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Deeper Waters: Youth Ministry Seminar. Report on National Study on Youth and Religion. by Mr. Kevin Bohli 3/1/05. Purpose of Study:. This study focused on 13-17 year olds to: Research the shape and influence of religion and spirituality in the lives of U.S. adolescents.

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deeper waters youth ministry seminar
Deeper Waters: Youth Ministry Seminar

Report on National Study on Youth and Religion

  • by
  • Mr. Kevin Bohli
  • 3/1/05

Purpose of Study:

  • This study focused on 13-17 year olds to:
  • Research the shape and influence of religion and spirituality in the lives of U.S. adolescents.
  • 2. Identify effective practices in the religious, moral, and social formation of young people
  • 3. Describe the extent to which young people participate in and benefit from the programs and opportunities that religious denominations are offering to their youth.

Method of Study:

From July 2002-January 2004

-3,370 phone interviews, (average of) 30 minutes with parent, 52 minutes with teen.

-Random-Digit Dial

-Then 267 youth selected for in-depth, face to face interviews up to 3 hours long.


“Each American teenager is, let us

remind ourselves, a specific human

person with very real feelings and

desires, problems and accomplishments,

unchangeable histories and unknown


-Dr. Christian Smith


Finding #1

Religion has a significant presence in the lives of many U.S. teens today.


14 year old, white Conservative Protestant boy from North Dakota:

“Church makes me learn more about God and Jesus, but that’s about it. It doesn’t have any effect on my life.”


Finding #2

Contrary to many popular assumptions and stereotypes, the character of teenage religiosity in the US is extraordinarily conventional.


Finding #3

Religious education is failing –

if by that we mean helping people understand what they believe.


“Many teenagers know abundant detailsabout the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.”

-Dr. Christian Smith


17 year old, white Catholic boy from Wisconsin:

“My religious beliefs, what’s good and bad, like you know, if you kill or rape someone, I think you’re screwed, give up on life ‘cause it’s over.”

Then he added, “I’ll never stop being Catholic, even if I stop believing in God, I’ll still be Catholic.”


14 year old, white conservative Protestant girl from Idaho:

Interviewer: When you think of God, what image do you have of God?

Teen: [yawning]

I: What is God like?

T: Um, good. Powerful.

I: Okay, anything else?

T: Tall

I: Tall?

T: Big

I: Do you think God is active in people’s lives or not?

T: Ah, I don’t know.

I: You’re not sure?


T: Different people have different views of him.

I: What about your view?

T: What do you mean?

I: Do you think God is active in your life?

T: In my life? Yeah.

I: Yeah? hmm. Would you say you feel close to God or not really?

T: Yeah, I feel close. [yawns]

I: Where do you get your ideas about God?

T: The Bible, my mom, church. Experience.

I: What kind of experience?

T: He’s just done a lot of good in my life, so.

I: Like, what are examples of that?

T: I don’t know.


I: Well, I’d love to hear. What good has God done in your life?

T: I, well, I have a house, parents, I have the internet, I have a phone, I have cable.


15 year old conservative Protestant Hispanic boy from Texas:

“I’m sure God exists and like, helps people and answers their prayers, that’s pretty much it.”

[Do you believe in Jesus?] “Ah, yes…I think (little laugh). I don’t know, I don’t know.”


Finding #4

Most U.S. teens have a difficult to impossible time explaining what they believe, what it means, and what the implications of their beliefs are for their lives.


17 year old mainline Lutheran boy from Colorado:

“Uh, well, I don’t know, um, well, I don’t really know. Being a Lutheran, confirmation was a big thing but I didn’t really know what it was and I still don’t. I really don’t know what being a Lutheran means.”


15 year old mainline Methodist girl from Michigan who attends two church services every Sunday, Sunday School, youth group, and Wednesday night Bible study – offered regarding her own personal religious beliefs:

Teen: [Pause] I don’t really know how to answer that.

Interviewer: Are there any beliefs at all that are important to you? Really generally.

T: [Pause] I don’t know.

I: Take your time if you want.

T: I think that you should just, if you’re gonna do something wrong then you should always ask forgiveness and he’s gonna forgive you no matter what, ‘cause he gave up his only son to take all the sins for you, so.


17 year old, white Catholic boy from Indiana:

“Um, I think if you’re a good person and like, you know you don’t break any huge, if, if you live your life around the basic structure, you know. I mean nobody’s perfect so you’re gonna do bad things. But like, the whole 10 Commandments and stuff, pretty much a good person, then when you get judged you get to have another life. If you ask forgiveness and pray a lot you have a pretty good chance, just ‘cause, you know, the whole forgiving God thing.”


“Indeed, it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life.”

-Dr. Christian Smith


Finding #5

Regardless of the denomination, most U.S.

teens are “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists”



“Just don’t be a jerk, that’s all”



“Makes you feel good.”


15 year old Hispanic conservative Protestant girl from Florida:

“God is like someone who is always there for you, I don’t know, it’s like God is God. He’s just like somebody that’ll always help you go through whatever you’re going through. When I became a Christian I was just praying and it always made me feel better.”


14 year old Jewish girl from Washington:

“I guess for me Judaism is more about how you live your life. Part of the guidelines are like how to live and I guess be happy with who you are, ‘cause if you’re out there helping someone, you’re gonna feel good about yourself, you know?”


14 year old white Catholic boy from Pennsylvania:

“ ‘Cause God made us and if you ask him for something, I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn’t let me down yet. God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad.”


16 year old white mainline Protestant boy from Texas:

“Well, God is almighty, I guess [yawns]. But I think he’s on vacation right now because of all the crap that’s happening in the world, ‘cause it wasn’t like this back when he was famous.”


The Creed of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

  • A god exists who created and orders the world.
  • God wants us to be good and fair.
  • Central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Finding #6

Contrary to popular misguided cultural stereotypes and frequent parental misperceptions, the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.


Finding #7

The greater the supply of religiously grounded relationships, activities, programs, opportunities and challenges, the more likely teenagers will be religiously engaged and invested.


“Congregations that prioritize ministry to youth and support for parents, invest in trained and skilled youth ministers and make serious efforts to engage and teach adolescents seem much more likely to draw youth into religious lives.”

-Dr. Christian Smith


Finding #8

Religion is just one factor in the larger social and institutional context that forms the lives of teens. However, religion is at a social-structurally weak position compared to school, sports, internet, television.


17 year old white Catholic boy from Connecticut:

“I’m sure when I get older I’ll have to do more [with religion], but it’s something that becomes a lot more important later on, you know, like when you’re about to die.”


Finding #9

Highly religious teens appear to be doing much better in life than less religious teens.


“At the very least, what appears to be clearly not true is the idea that the religious teenagers are essentially no different from non-religious teenagers.”

-Dr. Christian Smith


“Catholic teenagers, who represent nearly one-quarter of all U.S. teens, stand out among the U.S. Christian teenagers as consistently scoring lower on most measures of religiosity.”

-Dr. Christian Smith


“Large segments of Catholic youth, for example, are far from convinced about the existence of angels (42 percent report maybe or not at all), miracles (45 percent), life after death (55 percent), or the existence of evil spirits (71 percent). On the other hand, 57 percent maybe or definitely believe in reincarnation, 46 percent in astrology, 48 percent in communicating with the dead, and 32 percent in psychics and fortunetellers. There is an immense amount of slippage here between the official Catholic Catechism and the actual professed beliefs of Catholic teenagers.”


Sexual activity of Catholic youth:

41% of all Catholic youth report having been

Physically involved with someone. Of those,

Have participated in oral sex:

40% of junior high

63% of high school

Average age of first experience is 15

Have participated in Sexual Intercourse:

14% of junior high

61% of high school

Average age of first experience is 15

Average number of times is 3.


Alcohol use of Catholic youth:

79% of junior-high have never consumed alcohol

50% of high school have never consumed alcohol

Males drink more often than females

Youth Group and RE participants drink less than non-participants.

Catholic school students drink more than

non-Catholic school students.


Marijuana use of Catholic youth:

88% of junior-high have never tried marijuana

71% of high school have never tried marijuana

Catholic School students, Youth Group and RE participants use marijuana less than non-participants.


Catholic parents:

  • much less likely than all of their Protestant counterparts to participate in organized activities at Church such as Bible studies, potluck meals, music practices, and small groups.
  • After regression analysis:
    • The lower levels of Church attendance by US Catholic teens and the lower levels of importance of faith can be explained by lower levels of their parents.

Catholic Churches:

  • “Simply put, the U.S. Catholic Church appears in its infrastructure to invest fewer resources into youth ministry and education than do many other Christian traditions and denominations in the U.S.”
  • Catholic parents are much less likely than all of their Protestant counterparts to say that ministry to teenagers is a very important priority in their church congregation.

“U.S. Catholics have gone from being a relatively small, working class, and highly segregated population of largely white Europeans who trusted social institutions, especially their pre-Vatican II Church, and stressed the importance of obeying Church teachings, to becoming a larger, more privileged … population that is more highly integrated into American society and culture, more skeptical of all institutions, including the

post-Vatican II Church, and more inclined to stress the importance of thinking for themselves.”

- Sociologist James Davidson in “American Catholics and American Catholicism”

nsyr top 10 recommendations
NSYR Top 10 Recommendations:

1. Stop accepting what the world is saying about teens.

2. To get more youth serious about their faith, we must get more parents serious about their faith.

3. Do not be shy about teaching religion

4. Adults should be aware that better adult teaching of youth will require stronger adult relationships with youth.

5. Educators must work on articulation

nsyr top 10 recommendations1
NSYR Top 10 Recommendations:

6. Use teens inclination towards individualism to show them how very conventional they are actually acting, how unexciting in their faith life.

7. Teach youth the difference between:

a. Serious, articulate, confident personal and congregational faith

b. Respectful, civil discourse in the pluralistic public square

c. Obnoxious, offensive faith talk that merely turns people off.

8. Religious communities should attend to their faith particularities.

9. Recognize the instrumentalist view of faith as a double edged sword. May increase attendance, but comes at a cost.

10. Turn off the damn TV!


“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

-Hesiod, 800 B.C., Greek Poet

to learn more
To learn more:
  • Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagersby Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton (available on
  • National Study of Youth and Religion: Analysis of the Population of Catholic Teenagers and Their Parents by Charlotte McCorquodale, Victoria Shepp, Leigh Sterten. (available at
  • Go to website