Apr 23, 2002

From the Archives

Teens Change Their Tune Regarding Self and Church

One of the toughest things about kids is that just when you think you understand them, they change. New research from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California suggests that the common wisdom about teenagers is now passé: a whole new set of perspectives and behaviors characterizes today’s teens, showing significant departures from the customs of teens as recent as five years ago.

Barna Access Plus

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

Self-Images Have Changed

Remember when grunge music ruled and “slackers” dominated the limelight? Indeed, you don’t have to go back very far to recall Baby Busters complaining about abandonment, the hopelessness of life, the limited value of education, and distaste for the rampant hypocrisy in our society. Things have changed dramatically in the teen world since the mid-nineties. Today’s teenagers, now dominated by the Mosaic generation, are more likely to state that they are satisfied with their life, look forward to a challenging future, feel intelligent and attractive, and can optimistically face tomorrow because they trust most other people. A majority of teenagers have given up on the anxieties related to abandonment; teens typically feel relatively secure about their life and their future.

This turnabout in self-esteem has triggered a growing desire to excel in school and to have a breadth of life adventures and experiences. While there are still millions of teenagers who are struggling to find their place in the world, the prevailing mood among teens has shifted dramatically in the past half-decade to a more upbeat, optimistic and self-reliant perspective.

Although more than four out of five teens believe that adults see young people in a mostly negative light, that has deterred few from pursuing their dreams of the good life. The most common future desires of teens include a quality education, vibrant health, intimate personal relationships and a comfortable lifestyle. A major change in attitude is the shift from feeling ill-equipped for the future and harboring anger or self-pity for that condition, as was the norm a decade ago, to the current perspective of addressing their lack of preparation by aggressively seeking the resources and experiences required to raise their capacity level.

Faith Commitments

One thing that has not changed much is the number of teens who have an interest in faith. For more than a decade, teenagers have been among the most spiritually interested individuals in the nation. However, sensitivity to faith matters has not resulted in a boom in Christian conversions. In fact, while more than three out of five teenagers say they are spiritual, spiritual goals and life outcomes are not among the top-rated goals they have established for their future.

There is evidence that spirituality has been mainstreamed into teen life without radically affecting the lifestyles and values of most teens. For instance, in 1990 Barna found that 31% of teenagers were born again Christians. In 2001, in spite of increased dialogue about religious matters, a large majority of teens who cite spirituality as a major consideration in life, and the highest levels of church participation by teens during the past quarter century, the teenage born again figure is virtually unchanged at 33%.

Taking matters a step further, the Barna statistics show that the percentage of teens who are evangelicals – i.e., those who are not only born again but also believe in the accuracy of the Bible, personal responsibility to evangelize, believe in salvation by grace alone, and possess orthodox biblical views on God, Jesus and Satan – have declined from 10% in 1995 to just 4% today. This demise is attributable to growing numbers of teenagers who accept moral relativism and pluralistic theology as their faith foundation. This decline parallels a similar drop among adults: 12% were evangelicals in 1994, but just 5% fit the criteria today.

Barna Access Plus

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

The Future Church

These are among the many research findings presented by George Barna in a new two-hour training video concerning teenagers, entitled Real Teens, based on nationwide interviews his firm conducted among nearly 3000 teenagers. One aspect of Barna’s research explored the types of churches that are most appealing to young people. The study found that the church factors that appeal to a young person depend upon their spiritual inclinations. Teens who consider themselves to be Christian were most interested in the church’s internal culture, the depth of community among congregants and the quality of the spiritual substance provided by the church. In contrast, among teens that do not think of themselves as Christian the most appealing facets are the presence of their friends in the church, convenient location, the level of trust and care evident among congregants, and service to the poor of the community.

“In a nutshell, Mosaics are looking for an authentic experience with God and other people,” explained George Barna as he presented the research to a group of parents and educators who work with teens in Los Angeles. “Teenagers patronize churches and other event-oriented organizations because they are seeking a compelling experience that is made complete and safe by the presence of people they know and trust, and from whom they are willing to learn and take their cues. Music and other ambient factors may attract them once or twice, but those elements will not keep them coming back for more. There has to be sufficient substance, quality, hope, and genuine mutual concern and acceptance for them to return.”

Barna’s recent book on teenagers, also entitled Real Teens, points out that only a minority of teens is expected to remain involved in Christian churches after they reach the age of independence. “Teens do not go to youth groups for music and games, and they will not attend ‘adult church’ for music and preaching. They demand transcendent adventures and supportive relationships. They need an outlet for their desire to have a positive affect on the world and to synchronize their inner drive to be needed with the needs of those in the world that have little. Despite their streetwise attitudes, teenagers have a genuine streak of compassion that influences their life. Churches that provide a conduit for serving the community will create more meaningful bonds with the Mosaic generation.”

Preparing Adults

The two-hour Real Teens video is divided into nine segments, each focused on a different aspect of teen life. Each segment runs between 10 to 20 minutes, and is accompanied by an outline and discussion questions to facilitate learning among adults who work with teens as parents, pastors, teachers and employers. Barna’s book on teens complements the tape and discussion process.


Barna Access Plus

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

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.