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Studying Teens and Religion The “Take Away” for Catholic Congregations by theresa o’keefe


uring my years of work in the area of religious education and youth and young adult faith, I’ve consistently met with both the anxiety and the hope of parents, catechists, and ministerial leaders that there would be some “magic bullet” that would answer their concerns about growing faith in adolescents. Many are looking for that program or that trick that will work to catch and keep the attention of the youth in their care. They hope that if there was only some key that we could use to unlock the mysteries that make up adolescence, then we could compel them to remain faithful members of our congregations. That is why it is not surprising to see the popularity of Christian Smith’s 2005 publication Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teens. Among those working with youth— whether in parish, diocesan, or school settings—the research and writing of Christian Smith and his colleagues at the National Study of Youth and Religion has received a great deal of attention and notoriety. In fact, Smith’s book Soul Searching has recently gone into print in paperback. These days it is an accomplishment for any academic book to stay in print for more than a few years, so to be in continuous print since 2005 and now shift to paperback speaks to its widespread popularity—and seeming vitality—to youth work. Background on the Study Since 2001, a research project called the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) has been investigating the lives of American teens around questions of religious belief and practice. The project, funded through 2010 by the Lily Endowment, has been directed by sociologist Christian Smith, now teaching at Notre Dame University, but other notable colleagues, among them Melinda Lundquist boston college




Denton and Mark Regnerus, have also contributed to the project and written reports. According to their Website: The purpose of the NSYR is to research the shape and influence of religion and spirituality in the lives of American youth; to identify effective practices in the religious, moral, and social formation of the lives of youth; to describe the extent and perceived effectiveness of the programs and opportunities that religious communities are offering to their youth; and to foster an informed national discussion about the influence of religion in youth’s lives, in order to encourage sustained reflection about and rethinking of our cultural and institutional practices with regard to youth and religion. The work of NSYR is particularly valuable in that nothing of its scope or focus has ever been done. In recent years there have been a great number of studies on the lives of teens—examining the influences of media, eating and exercise habits, nutrition, socializing, technology, sexual activity, etc.—but no thorough study has been done on the issue of religious belief and practice. Instead, misconceptions based on anecdotes and impressions have been allowed to flourish, and these misconceptions have guided both parents’ behavior and congregational outreach. NSYR’s project began by investigating youth from 13-17 years old and continues to study this same cohort. The project study is both quantitative (phone surveys with thousands of youth and parents) and qualitative (follow-up face-to-face interviews with hundreds of teens). The first major report published from the study was Soul Searching. Shorter reports have been published by the organization and are all accessible on their Website: I would encourage readers to browse the site for other valuable resources. Furthermore, the value of the project is enhanced because it is also a longitudinal





study that has returned to the same study subjects as they have aged (2003, 2005, and 2008). A major report on this newer data will be available later this year in another book by Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009). I expect that, too, will be a big seller. Major Findings In Soul Searching, Smith offers tables and charts showing the raw data as well as his interpretation of that data. This gives the reader an opportunity to read the data and ask their own questions of it. I name a few outstanding findings of the study as they relate to teens in general and Catholic teens in particular. Contrary to common belief, Smith found that youth in this age group are positively disposed to religion. Also, many feel that religious faith is important to their day-to-day lives. They do not have strong negative feelings about religion or religious ideas, nor are they automatically antagonistic about religion or religious people. In fact, they generally go along with their parents on things religious. • Most Catholic young people report that their religious faith is somewhat (42%), very (31%), or extremely (11%) important in shaping their daily lives and in making important life decisions. • The majority of Catholic youth are somewhat (51%) or very (23%) interested in learning more about their faith. This first finding is an important one, especially among parents who tend to lay off the religion stuff expecting strong opposition as their children get older. Likewise, many youth workers try to make religious practice attractive, assuming that they are fighting an uphill battle on the popularity front. In that regard, this first finding is good news.

But the rosy good news is tempered by the following findings: youth are involved in religious practices, but regular practice seldom holds a place of priority in their lives. • 39% report attending Mass at least weekly and 52% report attending Mass 2 or 3 times a month or more. • 34% of Catholic youth pray daily and 62% pray weekly. • 46% report going to confession in the past year. So while they were not antagonistic about religious belief and practice, many did not themselves participate regularly. Smith notes that teens’ level of participation in worship reflects that of adults, and the study showed that for the most part, teens attend worship with their parents. Interestingly, most teens admitted that they would participate in worship at the same level or more even if they were not required to by parents. A third and perhaps more important finding is that religious beliefs are not widely understood. Smith found that the majority of youth, even those somewhat involved with religious practices, were dramatically inarticulate about the basics of their faith. The exceptions were those who have been well schooled in their religious communities. On this count, Roman Catholic youth reported very poorly. Yet it should also be noted that the more involved the teens were with their congregations, the more knowledgeable they were. However, the low level of regular involvement by the vast majority of teens meant that most were unable to clearly name what their tradition espoused, and spoke in very general terms. Of Catholic Teens: • 85% believe in God, 14% unsure, 1% not at all.

2009 Fall, Growing Faith for a Vibrant Church  

Growing in Faith: The Journey of a Lifetime