Will our children have faith? If so, what kind?

Almost Christian

Understanding the spiritual lives of American young people is a complicated task.  Much of the discussion has focused on numbers—the number of young people walking away from the Church.  But numbers don’t tell the whole story.  There are also questions about content—the beliefs of those who identify themselves as Christian, both those who leave and those who stay.


It is important to also note that the challenge is not restricted to the faith of young people.  Several researchers point out that their faith reflects the faith of their parents.  They’re not rejecting the beliefs of their parents, as some previous generations have.  In the words of sociologist Christian Smith, the religion and spirituality of this young cohort “actually strike us as very powerfully reflecting the contours, priorities, expectations, and structures of the larger adult world into which adolescents are being socialized.”  Thus, what causes concern about the faith of the children also raises issues about the faith of the parents.


The following list introduces several resources that provide insight into the spiritual lives of young Americans.  No, the sky isn’t falling, Christianity is not about to disappear.  But the conclusions are quite troubling!  These writers provide something of a religious geography lesson—a map of the spiritual and cultural terrain that can be used to help our young people develop a robust and vital faith.  It can also help those of us in the older generations move toward the same goal!


We begin with an overview by researcher Ed Stetzer who addresses some of the concerns that have arisen about the use and abuse of statistics.



Statistics: What They Say and Don’t Say



Curing Christians’ Stats Abuse” by Ed Stetzer (Christianity Today, January 2010)


It’s hard to generalize about American Christianity. The scene is just too diverse. But the most reputable studies give us certain indicators about particular denominations and the spiritual lives of U.S. adults. Mainline denominations are no longer bleeding; they are hemorrhaging. Increasingly, they are simply managing their decline. For evangelicals, the picture is better, but only in comparison to the mainline churches. Southern Baptists, composing the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., have apparently peaked and are trending toward decline. The same is true of most evangelical denominations. Only 2 of the top 25 Christian denominations are growing: the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). Both are Pentecostal.


Still, those worried about church decline are worried about data beyond the simple “more” or “less” numbers. The bigger concern is that people who identify themselves as Christians (and even evangelicals) do not evidence the beliefs historically held by Christians.



Books w/ Introductory Quotes



The journalist…


Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith … and How to Bring Them Back, (Moody, 2010) Drew Dyke.


Young people aren’t walking away from the church—they’re sprinting.  According to a recent study by Rainer Research, 70 percent of youth leave church by the time they are 22 years old. Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29 years old. Unlike earlier generations of church dropouts, these “leavers” are unlikely to seek out alternative forms of Christian community such as home churches and small groups. When they leave church, many leave the faith as well.


The historian…


The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Eerdmans, 2012), Thomas E. Bergler.


Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults.


Today many Americans of all ages not only accept a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism, they often celebrate it as authentic spirituality. God, faith, and the church all exist to help me with my problems. Religious institutions are bad; only my personal relationship with Jesus matters. If we believe that a mature faith involves more than good feelings, vague beliefs, and living however we want, we must conclude that juvenilization has revitalized American Christianity at the cost of leaving many individuals mired in spiritual immaturity.


The sociologists…


Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005), Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton.


[W]e can say that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of ‘Christianity’ in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition. …


This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.


Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009), Christian Smith and Patricia Snell.


Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is still the de facto practiced religious faith, but it becomes a little more complicated for emerging adults. They have more life experience, so some of them are starting to ask, “Does MTD really work? Isn’t life more complicated than this?” MTD is easier to believe and practice when you are in high school.


There is also a much larger segment of emerging adults than of teenagers that is outrightly hostile to religion. Some who previously were MTDS have become anti-religious. That said, the center of gravity among emerging adults is definitely MTD. Most emerging adults view religion as training in becoming a good person. And they think they are basically good people. To not be a good person, you have to be a horrible person. Therefore, everything’s fine.


Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog.


Could it be that the triumph of liberal, democratic capitalism has erased from the common American imagination any higher, transcendent horizon? We came away from our 230 interviews with emerging adults thinking that, for most, their horizon is disappointingly parochial: Get a good job, become financially secure, have a nice family, buy what you want, enjoy a few of the finer things in life, avoid the troubles of the world, retire with ease. Nothing much bigger, higher, more meaningful, more transcendent, more shared, more difficult. …


Poor moral reasoning comes significantly from poor teaching of thinking skills in schools, families, religious communities, sports teams, and other youth-socializing settings. Damaging sexual experiences have connections to things like the way colleges and universities are run and the lifestyle scripts disseminated by advertising and the mass media. Mass consumer materialism is deeply rooted in the structure of the American capitalist economy and the advertising industry. Intoxicating habits have much to do with the financial motives of the alcohol industry. And disconnection from civic, communal, and political life has something to do with the many real dysfunctions of American politics and the lure of private, mass consumerist, media-stimulated lifestyles. … Perhaps it is not too stark to say that as a society we are failing our youth in crucial ways.


The seminary professor…


Almost Christian:  What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010), Kenda Creasy Dean.


[C]hurches seem to have offered teenagers a kind of “diner theology”: a bargain religion, cheap but satisfying, whose gods require little in the way of fidelity or sacrifice. Never mind that centuries of Christians have read Jesus’ call to lay down one’s life for others as the signature feature of Christian love (John 15:13), or that God’s self-giving enables us to share the grace of Christ when ours is pitifully insufficient. Diner theology is much easier to digest than all this—and it is far safer, especially for malleable youth. So who can blame churches, really, for earnestly ladling this stew into teenagers, filling them with an agreeable porridge about the importance of being nice, feeling good about yourself, and saving God for emergencies? We have convinced ourselves that this is the gospel, but in fact it is much closer to another mess of pottage, an unacknowledged but widely held religious outlook among American teenagers that is primarily dedicated, not to loving God, but to avoiding interpersonal friction. …


The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on “folks like us”—which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all.



Linked Articles



The Soft Barbarism of Young America,” Rod Dreher.


It’s not that young Americans aren’t decent people, but that they are incapable of serious moral engagement with big questions. This is the point of decay to which our pluralistic, secularistic culture has taken us.


Almost Christian in a Nutshell,” A summary of Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian by the editors of Youth Ministry Today.


Almost Christians, said Wesley, go through the motions of religion without committing to a relationship of loving God. This reference is not an indictment of certain of Christian beliefs, but rather a form of cultural Christianity that has the semblance and language of authentic faith but lacks its heart and soul.


On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith,” Christian Smith.


The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is 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.


LifeWay Research Uncovers Reasons 18 to 22 Year Olds Drop Out of Church,” the Staff of LifeWay Research.


There is no easy way to say it, but it must be said. Parents and churches are not passing on a robust Christian faith and an accompanying commitment to the church. We can take some solace in the fact that many do eventually return. But, Christian parents and churches need to ask the hard question, ‘What is it about our faith commitment that does not find root in the lives of our children?’ ~ Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research



Posts at The Humanitas Forum



A return of pagan Christianity?” ~ July 19, 2012


All things old are new again. Or, so it would seem!


As I recently reread Peter Gay’s chapter on “The Era of Pagan Christianity,” I was reminded of a more recent book that reflects a similar sort of syncretism, this time in the Church of our day.  Once again, “Christian thought has proven flexible and remarkably absorptive.”


The Juvenilization of American Christianity” ~ July 23, 2012


American Christianity refuses to grow up. “We’re all adolescents now!”


Beginning in the 1930s and ‘40s, a quiet revolution began in American churches.  It occurred in all segments of Christianity, but it has been most notably “successful” in the evangelical and conservative wing of the Church.  This quiet revolution has resulted in the “juvenilization of American Christianity,” according to historian Thomas Bergler:  “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults.”


I would suggest that Bergler’s article presents the church with a dual challenge—this is my analysis, not his. Grow up! Help your young people grow up!




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One Response to “Will our children have faith? If so, what kind?”

  1. Very well put together. Thank you Michael.