Friday, December 28, 2007

Mormon Teenagers' Christian Characteristics

by Kenda Creasy Dean
Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ (USA)
Presented at the
International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry
London, England
January 3-7, 2005
Our distinct impression is that very many religious congregations and communities of faith in the United States are failing rather badly in religiously engaging and educating youth.

Christian Smith,
National Study of Youth and Religion (2004)[1]

Certain religious traditions in the United States appear more or less capable of eliciting serious, multifaceted religious devotion in their teenagers. Conservative Protestantism and Mormonism seem especially likely and Catholicism appears particularly unlikely to produce highly religiously devoted teenagers (all compared to mainline Protestantism).
Christian Smith,
National Study of Youth and Religion (2004)

Teenagers are heat-seeking missiles. They’re drawn to fire. They yearn for experiences that will channel their passions. And by and large they’re not detecting many signs of life in the church. Cuyler Black, youth pastor (2001)[3]

I am a card-carrying, self-avowed, practicing mainline Protestant. For as long as I can remember, the United Methodist Church has nurtured and encouraged me, even when I failed to return the favor. I grew up in a tiny congregation called Grace Church, where the preaching was poor and the singing was worse, where skinny farmers prayed for rain and Ed Augsburger—eighty if he was a day—asked me every Sunday how things were going at school. Worship and mission were egalitarian and participatory, not by theological design, but because small churches need everybody, kids included, to pitch in. But I also learned a great deal about how not to do ministry at Grace. It pandered to the squeaky wheels, seldom paid denominational support, and as a child I watched our only usher prevent an African-American teenager from entering the sanctuary. As a community, Grace was often judgmental and stubborn, a place bishops sent naught preachers into exile until they earned the right to move “up” to less cantankerous congregation.

And yet, I am in ministry because of this church. This, more than anything I can name, proves to me the mystery of God. Somehow the fact that we humans consistently do church badly does not stop God from using these limping little communities to call people like me, and maybe you, to lives of faith and ministry. According to the National Study of Youth and Religion--the largest study of religion and youth ever undertaken in the U.S., extensively profiling 3,370 American teenagers between the ages of 13-17--a sizeable portion of young people, 40%, practice their faith in significant ways, and have lives in which their religious convictions noticeably affect their daily lives and decisions. Most of these young people come from families where parents, more than congregations, have shaped their religiosity, but this religiosity has issued in sustained relationships within faith communities where regular practices deepen the adolescent’s sense of connection to the Almighty. These young people are a minority in the U.S., but they are a substantial one—and they will, undoubtedly, form the backbone of the church’s leadership in the generation to come. These youth are disproportionately Mormon, conservative Protestant, and African-American Protestant.
This paper is not about them.

The Church of Benign Whateverism
This paper is about the other 60%--the majority of American teenagers, who are overwhelmingly mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic—whose attitude toward religion was described in an early report of the National Study of Youth and Religion as “benign positive regard”: they believe religion is good, but inconsequential.[4] As the project’s principle investigator, Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, put it, “Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers’ benign “whateverism.”[5] Most of these youth call themselves Christians, and attend worship--and often Christian education, and youth ministry programs--regularly. But they have virtually no religious language to prove it, nor do they understand central doctrines of historically orthodox Christianity. In short, while they apparently engage in sometimes substantial Christian education, the amount of Christian learning that has taken place seems exceedingly slim.
These young people are adherents of non-judgmental openness, self-determination, and the authority of personal experience. They value and engage in religion, notes Smith, not for the sake of God, or the common good, or for composing an identity or distinctive community, but for the instrumental good it does them. Religion is not particularly necessary, but it can be useful, especially in terms of validating what teenagers want to do anyway.[6] The NSYR summarizes their religious convictions as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”—particularly evident among mainline Protestant and Catholic youth, though traces are visible among youth of all religious persuasions, including non-religious American youth. The creed of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (which is seldom confessed aloud) goes something like this:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible
and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is
needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Here is where the study drops a bombshell. Why do teenagers practice an instrumental faith like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism instead of orthodox Christianity? Not because they have misunderstood what we have taught them in church. They practice it because this is precisely what we have taught them in church. Increasingly, the NSYR suggests, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion of mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations in the U.S.--and young people are the theological barometers of this shift.[8] As Smith observes, “Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.”[9]

These findings are documented in Smith’s new book, Soul-Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005), which should give those of us in youth ministry plenty to chew on for the foreseeable future, regardless of tradition. Last October, as I read an advance copy of these findings-- concluding for the umpteenth time that the sample must have been skewed, since the kids I work with look disproportionately faithful--my sixteen-year-old son banged in the door from youth group and announced that he would not be going to church anymore. (I stopped myself from saying, at that moment, something like: “Over my dead body.”) He had had a revelation at youth group that night, he said: he was an atheist. Religion is fine for people like you, Mom, although I can’t really understand how you actually believe this stuff. But that’s cool. At the same time, Brendan suggested, he had now sufficiently evolved to the point that he didn’t need religion. I’ll go to youth fellowship because it’s fun, and I like the people, he said. But I don’t need God. And Jesus (rolls eyes). And I sure don’t need church.
Now, of course, statements like these only strengthen my maternal resolve and creativity, and yes, he’s been in church every Sunday since, atheist that he may be. But Brendan’s remarks so completely echoed the interviews of teenagers I conducted as a researcher for the National Study of Youth and Religion that it was impossible not to step back and wonder: has he, too, become his parents? We espouse Christian faith at our house, but at the moment we are confused Methodists attending a Presbyterian Church because of the quality and content of the youth ministry there. Has our God also become benign, and Brendan is simply coming clean with the “what’s the point” question? In general—and it certainly didn’t take a national sociology study to discover this—when it comes to child-rearing, parents get what they are. That is as true at church as it is at home. I’d like to think that I worship the God of Jesus Christ, who is as far from benign as I can imagine, and who deserves our passion, not our positive regard. And yet, I am a card-carrying, self-avowed, practicing mainline Protestant. And if the findings of NSYR are accurate, mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic young people are the most spiritually at-risk young people in the U.S.

I give you this personal background for two reasons. First, I want you to know that I consider my quarrel with mainline Protestantism to be a family squabble. In the U.S., “mainline Protestant” refers to the predominantly, but not universally, middle to upper class, socially middle-of-the-road to liberal traditions that trace their theological heritage, indirectly in my case, to the Reformation, and that historically held social power in U.S. culture. No longer; today these churches find themselves increasingly marginalized, having failed to truly acknowledge that “the Christian century” never quite materialized.[10] This church is my theological home, and I have no plans to defect, but I also think many of our wounds are self-inflicted and love requires honesty. Roman Catholicism in the U.S. has a very different story, culturally and theologically, although increasingly it follows the “mainline” patterns of middle class social influence. In this essay, Catholics may extend my critique to their own ranks—or not—and certainly conservative and/or African-American Protestants may also see themselves in these pages. But in response to this particular study, at this particular point in our cultural history, it seems to me that mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics may have more to learn about youth ministry from conservative or African-American Protestants than the other way around.[11]

Second, you will understand that as a parent, I cannot give up on my son’s faith. Nor can I give up on the faith of the vast majority of young people in our midst. Perhaps true Christianity was never designed to be a “majority” religion, despite seventeen centuries of de facto Christendom in Europe and three hundred years of unofficial civil Christianity in the U.S. Yet the angel’s glad tidings of great joy to the shepherds were intended for “all people” (Luke 2:10)—and teenagers want glad tidings too.

So this essay issues from my suspicion that something deeper lurks beneath teenagers’ frank descriptions of their bland religiosity: disappointment. They would like to believe more than they do. They wish they had a church community important enough to lay claim to them. They wish God would just tell them what to do with their lives, and give them some reason to hope in anything other than themselves. But for most American young people, this has not been their experience of the church. Maybe they were expecting a fairy godmother and the suffering Christ was something of a let down. But I doubt seriously that we have ventured this far with young people, which accounts for a great deal of the problem, for Christian churches in the U.S. are far more apt to preach civility than passion—which means that, as a church, have not been who we said we are, and the god we worship is very often not who the angel promised God would be. My real suspicion is that we have disappointed youth by selling them—and Jesus Christ—short. If the majority of young Americans find the church worthy of “benign whateverism” and no more, then the indictment falls on us, not on them. Nothing reveals our apostasy more clearly than this: American young people are becoming exactly who we have taught them to be-- extensions of ourselves.

Overview of the Project
This paper is an outgrowth of the NSYR, which from the outset identified persons like myself to serve as interpreters of the project’s findings for the faith communities we represent.[12] I sat for hours with teenagers at California Pizza Kitchens, Barnes and Nobles, and T.G.I. Fridays--youth who, if anything, seemed numb to religion’s claim on their lives, and oblivious to its verifiable effect on their behavior. There were exceptions; but not many.[13]

This paper is suggestive rather than prescriptive; it is a prĂ©cis of a larger project, and therefore its arguments are necessarily incomplete and subject to debate and revision. It is either a great gift—or a great calamity—to present my interpretation of the NSYR findings publicly for the first time at an international gathering of youth ministry scholars, for you see what Harold Bloom has called “The American Religion” with more objective eyes than I do. I am keen to collect your insights, and your critiques, of these ideas, and I will be taking notes.[14] Because of the limitations of our current discussion, I will have to be content with reporting the NSYR’s findings, and proposing a thesis in response. My thesis is this: if the American church has any hope of inviting young people into lives of faith, we must offer them a theology robust enough to counter the American theological default position of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This theology begins with a substantive doctrine of God that is embodied in a community of consequence—namely, a community that loves sacrificially, and that calls young people to love and sacrifice as well, and instills hope that God is up to something, with them and with the world.

Part I: The Results

The NSYR took place over a two-year period that included phone interviews (30 minutes with a parent, 52 minutes with a teenager) of 3,370 English and Spanish-speaking 13-17 year olds, as well as 267 face-to-face, three-hour interviews to follow-up on questions about teens’ spiritual, moral, family, and social lives in more depth. The data generated by this project was enormous, and far exceeded the study’s capacity to analyze every variable.[15] That said, the NSYR draws eleven conclusions on the religious lives of young people in the U.S., which challenge us to re-think whatever it is we call youth ministry:
1. Most U.S. teenagers embrace some religious identity and are affiliated with a religious organization.
More than three-quarters of U.S. teens between the ages of 13 and 17 identify themselves as Christians, and nearly 3 in 5 youth say they attend religious services at least monthly. Most of these teenagers practice their faith only sporadically, but a sizeable minority—about 40%--go to church at least once a week, pray at least daily, and are currently involved in a religious youth group.[16] Slightly more than half of youth surveyed (55%) say they have made “a personal commitment to live life for God.”[17] In total, about half (49-51%) of American teenagers say that religion is important in their daily lives and that faith exerts a significant influence in shaping their life decisions.[18] The actual depth of these professed religious commitments is scrutinized below.

2. Most U.S. teenagers follow in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to religion.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, most youth feel positive about religion and positive about their congregations, pointing to advantages and benefits they see religion offering individuals, society, or both. Yet the most dangerous gesture in Christendom is a colossal shrug; teenagers are exceedingly conventional in their faith, “going along with” the religious beliefs and level of commitment exhibited by their parents. As Smith points out, the conventionality of young people’s faith—their tendency to “just go along” with whatever their parents do religiously—often lends itself to routine and inertia. More to the point: adolescents do not discount religion because they have found it lacking. They discount religion because their parents discount religion. In terms of faith, parents and youth seem to be “numb” and “numb-er.”

3. While most U.S. teenagers feel generally positive toward religion, religion is simply not a big deal to them.
According to the NSYR, “the vast majority of U.S. teens view religion in a benignly positive light.” It is not a source of conflict, simply because most youth do not consider religion important enough to argue about. Nor do they pursue alternative or eclectic forms of spirituality that explore different faith traditions (although they gladly grant others the right to do so). Most U.S. teenagers, observes Smith, “tend to view religion as a Very Nice Thing,” but it does not concern them greatly, and they have a very limited understanding of religion’s influence in their lives.[19] While sociologists have long shown the influence of religious beliefs and practices in shaping the values and lifestyles of U.S. adolescents, teens themselves view religion as “part of the furniture”: an accepted part of their lives that operates in the background, not worth a whole lot of thought. As Smith observes, “Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers’ benign ‘whateverism.’”[20]

4. The vast majority of teenagers in the U.S. identify themselves as Christians.
Popular conceptions of religious pluralism among U.S. adolescents seem to be overstated.
Three out of four U.S. teenagers say they are Christian (about half are Protestant and one-quarter are Catholic). The next largest group were young people who called themselves “not religious” (16%), although follow-up interviews found that many of these youth were nominal Christians (and some youth interpreted “non-religious” to mean belonging to a “nondenominational” Christian church). The third largest group was Mormon youth (2.5%) followed by Jews (1.5%). Denominational distribution among teenagers mirrored that of American adults.

5. Mormon teenagers are faring best.

In nearly every area, using a variety of measures (i.e., comparing the truth content of their religious tradition with adherents’ actual spiritual life and health), Mormon young people showed the highest degree of religious vitality and salience. After Mormon youth, conservative Protestant and black Protestant teenagers scored strongest in terms of religious vitality and salience—followed by mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and non-religious teenagers.[21]

6. The single most important influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.
The best social predictor of what the religious and spiritual life of a teenager will look like is to ask what the religious and spiritual lives of his or her parents look like. By and large, parents “will get what they are.” Grandparents, other relatives, mentors, and youth ministers can be very influential, but normally parents are most important in forming their children’s religious lives. (The study notes: “Teenagers do not seem very reflective about or appreciative of this fact.”[22])

7. Supply and demand matters to the spiritual lives of teenagers.
The greater the availability of religiously grounded relationships, activities, programs, opportunities and challenges for teenagers, the more likely teenagers are to be religiously engaged and invested. In other words, “congregations that prioritize youth ministry and support for their parents, invest in trained and skilled youth group leaders, and make serious efforts to engage and teach adolescents seem much more likely to draw youth into their religious lives and to foster religious and spiritual maturity in their young members. This appears to be true of local congregations, regional organizations such as diocese and state conventions, and entire religious traditions.”[23] Stated negatively, churches that do not invest in their youth will find youth unlikely to invest in them.

8. Spiritual and religious understanding are very weak among American teenagers.
The vast majority of U.S. teenagers are, to quote the study, “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives.”[24] When asked, many youth defaulted and just said they had no religious beliefs, or described beliefs that would be considered heretical in their professed religious traditions—although youth seemed unaware of this fact. This was true even for teenagers who regularly attend church, with mainline Protestants being “among the least religiously articulate of all teens,” and with Catholics not far behind.[25]

Smith makes a pointed observation here. “We do not believe that teenage inarticulacy about religious matters reflects any general teen incapacity to think and speak well,” since many of the youth interviewed were impressively articulate about other subjects. Rather, Smith hypothesizes that youth were inarticulate in matters of faith because no one had taught them how to talk about their faith, or provided opportunities to practice talking about it. For a striking number of teenagers, researchers reported, the NSYR interview seemed to be the first time any adult had asked these young people what they believed and how it mattered in their life.[26] Smith concludes by saying, “Our distinct impression is that very many religious congregations and communities of faith in the United States are failing rather badly in religiously engaging and educating youth.”[27]

9. Teenagers tend to espouse a religious outlook that is distinct from the traditional faith commitments of most U.S. religious traditions—an outlook that can be described as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism serves as a “default position” for adolescent religiosity when religious communities’ engagement and education of youth by is weak. But there is more to the story, for young people seem to be barometers of a larger theological shift taking place in the U.S. In Smith’s words, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is, in the context of their own congregations and denominations, actively displacing the substantive traditional faiths of conservative, black, and mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in the U.S. . . .It may be the new mainstream American religious faith for our culturally post-Christian, individualistic, mass-consumer capitalist society.”[28]

10. Religion operates in a weak social structural position compared to other activities and organizations that lay claim to U.S. teenagers’ time.
When forced to choose between religious activities and other activities, teenagers typically choose other activities. The NSYR hastens to add that it is insufficient to focus on this issue as a matter of personal choice on the part of adolescents; larger social and institutional contexts help shape adolescents’ choices, which in turn are shaped by social and cultural forces of therapeutic individualism, mass-consumer capitalism, the digital communications revolution, to name a few. Still, teenagers are most apt to participate in religious activities when there is nothing else competing for their time (which, in contemporary American culture, is almost never).

11. Highly religious teenagers appear to be doing much better in life than less religious teenagers.[29]
The NSYR observed “sizable and significant differences in a variety of important life outcomes between more and less religious teenagers in the U.S.” The study supports the assumption that religious identities, organizations, and practices significantly shape people’s lives, despite the fact that most teenagers are only dimly aware how, why, or even that this is happening. Complicating this is the persistent adult tendency of framing adolescent life as a thing unto itself. Smith—himself a parent of young teenagers--argues that generational continuity far outweighs any “generation gap” we might observe, noting that “adults ought to stop thinking about teenagers as aliens or even others.” [30] Most problems that we typically consider teenage problems, Smith argues, are in fact inextricably linked to adult-world problems, and most teens want and seek strong relational ties with adults. Smith views churches as uniquely positioned, among the array of social institutions in the U.S., “to embrace youth, to connect with adolescents, to strengthen ties between adults and teenagers. This could only be good for all involved.”[31]

No youth minister hears these words without breathing a sigh of relief (as though we
need sociology to validate our reason for being here) while at the same time wanting to issue a call to arms (isn’t this what we have been saying for all these years?). These finding confirm what we have long suspected: that youth ministry never operates apart from what we believe, deep down, about the power of God and the church. If, in fact, adolescents are barometers of the human condition—indicators of the rising and falling pressures on the human psyche placed upon us by our particular moment in history[32]--then it comes as no surprise that teenagers’ lack of appropriation of Christian teaching is indicative of a larger religious shift in their communities. It may be tempting to dismiss faulty understandings of doctrine, lackadaisical interest in the church, and a general obliviousness to religion and religious practices as “youth problems,” but the fact is, as Michael Warren has pointed out, there are no so-called “youth problems” that are not, in fact, human problems “now come to roost among the young.”[33] This paper serves as an initial barometric reading of the NSYR findings to see what they suggest, not just for youth ministry, but for the church.

Part II: A Theological Response

Of course, the big question is Why? Why have our earnest and often deeply invested efforts to imbue young people with vital faith fallen on deaf ears—or at least ears preoccupied with an iPod or a cell phone or some other accoutrement of our mass culture? The NSYR ventures four possible explanations for the failure of religious involvement to substantially alter the course of adolescent faith:
O Inadequate supply: Some religious communities in which youth are involved provide few resources for nurturing faith in young people, or have only weak versions of them;
O Failure to appropriate: Some youth in religious communities that do offer constructive influences may, for whatever reasons, choose to remain largely detached, marginal, and uninvolved, and so fail to benefit from positive religious influences;
O Disruptive events: Some youth who are constructively influenced by religious involvement may have that influence disrupted and negated by specific detrimental events (e.g., divorce, abuse, unreconciled falling-outs with people in the religious community, etc.) that religious influences for various reasons are unable to counter or overcome;
O Competing influences: Some youth being constructively shaped by religious involvement may have those influences overwhelmed by counterinfluences from other social associations (sports, the media, school, etc.) that promote competing moral orders and practices.
These are perceptive and provocative possibilities. But they do not tell the whole story—for
God, in God’s mystery, continues to call young people from under-resourced communities, youth who show no visible signs that Jesus is “getting through,” teenagers who weather and transcend disruptive events, and who somehow ignore competing influences on their time. Furthermore, the God of the gospels is precisely the kind of God who is supposed to be able to overcome such human misfortunes, i.e., to raise up faithful people where once there were none, to open our ears to the teaching of the Holy Spirit, to redeem disaster and to relativize all other claims on our identity. If this is who God is—but if my religious life is still far from convincing—then I might conclude that (a) God is asleep at the switch, or (b) the gospels were wrong, or (c) there is no God.

But I think there is another possibility: we, the church, have presented young people with a such a stripped-down version of Christianity that it no longer poses a viable challenge to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Perhaps we have favored a god who operates at a purely personal level, who can help us discern right from wrong (but is not necessary to do so), who meets our needs (though counseling, friendship, money, or achievement meet our needs as well), who is active neither in the present, nor in my own life (though this god may have gotten things started). If this god, by whatever name, is the one we offer young people, then they are right to abandon us. The most religiously sensitive youth abandon God altogether before settling for a fraud. Certainly it is possible to see in the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism some potential benefits without finding a reason for a life commitment. No problem: the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism asks no such commitment. As gods go, the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is highly convenient but hardly compelling.

By contrast, the God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures does ask, not just for commitment, but for our very lives. The God of the Bible traffics in life and death, not niceness; the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures describe a faith predicated upon, and issuing in, sacrificial love, not benign whateverism. The God of the Bible loves passionately, and in fact is willing to suffer in our stead in order to win our return. Christian tradition calls this divine love the “passion” of the cross—a love that is, literally, “to die for.” It is the love God showed us in Jesus Christ, and it is the love God hopes we will return.

In family systems theory, we learn that the acting out child typically enacts a problem affecting the larger family system. I am suggesting that the flaccid faith of adolescents described by the NSYR “acts out” a theological fissure that lurks underneath the youth ministries, and probably the adult ministries, of mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in particular, and perhaps others as well. My own belief, which I have argued elsewhere, is that this shadow is cast by a breakdown in our understanding of doctrines that historically have stood at the core of Christian faith, accompanied by a breakdown in the practices that embody these doctrines.[35] Cut off from their theological tap roots, these practices lost their power and meaning, creating the conditions for “benign whateverism.” The upshot is that we have received from teenagers exactly what “benign whateverism” asks them for: assent, not conviction, compliance, not faith.

Mormon Envy: In Search of a Consequential Faith

Perhaps this explains my reaction, and maybe yours, to the study’s consistent portrayal of Mormon young people as “topping the charts” in terms of spiritual vitality, depth of religious understanding, salience of faith in their daily lives, hope for the future, and general wellbeing as adolescents. [36] The religiously devoted young people in the study—including the 8% who not only believe in God, but who attend religious services weekly or more often, and who participate in religious youth groups, and who pray and read the Bible regularly, and who say faith is extremely important in their lives—were disproportionately Mormon and conservative Protestant, followed by black Protestants. Certain demographic variables seem to be associated with religious devotion, which to some degree Mormons, conservative Protestants, and black Protestants exemplify: Girls are more devoted than boys, younger teens are more devoted than older teens, blacks are more devoted than whites, youth with married or highly educated parents are more devoted than other teens—and youth in higher-income families or who live in the Northeast are less religiously devoted than their peers. Social variables play a role too: not surprisingly, young people who are involved in more organized activities and groups are also more likely to participate in religious youth groups and attend religious services, as are youth whose closest friends are in these groups, and who say their parents love, accept, understand—and closely monitor---them.[37]

But the high degree of religious salience among Mormon, and to a lesser extent among conservative and black Protestant youth, cannot be explained by demographic and social variables alone. Part of the explanation stems from the religious practices of these communities, which embody core theological convictions that add up to a consequential faith. In short, only a consequential faith enables young people to override the inertia of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism pervading much of American religion. One possibility is that the religious identity available in these communities is a foreclosed identity—i.e., a predetermined identity, prematurely foisted upon young people, coerced by the tight-knit communities that raise them. In some circles, I think this is a risk. But another possibility is that these communities engage in practices of genuine spiritual resistance, and offer teenagers a faith identity strong enough to support it, and some of these practices embody beliefs shared by the broader Christian tradition that make them potentially available to mainline Protestant and Catholic young people as well.[38]
This is where the interdisciplinary nature of practical theology is our ally, for it allows us to borrow sociological observations to assist us with theological self-reflection. In youth ministry, we tend to show our theological cards operationally, so the forms our ministries take often reveal more than we say, and sometimes they communicate unintended theological assumptions—i.e., the works righteousness implied by a too-full pastoral calendar, or the cheap grace suggested by our failure to enforce moral standards on retreats, or by substituting programs of self-esteem for practices of sacrificial love. Because we are not explicit about, or even aware of, the theological assumptions embedded in our ministries, teenagers are left to absorb these assumptions without reflection, critique, or even a language to access them.
An initial “sounding” of what Mormon, conservative Protestants, and black Protestants offer young people suggests that they offer—in quite unique ways—young people four resources, embodied by the faith community itself, that provide anchors for a religious identity. For the sake of conversation, I’ll call these resources 1) a creed to believe, 2) a place to belong, 3) a call to live out, and 4) a hope to hold onto. To be clear, the theologies that fund these resources are quite different, although they can all be expressed in the language (if not the doctrines) of orthodox Christianity.[39] While causality is impossible to determine empirically, let me venture a hunch—and that is that faith identities constructed on a foundation consisting of these four resources have a better chance of resisting Moralistic Therapeutic Deism than those constructed from other resources in American culture. To nuance my hunch slightly, I’ll say it this way: Communities with a substantive doctrine of God tend to offer young people a , in which young people receive a language and a set of practices that enflesh this understanding of God, and opportunities to use them. This experience prepares teenagers for living in a morally significant universe in which their lives make a difference, where they are asked to respond to God in ways that contribute to God’s ultimate transformation of the world. These four factors—a morally consequential God, a consequential community, a consequential life, and a consequential hope—give teenagers the foundation for an identity grounded in a consequential faith.
The question is: can mainline Protestants and Catholics offer that?

A creed to believe
A place to belong
A call to live out
A hope to hold onto
Seminary (high school)
Mission years/youth leadership
Conservative Protestants
Bible study
City on a hill
Second coming
African American Protestants
Racial/ethnic group
Operationalized religion– no divide between Sunday and Monday
1. The God Card: A Creed to Believe—or, Why Religious Practices Are Not Enough

A creed to believe
Seminary (high school)
Conservative Protestants
Bible study
African American Protestants
Despite the lively discussion currently surrounding religious practices (a discussion I support and participate in), practices alone do not make for vital faith in young people or anyone else. Substantive faith begins with a substantive God—a God who is worthy of the sacrifice of time and energy religion requires, who offers concern and scope sufficient to merit our obeisance. Distant, deistic gods are too far removed to sustain religious practices over the long haul, since these practices ultimately seek connection with the divine; personal, morally concerned gods, on the other hand, do evoke moral responses, as well as threaten sanctions when these moral responses are ignored, and imbue faith practices with meaning and purpose—resulting in far greater significance in the life of the believer.
This is the basic argument of sociologist Rodney Stark, who counters nearly a century of sociological preoccupation with religious ritual to claim that the God-images that give rise to religious rituals and practices determine people’s moral behavior far more than rituals themselves.[40] In other words, religion requires doctrine, core beliefs about who God is and what God is up to in the world. Stating the obvious, perhaps, to theologians, Stark reminds his sociologist colleagues: “Gods are the fundamental feature of religions.”[41] On the basis of cross-cultural analysis, Stark observes that some kinds of gods hold more sway over people than others. We are more likely to adhere to religions that espouse a God who is conscious, rational, responsive, dependable, has a life-encompassing scope, and is exclusive (meaning, our God will reward the faithful—namely, us--and punish the apostate).[42] Never one to shy away from theological dabbling, Stark argues that religion functions to sustain a moral order in society—i.e., makes a difference in how people actually live their lives—only insofar as people believe in a particular kind of a God. Specifically, personal images of God (i.e., images of God as having a personal consciousness and who is morally concerned with the universe) have more influence than distant, cosmic images of God, and that powerful images of God have more influence than affectionate images of God.[43]
Theologically, a “personal” God can range from feelings of “closeness to God” (one of only two measures in the NSYR in which Mormons landed below youth in most other groups, and a particularly important feature of American evangelical faiths)[44] to knowledge of God’s “personhood,” which can be interpreted as the Incarnation of Christ in the Trinitarian formula or as the Mormon view of God as a finite and limited fellow who progressed from humanity to divinity, and now serves as the example for all Mormon men to follow.[45] Similarly, opposing “powerful” images of God and “affectionate” images of God cannot be supported by a careful reading of Scripture, although many American Christians do, in fact, oppose them. Nine out of ten Americans believe in God and 88% of us, according to Gallup, believe that God loves us, though we seldom question what, exactly, that means.[46] At the same time, less than a third (29%) of Americans think that God controls what happens on earth.[47]

Here might be one piece to our puzzle. While youth in the NSYR study were stunningly inarticulate about religious belief, those who could articulate a basic understanding of their faith traditions—primarily Mormons and conservative Protestants, and to some degree, black Protestants—talked about God in personal, experiential terms, and expressed belief in God’s active role in their daily lives. (Many black Protestant youth had trouble articulating doctrines, but were conversant about the operationalized theology of their faith community—a typical way of doing theology in African American churches, which frequently privilege Biblical narratives over dogmatic theology, and catechize young people in key images designed to motivate moral behavior and social responsibility). God’s power is an important theme in Mormon, conservative and black Protestant rhetoric (though not necessarily at the expense of God’s affection). For Mormons, the accumulation of spiritual power marks the progress by which men becomes gods; conservative Protestants and African-Americans—who hold fast to the image of divine love as consequential for individuals--both invoke Old Testament images of God’s wrath (conservative Protestants) and God’s deliverance (black Protestants) more frequently than mainline Protestants or Catholics. Even the cross, a prominent image in conservative Protestant and African-American Protestant churches, is viewed as a symbol of divine power, despite its political status as an emblem of Jesus’ vulnerability and human weakness.

Without going into exhaustive exegesis of these theological traditions, we can say with some certainty that, for Mormon, conservative Protestant, and African-American young people, God is not a wimp. These traditions offer teenagers a consequential God, and regardless of how we judge their teachings, they share an overriding assumption that God is concerned and powerful enough to actually make a difference—even an ultimate difference--in their lives.
But it is not enough that Mormons, conservative Protestants, and black Protestants believe this. Youth must actually participate in practices that embody and teach these doctrines, giving young people a language with which to express their God-images, and opportunities to put these doctrines to use while appropriating them for themselves. For Mormons, seminary takes place for an hour before school, every single day throughout high school, in someone’s home. The host parents serve as catechists (for four years), driving the kids to school after the lesson. Students typically arrive at school together, as if to reinforce their identity as Mormons before the school day begins, and to remind one another that they are not alone in their faith; they have each another to hold them accountable to the church. Conservative Protestants rely heavily on religious practices as means of catechesis; after Mormons (who scored strongest or next strongest in almost every category of religious practice), conservative Protestants were the most active in both corporate and personal religious practices, and were especially apt to find themselves in Bible studies with others and “spiritual reading” on their own. Black Protestants were close behind, praying even more often than conservative Protestants, although the primary venue for African American catechesis seems to be music, with large percentages of African American teenagers “singing their faith” as well as listening to others sing about theirs.
The point is that all religiously devoted young people actively participated in practices that enabled them to put their God-images into words and actions, giving them a verbal and nonverbal language to share the content of their creeds. Mormons (72%) and conservative Protestants (56%) were especially apt to share their religious beliefs with someone not of their faith (only 37% of Catholic youth did this), and Mormons were especially likely to take part in personal practices like fasting or self-denial and Sabbath-keeping, as well as communal practices like being part of a scripture study or prayer group or teaching Sunday school. Music provided an important avenue for religious education for all devoted teenagers, while only one religious practice was as prevalent among mainline Protestants and Catholics as for other groups: “working hard to reconcile a broken relationship.”[48]

Here lies another piece of our puzzle. Compared to mainline Protestant and Catholic young people, Mormon, conservative Protestant and African American youth seem to receive more in the way of intentional teaching core doctrines of the faith (not always in formal educational settings; worship seems to provide the primary context for catechesis in African American communities), and more opportunities to actually put those core doctrines into practice than mainline Protestant and Catholic youth. Religiously devoted teenagers seem to come from communities that value their participation in the life of the community, and encourage and offer them opportunities to practice their hermeneutical and practical skills.

How these communities do this, of course, varies wildly; African American youth frequently serve as worship leaders, particularly musically, while Mormon teenagers take formal leadership in church school classes, and seem to have a great deal of experience talking to their friends about their faith, from the time they are quite young. These communities seem to bear out the importance of a powerful, personal, morally concerned God-image compared to the distant, abstract god implied by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—and they give teenagers concrete opportunities to both learn about this kind of God, and to put their God-beliefs into action.

2. The Subculture Thesis: A Place to Belong—or, What Do “They” Have That “We” Don’t?

A place to belong

Conservative Protestants
African American Protestants
Racial/ethnic group

To belong to the solidarity of a group is a sacred thing for a teenager. A sense of belonging in a religious community is a more important indicator in a young person’s likelihood to practice faith as an adult than is regular church attendance.[49] Sociologists regularly cite the axiom that “networks precede conversions” to explain why most conversions occur: because friends invite friends to share their faith.[50]
Yet to belong to a group means, by definition, that the group is distinct; if there is an “us,” there must also be a “them.” Ingroups require outgroups, and the stronger the boundaries between the two, the more important the group’s influence will be on the identity of its members. Important as God-images may be to a salient faith, form shapes meaning as well. The human need for meaning —especially where adolescents are concerned—requires beliefs to take form in human communities whose actions embody these beliefs, and therefore contribute to the “form-ation” of group members’ identities. In other words, for religion to lay claim to an adolescent’s identity, religious groups must function as communities of consequence—communities whose actions have influence, and whose are bound together as people who do things differently than those around them. These communities’ distinctiveness helps teenagers define themselves in concert with those who share their creed, and over against those who do not.
Amidst the bulldozing forces of secularization in the late twentieth century, predicting the demise of distinctive religious communities became something of a cottage industry for sociologists; most of them have since recanted, since globalization quickly proved these predictions wrong. In fact, global pluralism provided precisely the conditions under which religions “survive and thrive,” as Smith puts it, by situating themselves in subcultures that offer “morally orienting collective identities which provide their adherents meaning and belonging.”[51] Smith notes, “In a pluralistic, modern world, people don’t need macro-encompassing sacred cosmoses [sacred canopies, to use Peter Berger’s phrase] to maintain their religious beliefs. They only need ‘sacred umbrellas’ . . . religious reference groups. . . ‘under’ which their beliefs make complete sense.”[52] At the same time, some religious reference groups are more important to their members’ identities than others. In general, the stricter the conditions for joining a group under a particular umbrella, the less likely people are to leave its shelter.

Perhaps we have another clue here to the “at risk” nature of mainline Protestant and Catholic religious identity. Smith is an advocate of subcultural identity theory, and while he does not wrest support for this theory from the NSYR findings, he could have. Smith’s interest is identity, not politics; he uses the term “subculture” to mean a set of people with distinct behavior and beliefs within a larger cultural system.[53] The subculture not only gives youth a strong sense of belonging to particular communities; it also imbues them with a sense of moral purpose. In other words, these people form subcultures for a reason: God called them to be a subculture, not to identify with mainstream culture. God rejoices in the “faithful remnant,” uses them to demonstrate faithfulness to the world, and rewards them for their status as true believers in the face of rampant apostasy. Whether the subcultural unit that is “set apart” by God differs--the Mormon family, the conservative Protestant congregation, and the African-American racial/ethnic community all serve in this role—highly devoted young people overwhelmingly came from religious communities that unapologetically defend their distinctiveness as a gift from God.

What is at stake here is divine geography: where does God operate? Does God work only in religious communities—certain religious communities at that—within the parameters of human practice? Can the Holy Spirit work in mainstream culture as well as in religious subcultures?
When religious groups believe that God acts in their midst, but not necessarily in other communities, religious identity becomes urgent; if young people are not “saved” in the context of these communities, then they are damned. By the same token, communities that do not operate as religious subcultures—who tend to adhere to expansive views of divine grace, unconditional love, and inclusive views of salvation--tend to be more relaxed about their symbolic boundaries (preferring to welcome anyone), and assign far less urgency to their children’s religious identities. After all, God works in mysterious ways, even outside the religious community, using means that do not depend on them.

For all the theological appeal of this viewpoint, an inescapable finding of the NSYR is that young people who belong to religious subcultures with strong symbolic boundaries, as well as concrete social groups and relational networks that reinforce their distinctiveness within the larger culture, found religion more important than youth from communities that lacked strong symbolic boundaries (e.g., criterion for membership, distinctive practices or worship styles, etc.), and that lacked relational networks that could reinforce their Christian distinctiveness. Mormon, conservative and black Protestant young people are raised to think that their faith makes them unusual in ways that actually matter; there is something at stake in being “us,” and something lost by being “them.” Furthermore, they reinforce subcultural identities within networks of others who share their distinctiveness: the large Mormon family and peers in the high school seminary who, in contrast to their non-Mormon friends, tithe, practice family nights and shun tobacco and caffeine; the conservative Protestant youth group and extended congregation where, against a backdrop of MTV and political correctness, youth pledge “sexual purity” and practice peer evangelism; the “fictive kinship” of the African American church that, in contrast to the hyper-individualism of white corporate culture, binds young people to others who are “unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian.”[54]

Do these communities socialize young people so intently that they offer teenagers foreclosed identities instead of genuine opportunities to define themselves in accordance with God? Clearly, Mormon, conservative and black Protestants approach religious socialization seriously; they are invested in winning adolescent souls, for Christ or for the church, and their intentionality pays off handsomely in terms of adolescent membership and retention. Particularly within Mormon and fundamentalist Christian communities, where the church functions as “The Truman Show,” providing a total environment of support for its members (and where the practice of shunning community deviants remains a realistic threat), the risk of luring adolescents into comfortable, foreclosed identities is higher than in mainline Protestant and Catholic communities that allow for varying degrees of doubt and criticism.
On the other hand, to say that identity foreclosure is necessarily the consequence of growing up in a religious subculture is far too simple. Speaking of Mormon communities, Richard and Joan Ostling observe,
The Saints outshine most in devotion to what they believe. Generous with their time, they also put their money where their mouth is, faithfully tithing for the church and fasting for the needy, even as American society promotes selfishness. While other Americans yield to the demands of youth, adult Mormons impose high demands on their next generation, requiring them to ingest church teaching an hour a day through high school and expecting boys to save up their own money and spend two years in hard-core mission work. The system produces young adults with pride and commitment

Identity, even religious identity, begins with a sense of who we are not; we learn to define ourselves against those from whom we differ as well as in concert with those with whom we identify. In Mormon, conservative Protestant, and African American communities, young people are taught that, like Israel, they have been “set apart” by God for a special witness--a condition the church generally chalks up to the vocation of holiness—so that their subcultural status becomes evidence of their faithfulness to God. Boundaries between “us” and “them” are necessarily established, and the divine geography is clear: whether God stands under other people’s subcultural umbrellas is less important than the assurance that God certainly stands under theirs.

3. Being Sent: A Call to Live Out—or, Vocation in a Morally Significant Universe

A call to live out
Mission years/youth leadership

Conservative Protestants
City on a hill
African American Protestants
Operationalized faith– no divide between Sunday and Monday

Less clear, but still apparent, in the profile of devoted young people is the variable of vocation. Important as a consequential understanding of God and a consequential community of faith may be, these faith elements must be augmented by a consequential life: the sense that one’s actions make a difference, that one’s life has a purpose that contributes directly or indirectly to God’s intentions for the universe. Vocational opportunities give young people a chance to use the religious language and practices they have acquired on behalf of those beyond their own immediate religious communities. They also give teenagers a taste of what it means to do good, not because they are nice people, but because they are obedient to God. As Mother Theresa put it, “We are not social workers. We do this for Jesus!”[56]

This is a far cry from the instrumental view of religion held by most U.S. teenagers. The majority of American teenagers say that religion is valuable because it “helps you do what you want”—i.e., be a “good person,” stay out of trouble, get through problems, or feel “happy.”[57] “What legitimates the religion of most youth today,” observes Smith, “is not that it is life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable.”[58] While this is not necessarily bad, it represents a significant departure from religious orthodoxy; “All major American religious traditions have historically been about more than helping individuals make advantageous choices and maintain good feelings.”[59] Furthermore, it relativizes religion to the role of moral prop. Adolescents almost universally believe that right and wrong are matters of commons sense (never mind that they do not agree any more than adults on what is actually moral or immoral), so while religion might help clarify right from wrong, it is not necessary for doing so.

At the same time, a small minority of teenagers (once again, mostly conservative Protestants and Mormons) stand out in the study, not because they thought religion helps them do what they want, but because of their desire to do what God wants. These young people had a significantly more developed view of vocation than their peers, and seemed to be firmly embedded in what Smith calls a “morally significant universe”—namely, a sense that one’s life is “inescapably bound up to a larger framework of consequence.”[60] In a morally significant universe, writes Smith,
one’s decisions and practices and deeds bear the burden and reflect the significance of a much bigger story of system of import. . . One’s own single life finds its significance not in relation to itself, but by becoming connected to this larger moral order, by living a life in tune with and reflecting that order. . . .A morally significant universe has a telos, an end, goal, and standard, by which one knows where one is and to where one is headed. It thus provides individuals the big script of a very real drama, in the sense that the story is intensely dramatic and that the drama is reality, within which the living out of one’s life really means something significant because of the role it somehow plays in helping to perform the larger dramatic narrative. In a morally significant universe, actions really do embody and reflect bigger challenges, struggles, failures, and victories—and all things really are finally going somewhere important.[61]

In a morally insignificant universe, by contrast—the one a substantial number of American teenagers seem to inhabit—there is no telos, no larger story into which one’s life fits, no judgment or even remembrance of one’s life when it is over, no consequence. Life becomes merely two-dimensional: “What matters is in front and back and sideways. What is above and below doesn’t particularly matter.”[62] In such a universe, notes Smith, one’s decisions and actions may have certain painful or pleasurable results, but they have no particular meaning, purpose, or significance beyond that. In short, in a morally significant universe, one’s life matters. In a morally insignificant universe—the one inhabited by adherents to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism--one’s actions and choices have no particular meaning or consequence beyond themselves.

If a conscious, powerful, and morally concerned God-image leads to communities that embody that God-image in word and deed, and therefore contribute to adolescents’ emerging sense of self, the upshot of being shaped by such a community of consequence is the de facto preparation of community members for vocation. Communities of consequence “send out” people on their behalf to bear the community’s God-image to others. This practice goes by different names (evangelism, mission, vocation) that have slightly different theological twists. In every case, however, this vocational impulse assumes a morally significant universe—a world in which the actions and decisions of young people have moral weight, and make a verifiable difference in the world by enacting the cosmic drama they represent.

The NSYR identifies a very strong link between young people’s levels of religious commitment and the type of moral universes they occupy. Young people capable of living in the “big picture” of a morally significant universe, once again, disproportionately came from Mormon and conservative Protestant backgrounds, followed by African American Protestants—communities that take adolescent participation in mission and evangelism extremely seriously. From elementary school forward, Mormon youth rotate leadership roles among every child in the program, giving young people a chance to articulate their faith first within the safe embrace of the faith community before going out to represent the Latter Day Saints in the broader culture, and especially before the two-year mission stint required of all LDS young men after they graduate from high school.

Conservative Protestants, while suspicious of institutionalism and not particularly engaged in efforts to root out systemic evils, rush to the mission field to address personal hardship, teenagers in tow. Despite their reputation for insularity, conservative Protestants regularly—and passionately—prepare young people for local service through youth groups, summer mission trips, enormous networks of conservative Protestant camps and extended mission/evangelism opportunities after college.[63] Similarly, the African American Protestant commitment to social transformation is well known, although they typically have fewer intentional programs of mission than Mormons or conservative Protestants (partly due to socio-economic levels of African American congregations and participants). Many African American churches do not sponsor traditional “youth groups,” but by integrating young people into the worship leadership of the congregation—especially through music—young people receive regular opportunities to speak the language and engage in the practices of faith within the religious community itself.

In short, despite the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches’ abiding commitment to mission and social change, these communities have often failed to translate short-term service projects and political activism into ongoing practices of faith among teenagers. Sometimes this is due to these communities’ reluctance to use theological language, lest they be associated with fundamentalism; yet the failure to use theological language with teenagers actually surrenders theology to more rigid faith communities, and makes it impossible for young people to see a connection between the practices of their churches and a story of larger significance that contextualizes their actions in the mission of God. In other cases, the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic failure to translate activism into ministry stems from a deep ambivalence toward (and a narrow definition of) evangelism. As a rule, liberal Protestants—committed to God’s presence in multiple communities of faith--are deeply ambivalent about the call to “go out and make disciples,” since this can be interpreted as imperialistic; meanwhile, the Catholic doctrine of divine immanence makes revivalistic evangelism unnecessary. For Catholics, mission means bringing the church to persons who do not normally have access to it, and then providing for these persons needs—physical as well as spiritual--until they come to accept the Catholic church as the true source of salvation.

So perhaps we have another clue here for the bland faith of mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic youth, relative to their Mormon, conservative Protestant, and African American Protestant friends. Mormon, conservative Protestant, and even African American communities are more likely to prepare youth to be conversant about faith because they intend for youth to participate in God’s mission—as missionaries, evangelists, advocates of God’s justice, or all three—in tangible ways provided through the faith community. Because these communities teach young people that their lives are part of a larger story in which human actions have consequences, good and bad (and that God takes human actions seriously), youth begin to sense that their actions have import. Being part of the cosmic drama of God imbues their lives with meaning as they do their part to move the story toward its particular, grand ending.

4. Faith that Looks Forward: A Hope to Hold onto—or, the Importance of Eschatology

A hope to hold onto

Conservative Protestants
Second coming
African American Protestants

Morally significant universes offer hope—the sense that “actions really do embody and reflect bigger challenges, struggles, failures, and victories—and all things really are finally going somewhere important.[64] The church’s term for this hope is eschatology, literally “the study of the end”: the promise of God’s reign at the second coming of Christ, when evil is finally vanquished, death is finally conquered, and the world is finally united in the worship of the one true God. Many theologians approach eschatology as a hermeneutic through which all Christian theology must be understood, rather than as “the last chapter” of theology.[65] Whatever the case, the cosmic drama of the Christian story ultimately leads to an end, and it is an ending replete with the promise of both glory and judgment.

It is a troublesome vision, despite its essential place in Christian doctrine. In the name of a triumphant Christ, the church has waged bloody crusades, extinguished reform (and reformers), and banished countless forms of “difference” from life in the church. Eschatology is a boundary issue for many Christian communities, who interpret it as a way to determine who is “in” and who is “out” of given communities. For this reason, many mainstream Christians—always favoring a wide-angle lens on grace—often eschew conversation about divine judgment and condemnation, preferring to view the “end times” as the consummation of history rather than as an occasion for apocalyptic judgment.

Yet without a promising end view, Christian communities have difficulty sustaining or justifying countercultural virtues or practices that go beyond mere civility; without the threat of damnation, the reward of heaven holds little sway. Eschatology holds out the hope of divine justice for both the faithful and the reprobate. In a morally significant universe, human actions have consequences proportionate to how they promote or subvert the cosmic vision--but the actual view of most American teenagers is neither cosmic nor visionary. “The actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers,” notes Smith, “is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, and at peace, . . .about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”[66] Under this rubric, service to others is not about furthering the work of Christ on earth, or living in anticipation of the coming reign of God; it just helps you feel good about yourself. The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism stays in the background unless called upon, acting something like “a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”[67]

The risk of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not that we fail God, and therefore suffer eternal consequences, but that God fails us--an annoying but hardly disastrous turn of events. As one 16-year-old white mainline Protestant from Texas told interviewers, “Well, God is almighty, I guess [yawns]. But I think he’s on vacation right now because of all the crap that’s happening in the world, cause it wasn’t like this back when he was famous.”[68] But by and large, teenagers dismiss God’s shortcomings with a colossal shrug. As long as God demands little, teens are free to invest little; everyone is happy. Smith pointedly observes,
It is thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion, for the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary life goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life. It is also no wonder that most teens are so religiously inarticulate. As long as one is happy, why bother with being able to talk about the belief content of one’s faith?[69]

Here, then, might lie yet another clue to the importance of religion to Mormon, conservative Protestant, and black Protestant youth. These faith communities are built on stories depicting a universe that has a definite “end time.” In other words, God is working toward a goal in which the hope of the faithful will be consummated (and justice will be visited upon the reprobate). The Mormon emphasis on progress toward becoming divine, the conservative Protestant belief in the second coming of Christ, the African American insistence on God’s deliverance—from Egypt, from slavery, from bondage now and in the future—all suggest the importance of a theology that “goes somewhere.” Eschatology provides the faithful with a hopeful end view that conditions their interpretation of events in the present, and gives young people a meaningful reason to take part in religious practices (almsgiving, Sabbath-keeping, worship, chastity, to name a few) that defy the norms of “what’s-in-it-for-me” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

So What Good Is American Religion?

It is not that American teenagers have abandoned their faith communities to practice religion somewhere else. Rather, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has colonized many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States, to the point that it is “becoming the new spirit living in the old body.”[70] The picture is not entirely dismal; despite young people’s inarticulate grasp of religion’s influence in their lives, there is no question that religion does, positively, influence the well-being of American adolescents. Religiously devoted teenagers have more positive life outcomes than religiously disaffected youth, suggesting that we may not be wasting our time after all. The NSYR data identifies a number of ways religion potentially impacts adolescent well-being.[71] First, in a “virtual” culture where actions seem to have little or no bearing on anyone else (“it’s okay as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody”), religion provides American young people with a “morally significant universe,” a place where adolescents’ actions—and indeed, their lives—have consequence. Devoted young people understand the moral order of the world on the basis of faith, and draw images of self- control and personal virtue from the narratives of a historical tradition. They belong to communities that foster spiritual experiences in young people and that provide role models who exemplify faithful practices and constructively influence the lives of teenagers.

In addition, the NSYR suggests, religion potentially offers American young people “learned competencies”—i.e., community and leadership skills, coping skills, and “cultural capital” (tastes, attitudes, and knowledge embodied in practical wisdom, skills, and dispositions associated with faith). American youth already acquire cultural capital from social institutions like families, schools, voluntary organizations, and the media, but religion provides an alternative “funding stream” for cultural capital, providing devoted youth with biblical literacy, moral teachings, prophetic and wisdom traditions, musical education, ethical traditions, and theological categories—all of which fund a distinctive, religiously-informed outlook on life, and give meaning to religious participation.

Third, the NSYR points out that religion offers American young people social relationships that help them navigate the transitional waters between childhood and adulthood. As Smith points out, churches are among the few major American social institutions that are not rigidly age-stratified, and by emphasizing personal interactions over time, youth develop trusting, cross-generational ties that give them structures of care and accountability, not to mention resources and opportunities. By embedding young people in dense relational networks, churches provide youth with many people who pay attention to them, and who are therefore in a position to discourage negative and encourage positive life practices. Finally, churches link young people to denominations, national organizations, international travel, and other “big picture” experiences that extend their social networks, expand their horizons and their hopes, foster developmental maturity, and expose them to cultural “others.”

But Where Is God?

This is all to the good—and Smith documents consistent and impressive differences in life outcomes between highly religious American teenagers and nonreligious teens, even if religion’s influence goes unnoticed by young people themselves. As Smith notes, “It appears that religion really does matter, even, ironically, in the lives of religious believers who are not aware that it does. . . .Such believers, it would seem, might be warranted in having. . . .a little more faith in their own faith.”[72] Yet Smith gropes to describe something beyond sociology’s reach: transformation, the effect of the Holy Spirit moving in communities and in young people that even the writer of Acts could only describe as wind and fire (Acts 2). Well-being can be measured; but what about joy? Altruism can be parsed; but can love? Lack of conflict and an absence of despair may be observed; but are these the same as peace and hope? Religiosity can be quantified as attitudes, practices, and behaviors; but can faith? Devoted young people may well stand apart from their peers in terms of moral frameworks, learned competencies, and social networks. But the church’s interest—and, if the gospel is to be believed, God’s interest—is that they radiate, often in spite of life turbulence, the life-giving virtues of joy, faith, hope, peace, and love. In the end, joy is more powerful than a practice; love is more complex than a behavior. These virtues are the consequences of a faith that matters, which in turn is the result of a God who cares, and who invites us to join in God’s ongoing conversion of the world.
This theological consciousness seems to animate young people who show certain signs of resistance to the American theological default position of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. If religiously devoted teenagers in the U.S. are those capable of withstanding the colonization of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in American religion—and if those youth are disproportionately Mormons, conservative Protestants, and African-American Protestants—then we can expect the future leaders of the American church to come from their ranks, and the grown of the American church of the future to follow similar patterns.

But there are reasons for this religious devotion, and they are not reasons unique to these religious traditions alone. On the contrary, they lie deep within Christianity’s essential nature, and they deserve far more exegesis than this paper has allowed. When young people confront a consequential God in consequential communities that prepare them for consequential vocations in a consequential universe, the result—not surprisingly—is a consequential faith. This is as true for Methodists as for Mormons, for Catholics as for conservative Protestants. At the same time, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems to drain Christianity of the very elements that make it morally and existentially significant. Specifically, when Moralistic Therapeutic Deism colonizes a Christian community, it compromises that community’s ability to offer young people a creed to believe, a place to belong, a call to live out, and a hope to hold onto. If Smith is right, the primary gift youth ministry may offer twenty-first century young people is not the gift of spiritual nurture, but the skills of spiritual resistance, so that young people will once again be able to choose faith—rather than have a symbiote faith like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism choose them.

[1] Smith, 262.
[2] Smith, 116.
[3] Cuyler Black, “Jesus, Britney, and Thermodynamics,” Fellowship Magazine, June 2001, n.p. Black is a youth pastor in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
[4] Oral summary of NSYR findings, by Melinda Denton. Presentation to United Methodist youth workers, Myrtle Beach, SC (February 2004).
[5] Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 266.
[6] Smith, 150.
[7] Smith, 162-163.
[8] The shift toward deism, particularly in the leadership of liberal churches, has been noted elsewhere; Rodney Stark identifies this deistic leaning as typical of the liberal reaction to “fundamentalism” and revivalism. “Amazingly enough,” Stark writes, “it is the deists within the churches—most of them clergy—who are the most vociferous opponents of public expressions of traditional Judeo-Christian values, typically on the grounds of ‘fundamentalism.’ Moreover, this is nothing new. Recall how liberal churchmen in New England in the eighteenth century responded to George Whitfield’s revivals by outlawing them, or how Congregational and Presbyterian clerics condemned the enthusiasm of Baptists and Methodists in the nineteenth century—how dare they pray in “language of unbecoming familiarity with God?” thundered the eminent Congregationalist divine Asahel Nettleton (Beecher and Nettleton, 1828:91). Ironically, by the start of the twentieth century it was the Methodists, now become dignified liberals, who expelled many clergy (and congregations) because they supported the Holiness Movement.” Stark, One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 252.
[9] Smith, 166.
[10] In 1900, the editor of Christian Century, originally a Disciples of Christ publication founded in 1884, renamed it to reflect Christian optimism at the turn of the 20th century that authentic Christian faith could harmoniously with modern developments in science, technology, immigration, communication and culture. In 1908, the magazine was purchased by Charles Clayton Morrison, a highly influential spokesman for liberal Christianity, who used it as a forum to advocate higher criticism of the Bible, and the Social Gospel, which included concerns about child labor, Women's suffrage, racism, war and pacifism, alcoholism and prohibition, environmentalism and many other political and social issues. See /Magazine, accessed 22 November 2004.
[11] An important guide on the relevance of the National Study of Youth and Religion for African-American youth ministry is being authored by Norman Peart, and should be available next year.
[12] In addition to a Peart’s book on African-American youth ministry, a book on youth ministry for Hispanic young people has also been commissioned.
[13] The most theologically aware teenager I interviewed was a fifteen-year-old Christian Scientist, who informed me that pets in Christian Science families go to the vet even if their owners eschew medical care, because, after all, pets don’t have free will. Just as the interview got to the questions on faith and sex, her mother cut off the conversation “because it was taking too long.” A complete description of the interview methodology is available in Christian Smith (with Melinda Lundquist Denton), Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 291-307.
[14]In its book-length form, this analysis will proceed through several chapters: 1) Mormon Envy—When Religion Makes a Difference to American Youth; 2) The Subculture Thesis—What Do “They” Have That “We” Don’t? 3) The God Card—Why Religious Practices Are Not Enough; 4) The New Christianity—On Being Nice, Getting Fed, and Lowering Our Expectations for God; 5) The Protestant Youth Ministry Dilemma—What to Do with Jesus; 6) The Catholic Youth Ministry Dilemma—What to Do with the Church; 7) Streams of Hope—When Passion Trumps Positive Regard (case studies from concrete ministries). My primary audience is the professional leadership of Christian churches—pastors, youth pastors, educators, seminarians, and of course those of us who teach these people—who are in a position to redirect the educational ministries of Christian congregations for youth and adults, children and parents, laity and clergy. Some of these people already lead communities that substantially undergird young people’s faith identities, and they will find affirmation here for their work. Others may discover a place to begin as they relocate youth ministry in the larger mission of God.
[15] This data is archived for future research; to access these archives, see project website,, for contact information. The website also contains summaries of most of the data analysis undertaken to date. A follow-up grant has been provided by the Lilly Endowment to allow for more extended analysis of the data.
[16] Smith, 31, 37, 50, 68. To test whether these numbers reflected parents forcing their children to attend services, students were asked if they would attend religious services if it were totally up to them. The study found youth said they would be even more likely to attend, if it were up to them, than they currently do (38). In terms of youth group participation, 69% of respondents either participate currently, or have previously participated, in a religious youth group. Unlike worship attendance, youth groups tend to be regular-or-nothing commitments; few youth attending youth groups reported infrequent attendance.
[17] Smith, 45.
[18] Smith. 40.
[19] Smith, 124-126.
[20] Smith, 266.
[21] The study is cautious in making interreligious comparisons, since religious traditions don’t line up in “an apples to apples way.” Observant Judaism, for instance, cannot be directly compared to conservative Protestantism for a number of cultural, practical, historical, and theological reasons. Although the NSYR oversampled Jewish teenagers, their numbers were insufficient to make judgments about the overall religious behavior of Jewish youth, and therefore are not included in the present analysis. See Smith, 298-300.
[22] Smith, 261.
[23] Smith, 261-262.
[24] Smith, 131. Emphasis original.
[25] Smith, 131-132.
[26] Smith, 133.
[27] Smith, 262.
[28] Smith, 262.
[29] Smith, 263. It is worth quoting Smith in toto on this point: “Despite the fact that religion seems quite weak at the level of adolescent subjective consciousness, that most teens can hardly coherently articulate their own beliefs, that religion seems to operate mostly as an unfocused, invisible dynamic operating in the background of teenagers lives, and that many social and cultural forces exert effects that tend to undermine serious religious faith and practice, we nevertheless observe sizable and significant differences in a variety of important life outcomes between more and less religious teenagers in the U.S. Highly religious teenagers appear to be doing much better in life than less religious teenagers.”
[30] Smith, 264.
[31] Smith, 264.
[32] This argument is developed more fully in Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 10-14.
[33] Michael Warren, “Youth and the Evangelization of American Culture” (address given at a symposium at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC, March 9, 1990).
[34] Smith, 250.
[35] Cf. Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2004.
[36] Many Protestants and Catholics question whether Mormons are Christians (most contend they are not, although Mormons almost universally dispute this). The Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the few major denominations to officially study the question of whether Mormons are Christians, concluded that the Latter Day Saints church “expresses allegiance to Jesus Christ in terms used within the Christian tradition” but nonetheless is not regarded as “within the historic apostolic tradition of the Christian Church,” and advised putting Mormon-Presbyterian relations under the rubric of “interfaith” (319). A small liberal branch of Mormonism, the Community of Christ, stresses its commonalities with mainstream Christianity and places a high priority on relationships with other communions. Cf. Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), esp. 315-333.
[37] Smith, 108.
[38] Mormonism is a “true faith” religion; many Mormons would say that young people flourish in their communities because they possess a true understanding of God, while Protestants and Catholics do not. Some Christian groups might explain the findings similarly.
[39] Mormons, in particular, use the language of traditional Christianity in distinct ways that are at variance with Trinitarian Christianity.
[40] Emile Durkheim set the course for a century of sociology that assumed beliefs were irrelevant to religious behavior. Writing in 1886, Durkheim posits: “The sociologist will pay scant attention to the different ways in which men and peoples have conceived the unknown cause and mysterious depth of things. He will set aside all such metaphysical speculations and will see in religion only a social discipline” (cited by Rodney Stark in For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003], 368).
[41] Stark, 376.
[42] Rodney Stark, One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 20-23. He views the differing God-images in the Old Testament as an example of the evolution of the Hebrews’ thinking about God in this direction: “What the Old Testament reveals is the evolution of Hebrew images of God from a moody and touchy ‘Holy Terror’ into a virtuous Supreme Being. And, as noted above, this evolution is in tandem with the emergence of a clear conception of a powerful, though ultimately subordinate, Evil Being” (28).
[43] Cf. Rodney Stark, Exploring the Religious Life (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004. To test his hypotheses that the effects of religiousness on morality are contingent on images of Gods as conscious, morally concerned beings, and that participation in religious rites and rituals (apart from belief in God as a conscious, morally concerned being) has no independent effect on morality, Stark compared data from religious research in 34 nations and concluded, “Images of Gods as conscious, powerful, morally concerned beings function to sustain the moral order.” See Stark, For the Glory of God (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003), 376.
[44] The other was “burned candles or incense that had religious or spiritual meaning.” Smith, 46.
[45] “Although the ‘unit of salvation’ in Mormonism remains the individual, salvation itself depends on knowing Christ, knowledge that can only be gained with the legitimazation of the LDS priesthood and within the corporate structure of the LDS Church. In addition, although the gospel is available to all, the ‘unit of exaltation’ is the family rather than the individual. Consequently, the ultimate goal of the Latter-Day Saints is not eternity somehow spent in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven. Mormonism holds up a different goal: ‘eternal progression’ toward godhood.” (Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition [University of Illinois Press, 1985], 148-149). The Mormon emphasis on knowledge of Christ that is not available outside of the LDS caused Harold Bloom to argue that Mormonism is essentially a gnostic religion (Harold Bloom, The American Religion [New York: Simon and Shuster, 1992], esp. 79-128.
[46]George Gallup and Jim Castelli, The People’s Religion (New York: Scribner, 1989).
[47] Harris Interactive #60 (October 16, 2003), index.asp?PID=409, accessed November 30, 2004. Protestants (38%) are also more likely than Catholics (21%) and Jews (9%) to believe that God controls what happens on Earth.
[48] Smith, 46.
[49] Robert Wuthnow, Growing Up Religious: Christians and Jews and Their Journeys of Faith (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 192.
[50] Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 118.
[51]Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), 120.
[52] Smith, 106.
[53] This is in contrast with anthropological studies, made popular in the 1960s by the “Birmingham school,” that tend to define subcultures as acts of resistance, protest, and refusal which seek to differentiate themselves from the mainstream, and that develop in response to dominant systems of meaning, especially among the young (cf. Mike Brake, Comparative Youth Culture: The Sociology of Youth Cultures and Youth Subcultures in America, Britain, and Canada [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985] and Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style [New York: Methuen and Co., 1979].) University of Chicago anthropologist Grant McCracken has criticized this model as overlooking many subcultural elements that lack a strong theme of resistance (“the Birmingham school never seems to study anyone who is not brave and plucky”) and for failing to recognize the fact that “dominant meaning systems are coming undone. It is less and less clear what ‘rituals of resistance’ are resisting.” Plenitude; available online at Accessed December 1, 2004.
[54] Cf. William Myers, Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry (New York: Pilgrim Press), 1990.
[55] Ostling, 384-385.
[56] Cited in Stark, 105.
[57] Smith, 147ff.
[58] Smith, 154.
[59] Smith, 154.
[60] Smith, 156.
[61] Smith, 156-157.
[62] Smith, 157.
[63] For a detailed account of conservative Protestant engagement in outreach, see Smith, American Evangelicalism.
[64] Smith, 156-157.
[65] Most notable among contemporary theologians are Jurgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 1967) and Wolfhart Pannenberg (Revelation as History, 1968).
[66] Smith, 164.
[67] Smith, 165.
[68] Cited in Smith, 165.
[69] Smith, 164.
[70] Smith, 166.
[71] See Smith, 218-249.
[72] Smith, 257.