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(Ventura, CA) If you want to understand the future, you have to understand those who will dictate the contours of the days to come. A new nationwide survey among teenagers, conducted by the Barna Research Group (Ventura, CA) reveals many exciting and encouraging changes that are likely to occur. But one shift that should trouble leaders in the Christian Church is the superficial relationship that most teens have with Christianity – and their plans to reduce their already minimal commitment to the Christian faith.
American teenagers are widely described as deeply religious individuals who have integrated their religious beliefs into their lifestyle and their thinking. This latest study among teens, however, suggests that faith is a passing fancy of young people – just one of many dimensions that they blend into a potpourri of perspectives, experiences, skills, and contexts toward arriving at their worldview and lifestyle. Neither their behavior nor their beliefs support the notions that they are deeply spiritual or truly committed to Christianity. Although their spirituality is more overt than that of their elders, teenagers are even less committed to Christianity than are the Baby Boomers.
Talk is Cheap
While teens are well-known to spend more time discussing religious matters than do older people, that running commentary on spiritual matters has yet to translate to a deeper sense of commitment to spirituality. Even when asked to describe themselves, terms that reflect a religious bent are common, but no more so than is found among adults. For instance, less than two-thirds say that they are “religious” (64%). Only three out of every five call themselves “spiritual” (60%) and the same proportion say they are “committed Christians” (60%). These figures are equivalent to those among adults.
It is interesting to note that among those who deem themselves to be committed Christians, only half qualify as born again Christians, a categorization that includes having “made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in [their] life today.”
Goals for the Future
One way of measuring the significance of spirituality in their lives is to explore their goals for their future. When the national sample of teens was asked to rate the desirability of each of 19 outcomes, the spiritual outcomes included in the list were of moderate significance, at best. Highest among the three religious-oriented outcomes was “having a close, personal relationship with God,” which ranked just eighth out of the nineteen possibilities. “Being deeply committed to the Christian faith” was in the bottom third of the future possibilities, ranked fourteenth. “Being personally active in a church” placed even lower, placing sixteenth. Overall, the highest-ranking options related to strong relationships and lifestyle comforts. Faith matters were substantially less compelling considerations.
In fact, although an overwhelming majority believes in God, just two out of three teens strongly desire having a personal relationship with Him. Similarly, although nearly nine out of ten teenagers believe that Jesus was real, and more than eight out of ten describe themselves as Christian, only half say they are very eager to be deeply committed to the Christian faith. Even fewer – just four out of ten – are excited about being active in a church.
Three key measures of faith further reveal the true nature of the spirituality of teens. Although four out of five say they are Christian, only one out of four (26%) also claims to be “absolutely committed to the Christian faith.” That is only about half the percentage found among adults – and a strong indicator of the flagging depth of loyalty Americans have in relation to its dominant faith group.
Another measure is that of born again Christians. Survey respondents were classified as born again if they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life and if they believed that after they die they will go to Heaven solely because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Using this classification method just one out of every three teens (33%) is born again. Amazingly, less than half of the born again teenagers (44%) said that they are absolutely committed to the Christian faith – yet another harbinger of trouble for the future Church.
Barna Research surveys consistently evaluate the percentage of individuals who are evangelicals. That group is based on people who meet a series of belief-based criteria (see the survey methodology for the content of the definition). Presently, only 4% of U.S. teens fit the evangelical criteria – roughly the same as among adults (6%).
Current Attendance Is Deceiving
Perhaps the most deceptive factor is the high level of church-based involvement among today’s teenagers. This study shows that teens continue to be more broadly involved in church-based activities than are adults. In a typical week, nearly six out of ten attend worship services; one out of three attend Sunday school; one out of three attend a youth group; and three out of ten participate in a small group, other than a Sunday school class or youth group meeting. In total, more than seven out of ten teens are engaged in some church-related effort in a typical week. That far exceeds the participation level among adults – and even among teenagers’ parents!
But before these levels of involvement result in celebration, be warned about teens’ plans for the future. When asked to estimate the likelihood that they will continue to participate in church life once they are living on their own, levels dip precipitously, to only about one out of every three teens. Placed in context, that stands as the lowest level of expected participation among teens recorded by Barna Research in more than a decade. If the projections pan out, this would signal a substantial decline in church attendance occurring before the close of this new decade.
What’s Going On?
These statistics were collected as part of a larger study of teenagers, described in a new report by researcher George Barna, entitled “Third Millennium Teens.” Among the conclusions of the report is that teenagers are a study in contradictions. One of those is their simultaneous desire to be portrayed as religious people while they invest little of themselves in true spiritual pursuit. The research discovered that religious participation by teens is often motivation by relational opportunities rather than by the promise of spiritual development. The possibility of making and retaining friendships outstrips their commitment to deepening their faith. The relative lack of interest in maintaining church ties in the future reflects their experience with churches to date. Specifically, they do not perceive churches to be particularly helpful.
George Barna, who directed and analyzed the research, indicated that it is not too late to persuade teenagers to include the church in their future plans. “Most teens are desperately striving to determine a valid and compelling purpose for life. Most of them want to have influence and impact. The Church has an opportunity to address such matters and thus to position itself as a place of valuable insight and assistance.” Barna stated that young people will give the Church a chance. “But to become an accepted partner in their maturation process, the Church must earn the time and attention of teens – and that means becoming a provider of value well before their high school graduation. The failure to do so virtually guarantees that the Church will continue to see massive dropout rates among college students, with relatively few of those young people returning to the church immediately after college.”
These findings are drawn from a report on teenagers entitled “Third Millennium Teens,” written by George Barna. The report is based upon 2867 telephone interviews conducted among teens during the past three years. The data in this release comes primarily from a survey during November 1999 among 614 teenagers, ages 13 through 18, living within the 48 continental states. Each teenager was randomly selected from the national universe of teens. The estimated sampling error for that survey is +5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility. Households were selected randomly through a random-digit dialing procedure (RDD), and the household screened for the presence of one or more teenagers. In homes with a teen, only one teenager was interviewed. Quotas were also deployed to ensure accurate regional distribution and minor statistical weighting was used to ensure that the sample reflects national demographic norms. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of selecting a representative sample of households and teenagers.
In this analysis we categorize individuals as “evangelical” based upon their answers to nine questions regarding matters of faith. Those included in this segment meet the criteria for being born again, as described above; say their faith is very important in their life today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Thus, evangelicals are a subset of the born again population. Notice that being an evangelical has no relationship to church attendance, to denominational affiliation, or to calling oneself “evangelical.”
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in Ventura, California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of attitudes, values and behavior. Future data releases of this nature may be obtained at no cost by subscribing to The Barna Update, a free bi-weekly e-mailing of new data drawn from Barna Research Group studies. To subscribe, enter your e-mail address in the Barna Update subscription field on the upper left-hand portion of any page of this web site.
For additional details on the research, consult the report, “Third Millennium Teens,” available from the Barna Research Group (www.barna.org).