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Teenage religiosity: Widely practiced, poorly understood

Prevailing culture often casts teenagers as alienated from religion, if not downright hostile to it. To believe some movie depictions, teenagers are rebellious Pagans-in-the-making, more interested in witchcraft than mission trips. But a four-year national study of youth and religion arrives at a different conclusion.  The study, which included interviews with more than 3,000 U.S. teenagers, finds that a majority of today’s young people see religion as a positive influence on their lives and the lives of their community. Moreover, they have no desire to cast off the faith of their upbringing.

“The vast majority of teens think religion is a benignly good thing," said Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, and the director of the National Study of Youth and Religion, a landmark survey of youth attitudes and practices. “Most teens are happy to practice religion the way they were raised.”

The results of the study, funded by the Lilly Endowment, suggest parents and clergy need not be too concerned about teenagers rejecting their religion. But it also shows that teens are not particularly knowledgeable or articulate about their faith.

“Teenagers are poorly engaged by their religious community," Smith said. “Not a lot is being asked of them.”

Smith’s study, one of the most ambitious ever conducted on the topic, divides teens into three groups. The first attends church or synagogue on a weekly basis and reports that religion is very important to their lives. The second attends services once or twice a month and describes their faith as somewhat important. The third consists of teens who are religiously disconnected or indifferent to religion.

Prayer is popular among all three groups, the study finds. Twenty-two percent of teens say they pray once a day, for example. But youth have a harder time explaining what prayer means. In addition, the study finds that few teenagers engage in private Bible study. Only a third of Protestant teens (32 percent) report that they personally read the Bible alone once a week or more often.

At the same time, teens are watching a lot of TV. Teens aged 13 to 17, reported watching an average of 16 hours of TV per  week, not including movies on DVD or video. And tellingly, teens who attend religious services more than once a week average only one hour less television per week than teens who never attend religious services.

All this leads Smith to conclude that youth activities at church are not as challenging as they could be.

“Congregations need to learn how teens can deal with the real issues in their lives,” Smith said. “They need to be asked tough questions.”

Those congregations that fail to grapple with issues such as sexuality, substance abuse and relationships will force young people to find answers elsewhere.

The conclusions from Smith’s study have been published in a book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press). The book, like the survey, is based on a nationwide telephone survey as well as face-to-face interviews with more than 250 teens.

Meanwhile, at least one website has attempted to broaden and deepen teenagers’ spiritual practices. The site www.waytolive.org is intended to help young people develop approaches to practices such as forgiveness and hospitality. Developed by Valparaiso University’s Education and Formation of People in Faith Project, the site has a contemporary feel. A section on worship, for example, includes activities such as “lectio divina,” or “divine reading.” The leader’s guide suggests that a group of no more than eight teens “light a candle to remind us of Christ’s presence in our midst,” and ask each other, “Do I sense this passage is inviting me to do or be something?”

Such websites can be useful, especially since 40 percent of teenagers who say religion is very important report using the Internet to visit religious websites a few times each month, according to the national study.

But ultimately, Smith said, parents and congregations are going to have to model a vital Christian example.

“Interested adults need to know that teens may come across as ‘I’m not interested in adults,’ but they really are,” he said. “Teens want adults to engage them and they’re looking for places where they can have community.”

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