Jul 12, 2010

From the Archives

How Teenagers’ Faith Practices are Changing

The faith of teenagers is a picture of contrasts. Teenagers are consistently among the most religiously active Americans, with nearly six out of every 10 teens engaged in some type of group spiritual activity in a typical week. Yet, the spirituality of teenagers is also remarkably diverse and fluid.

Barna Access Plus

Strengthen your message, train your team and grow your church with cultural insights and practical resources, all in one place.

A new research study from the Barna Group explores the changing religious environment of teenagers, comparing their participation in personal and group forms of faith over the past dozen years. While most teenagers remain spiritually active in some way, it appears that six specific types of teen faith engagement are declining.

Changing Faith
In several ways, teenagers are much less inclined toward spirituality than were teens a dozen years ago. The study assessed nine different forms of teenage involvement; six of those religious activities are at their lowest levels since Barna Group began tracking such teen behaviors. These included small group attendance, prayer, Sunday school participation, donations to churches, reading sacred texts other than the Bible, and evangelism by Christian teens (explaining their belief in Jesus Christ with others who have different faith views).

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and the director of the research, pointed out that some of these changes may go unnoticed by church leaders because the most visible activities – teen church attendance and youth group involvement – have not changed much in recent years. Bible reading was also roughly on par with previous Barna tracking of teenagers, further confounding a clear picture of teen faith.

Kinnaman commented on the findings: “While there is still much vibrancy to teen spirituality, it seems to be ‘thinning out.’ Teenagers view religious involvement partly as a way to maintain their all-important relationships. Yet perhaps technology such as social networking is reconfiguring teens’ needs for relationships and continual connectivity, diminishing the role of certain spiritual forms of engagement in their lives. Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook.”

Ashamed of the Gospel?
The most striking change was the fact that teenagers today seem much less inclined to have spiritual conversations about their faith in Christ with non-believers. The survey question specifically asked if the survey respondent had “explained your religious beliefs to someone else who had different beliefs, in the hope that they might accept Jesus Christ as their savior.” Among born again Christian teenagers, the proportion who said they had explained their beliefs to someone else with different faith views in the last year had declined from nearly two-thirds of teenagers in 1997 (63%) to less than half of Christian teens in the December 2009 study (45%).

Kinnaman noted: “Christian teenagers are taking cues from a culture that has made it unpopular to make bold assertions about faith or be too aggressively evangelistic. Some of the Barna Group’s other research shows that the vast majority of these students agree with the statement it is ‘cool to be a Christian.’ Yet fewer young Christians apparently believe it is worthwhile to talk about their faith in Jesus with others.”

Other spiritual changes in teen lives were less dramatic, although statistically significant. Sunday school participation has declined from 35% of all teenagers in 1997 to 30% of teens in the current study; small group attendance was down from 30% to 21%; the proportion of teens who reported donating any of their own money to church has softened from 35% to 26% over the last dozen years; and even the typically ubiquitous practice of prayer has dropped from 81% to 71% among teens since 1997.

Denominational Changes
Within the larger shifts taking place in teen faith, there are some intriguing differences between Catholic and Protestant young people. In comparison to young Protestants, Catholic teenagers are more likely to show diminished religious activity.

However, even when compared to past behavior among self-identified Catholic teens, today’s young Catholics exhibit diminished religious engagement. The current data show that Catholic teens are less likely to attend Sunday school, small groups, and to donate than were Catholic teenagers 12 years ago.

Among 13- to 17-year-old Protestants, there are actually signs of increased religious activity: they are more likely to pray, go to worship services, read the Bible and attend youth group meetings than were Protestant-affiliated teens a dozen years ago. Given that religious participation is improving among this group, the drop in personal evangelism among born again Protestant teens is even more striking, dropping from 72% in 1997 to 53% in late 2009.

Much of the increased activity among Protestants seems to have come from among non-mainline teenagers. Mainline Protestant teens demonstrate increased youth group activity, but nothing else has improved among the religious practices examined. In fact, several areas show decline among mainline teens (i.e., small groups, Bible reading).

Meanwhile, non-mainline (often referred to as evangelical denominations) Protestant teenagers displayed higher involvement than did similar teens a dozen years ago. There was increased activity in prayer, church attendance, Bible reading, youth group attendance, and personal donations to churches.

A third group of teens – those who are unaffiliated with Christianity – show less participation with churches than the same type of students did a dozen years ago. In other words, Christian churches appear to have even fewer interactions among non-Christian teens than was the case in the late 1990s.

About the Research
This report is based upon nationwide surveys, conducted by The Barna Group, with random samples of teenagers, ages 13 to 17. The study, known as YouthPollSM, is an annual tracking study, conducted online, using one of the nation’s only nationally representative online panels. The latest survey was conducted in December 2009 and included interviews with 602 teens. The sample has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.

“Mainline” churches typically are considered to include the American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church.

“Non-mainline” churches are those congregations and affiliated with other Protestant denominations, the largest of which is the Southern Baptist Church.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.