Teenagers are some of the most religiously active Americans. What does their spiritual experience look like, and what do teens look for in a church? What do they learn in church settings? A new study from The Barna Group explores the spiritual lives and expectations of today’s teenagers.
The most common teen spiritual activity – like that of adults – is prayer. Overall, three-quarters of teenagers (72%) say they pray in a typical week. The next most common activity is attending a worship service at a church – a form of engagement embraced by half (48%) of today’s teenagers. Roughly one-third of teenagers said they attend Sunday school (35%), attend youth group (33%), participate in a small group (32%), and read the Bible (31%).
Compared to American adults, teenagers are more likely to report engagement in corporate forms of worship and spiritual expression – such as attending church, as well as participating in small groups, youth groups, and Sunday school. However, young people are less likely than their parents to pray (72% of teens, 83% of adults) or read the Bible in a typical week (31% of teens, 41% of adults).
However, the research raises caution that teenagers’ prodigious appetites for spiritual activity may be waning. Since a decade ago, teenagers are less likely to pray (down from 81% in the mid-nineties), to attend worship services (down from 53%), and to read from the Bible on their own time (down from 37%).
As some of the nation’s first digital pilgrims, the research shows that one out of every four teenagers (26%) had learned something about their faith or spirituality online in the last six months. This was true of two-fifths of born again Christian teenagers (39%). Furthermore, one-sixth of teenagers (16%) and one-quarter of born again teens (25%) said they had “a spiritual experience” online where they worshipped or connected with God.
The study also explored teenagers’ expectations related to church. The most common elements sought by young people were “to worship or make a connection with God” (45% described this as very important) and “to better understand what I believe” (42%). About one-third of teens said they wanted “to spend time with close friends” (34%), “to get encouraged or inspired” (34%), or “to volunteer to help others” (30%).
Other expectations of teenagers were less important, including learning about prayer (26%), listening to religious teaching (26%), participating in discussions regarding religion and faith (23%), being mentored or coached in spiritual development (21%), discovering the traditions of their faith (20%), participating in a study class about faith (19%), or studying the Bible (18%).
When asked to choose between a church that teaches the traditions and background of their faith or a church that teaches how their faith should influence everyday decisions and lifestyle, most teenagers preferred the latter (39% versus 16%). However, underscoring the fact that spirituality is only skin-deep for many teens, a plurality of teenagers (45%) admitted they would not care for either type of church.
What do teenagers learn from their experiences in church? The churchgoing teenagers in the sample were asked to identify the teaching or information they received from their church in the last 12 months that had shaped their views. The most common areas of content recalled by teens revolved around moral and ethical standards (65%) and relationships (62%), followed by faith traditions (55%) and personal evangelism (50%).
Just one-third or fewer churched teenagers said they remember any helpful content related to the following topics: media, movies and television (35%); money and finances (30%); the supernatural world (28%); leisure activities (27%); government and law (26%); art and music (22%); health issues (21%); and technology (9%).
David Kinnaman, the lead researcher on the study, pointed out that “just because someone identifies what they want does not necessarily mean they know what they need. Yet, all of the recent attention on young people gravitating to ‘ancient traditions of Christianity’ misses the fact that the vast majority of American teenagers do not express much interest in or appreciation for such traditions in the first place. Teenagers are a pinch-of-this-pinch-of-that generation, so without intentional decisions on the part of youth workers, many teenagers ride out their teen years in fruitless experimentation rather than genuine forms of spiritual development.”
“Still, the maturation years are ripe with spiritual possibilities,” the president of The Barna Group concluded. “Helping them connect with God, learn about their faith, and serve others, in a loving and relational environment are their top desires from a church. Keep in mind that young people are not spiritually transformed merely by attending a church, knowing a few Bible stories or being friends with the youth pastor. It takes addressing teens on a much deeper, personal level – such as developing their intellect and vocational passions as well as cultivating their curiosity for the complexities of life.”
Kinnaman is the author of a newly released book, unChristian, which describes research concerning the growing dissonance between young Americans and Christianity. He commented on the gap between how teens live and what they learn at church. “Born again teens are four times more likely to learn about spirituality online than they are to receive helpful perspective and insight about technology at church. Moreover, although their world is inundated with choices related to media, movies, television, technology, art, music, leisure, and health, most churchgoing teens tell us they rarely recall learning anything helpful on these topics in church. Perhaps as a result, many teens grow up concluding that Christianity is boring, old-fashioned and out of touch with reality. Rather than simply giving teens do’s and don’ts, effective youth ministry should help them become engaged, thoughtful Christ followers who have sophisticated, biblical responses to life.”
Additional Reading and Resources
- Order Your Copy of unChristian today
This report is based upon nationwide telephone and online surveys conducted by The Barna Group with random samples of teenagers, ages 13 to 18. The most recent surveys were conducted in April 2005 and July 2006. The 2005 study involved interviews with 2,409 teenagers (±2.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level); the 2006 survey included 617 teens (±4.1 percentage points). 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.”
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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