Denton says religious congregations serious about attracting the younger generation may want to ask themselves: To what degree is communal worship an essential part of faith for this age group?
Those interested in the religious lives of youth can help teens by using an approach the writers call “scaffolding.” It consists of supporting and protecting kids as they refine their religious identity. But eventually that scaffolding should fade as the teens grow into adulthood.
“It needs to be high enough to support them but not so high as to suffocate them,” Pearce says.
Perhaps the most important part of that scaffolding, she adds, is honesty and the ability to authentically acknowledge the role of doubt.
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