Teenage Faithland

Book cover
A Faith of Their Ownby By Lisa D. Pearce and Melinda Lundquist DentonOxford Univ. Press. 284p $24.95

Those who know and rightly admire the adroit sociological analysis of Christian Smith and Melinda Denton’s groundbreaking 2005 study of the religious lives of teenagers, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers will surely also want to read carefully this new study. A Faith of Their Own is based on a second wave of surveys and in-depth interviews of parents and teenagers in the National Study of Youth and Religion.  

The same teenagers, first interviewed in 2002, when they were between 13 and 17 years old, were followed up in 2005, three years later, to determine what if any religious changes took place as the teenagers began to drive their own cars, engage in nonmarital sex or cohabitation, and grow closer to planning their educational and career aspirations.


Lisa D. Pearce and Melinda Lundquist Denton have written a most helpful book. Their main thesis is that religiosity among teenagers (as among adults) is multidimensional. It does not lend itself to crude uni-dimensional indices of low versus high, without further ado. They postulate a threefold index for religiosity based on content, conduct and centrality. To assess content they probed respondents’ belief in God (and the kind of God they believed in: personal and engaging versus more detached or even just a cosmic principle) and belief in the exclusiveness of their religion (few American teenagers think there is only one true religion). For conduct, they analyzed responses about religious attendance, private individual prayer and helping as a volunteer. Finally, to assess centrality they used three measures: importance of religion to the respondent; how close he/she felt to God; and what each thought was the meaning of life.

Although the authors drew mainly from surveys, their intent was to hew as closely as they could to “lived religion.” They knew that most respondents are not totally consistent across the three measures. They can be strong in attending services (perhaps under parental pressures) but weak in claiming religion is important. Conversely, many who attend church only sporadically may pray daily, say religion is important to their lives and think often about the deepest meaning of life.

Based on their measures, Pearce and Denton profile five distinct religious types: abiders, adapters, assenters, avoiders and atheists. Abiders tend to come from intact families whose parents also attend services regularly. They do show a kind of congruence across content, conduct and centrality measures. They are, in one sense, the most religious (although the authors shy away from narrowly comparative judgments on religiosity). But they also show a kind of vulnerability when doubts arise. As the authors note: “When those who are highly religious become less religious, they tend to do so across the board, not just in public religious practice.”

Adapters are more likely to pick and choose among religious beliefs and, compared with abiders, are more lax in attendance at weekly services, although they may be more fervent in personal prayer than abiders, more likely to volunteer and stronger in claiming religion is central to their lives. Often enough, adapters may come from broken families or families of a lower income status, where parents may have night or weekend jobs that make church attendance difficult. The authors remind us that not all religious disengagement is a personal choice of the adolescent.

Assenters are lower on the centrality of religion to their lives or on personal prayer than the adapters, although their attendance at religious services may look the same.

Avoiders believe in God but in other ways avoid religion. Not that they oppose it, but the avoiders seem to have a congruence in their behaviors that displays initiative and ambition. There are few teenage atheists.

Overall, most teenagers (81 percent) in the second wave surveys remained in the same profile type they were in earlier. Continuity is the stronger characteristic of teenage religiosity than change. When change occurs, it tends to be one rung downward on the ladder: e.g., from abider to adapter or from an adapter to assenter. Some religious types (e.g., abiders) are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use and premarital sex.

Pearce and Denton also probe the role of peers, parents and religious institutions in supporting or helping teenage religiosity. As the earlier study, Soul Searching, showed, most teenagers are largely inarticulate about their beliefs. Often enough they are moralistic deists. Nor do they talk very much with their peers about religion.

Parents’ religiosity and roles are crucial. Religiously practicing parents more likely inspire practicing teenagers. Teenagers who report being close to one or both parents are more likely to be abiders or adapters than lower on the scale. Parents who pray daily for their children are more likely to have religious children. Key also is what the authors call “scaffolding.” This refers to parental help, guidance and their ability to talk to and give congruent and useful support for their children both in religious exploration and in dealing with their doubts and questions and achieving autonomy.

One key finding of the study is that teenagers who successfully personalize their own religion (as opposed to just acting out their parents’ expectations) were more likely to claim they had become more religious over the three-year span of the surveys than less, even if their religious attendance at church was more sporadic. Under-scaffolding (parental neglect or absence) and over-scaffolding are equally bad. Restrictive approaches that do not allow honesty about teenagers’ questions and doubts are not helpful.

The role of congregations in teenage religiosity was also probed. Two questions sought answers to whether teenagers found their local parish/congregation’s services boring and whether there were adults in the parish with whom the teenager could honestly talk about religious questions, including doubts. Most teenagers reported positive responses about their local congregation.

As a sociologist of religion, I would strongly recommend A Faith of Their Own to my confreres for its supple methodology for measuring and tracking religiosity. As a parish priest I would also recommend it highly to parents who may be perplexed or confused about their teenagers’ religiosity. I would especially urge religious educators of youth and/or youth ministers in parishes to peruse its findings.

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Don Roberto Hill
7 years 7 months ago

It is certainly not surprising to me that children get some of their faith from their parents, and this proves that anyone who thinks their kids should be allowed to explore for themselves and find their own path to God is way off base (and seriously derelict in their duties). 

But despite what Pearce and Denton found, it seems to me there must be a close correlation between attending Mass and receiving the Sacraments, and prayer.  "Under-scaffolding and over-scaffolding are equally bad"?  I don't see much "over-scaffolding" in today's society.  Our kids are mostly educated by Hollywood, their peers and pagan-libertine professors.  It's no wonder they don't have a real concept of how deadly sin is.  Their parents mostly don't know either and don't teach them.  They spend more time on various golden calves than they do in churches, reading the Bible or drawing on other sources of Truth.  And Hollywood elites (and other culture leaders—Oprah, Obama, et al.), comprised largely of "if-it-feels- good-and-hurts-no-one- it-must-be-okay" relativists, don't believe very strongly in the reality of evil.  

My sense is that teenagers stray because the anti-religious messages overwhelm those in favor, and their questions are not adequately answered even if they dare ask.  Hopefully this study will further incentivize parents and teachers to better prepare themselves to address the questions of young people.  It's spiritual warfare, and we must not be complacent. 

ed gleason
7 years 7 months ago
When the young see truly religious people living a life of service and belief they will be attracted to the Gospel life.... no models = no conversions.. "preach the Gospel and if necessary,  use words'
 The number of !st century Christians grew exponentially without media, facebook,  celebrities or people in high places, or money resources.. so??
Don Roberto.. 
Maybe  anti-religious messages/stances  might be welcomed as incentives and contrast.. if you believe that the 'good' attracts the good.. .. think of 1st century Roman empire
Michael Barberi
7 years 7 months ago

It is difficult to argue about the results of surveys and indept interviews, especially if they are conducted professionally and are statistically significant. However, there is a difference between the results of surveys and what those results mean in the larger context of human flourishing and moral development.

In order to do this exceedingly difficult task, is to realize that many issues come into play and most importantly foundational issues. For example, teenagers and young adults may be influenced by their parents who attend Mass weekly. However, the larger issue is the small percent of Catholics who attend Mass, or if you will, the large percent of Catholics that do not. Ditto for the percent of Catholics who frequent confession and those that have stopped confessing their sins to a priest.

The are other important issues that influence teenagers, as well as young adults.  Our modern society and culture is not divided into the culture of life and the culture of death. This explicitly draws a line in the sand and creates a "us versus them" mentality. Teenagers are being taught to take sides.

We stive to the truth and the good and to God through virtue, character, faith, friendship, commitment, relationships, as well as through our intellectual and vocational activities and outward action that constitue the act of a deliberate will. Moral goodness is impossible if love is absent. In my opinion, our culture is too complex and the good of a message is distorted when we think: You are with me or against me. You will go to heaven or hell. Your reason is right or distorted. You either accept these moral absolutes or you sin. You are a good Catholic or you are not.

Can we deliver a better message?

7 years 7 months ago

"When the young see truly religious people living a life of service and belief they will be attracted to the Gospel life.... no models = no conversions.. 'preach the Gospel and if necessary,  use words.'"
That is my experience, too, Ed.  In September, I will begin my ninth year teaching in a non-religious independent school, at the high school level.  Our students are bright and talented, inquisitive and sincere, and many are "unsure" when it comes to 'religion.'  They have come to recognize me, along with others on the faculty, as a 'man of faith.' I find that there are many 'teachable moments' when they ask, "what do you believe, Mr. Lovasik?"  Inevitably, when I try to respond to their question, as honestly as I can, "you could hear a pin drop" as they say.  They are all ears.
I'm sure that they wrestle with some of what I share, but they recognize that my faith is 'spirit and life' for me.

Susan Vogt
7 years 7 months ago

I also did research on this topic for my recently published book, Parenting Your Adult Child: Keeping the Faith (And Your Sanity). Although my audience is parents of young adults aged 18-40, my results concur with the Pearce/Denton research. I also interviewed a number of parents and young adults to try to get “behind the numbers.” I notice that Pearce/Denton carefully avoid the cliché “spiritual but not religious” yet that still aptly describes the spiritual lives of so many young adults.

Although it may feel good to lay the blame for young adults’ lack of institutional affiliation on the backs of a permissive culture, parents, and Hollywood, I think that oversimplifies the culture shift that is taking place in our country. I found many very active Catholic parents who conscientiously nurtured  their children’s faith who sadly reported that their young adults were no longer, or only marginally, practicing Catholics. The young adults I talked with seldom were hedonistic relativists.

Yes, some people (young and old) are lazy about their faith and vulnerable to the culture’s allure, but even more are yearning for meaning and a faith that feeds them. We in the institutional church too readily give them rules rather than inspiration.

Yes, parents are important, but after a young adult leaves home, the parent needs to walk a fine line between being a guide by the side vs. interfering. It’s the parent’s faith that I challenge in my book.

www.BustedHalo.com will soon run a series that I wrote that is directed more to the young adults themselves, especially those just stepping into independent living as a single person.

There is a dual challenge here – to both the young adults and to the Church. Neither is without fault.

Michael Barberi
7 years 6 months ago
I attended Mass weekly with my spouse and children until they were in college and adults. I sent both my children to Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

Teenagers socialize with other teenagers. Parents set the example, council as best they can, support them, pray for them and monitor them. Parents and Catholic school give them a good ethical and theological foundation. However, they are also taught to be critical thinkers. Certainly, there is a wide middle ground in terms of one's faith and moral development. We pray teenagers and young adults understand the boundaries.

The boundaries are not a sharp line in the sand. Adhere to all Church doctrines and be a faithful Catholic versus be unfaithful and lose yourself to individualism, relativism and the ills of the secular culture. 
It would be interesting and enlightening to contrast the findings if this survey under discussion with another recent major survey.

In 2007, Dean Hoge of the Catholic University of America conducted a survey of Catholics and divide his findings by cohort: Post-Vatical II (ages 18-39), Vatican II (ages 40-62) and Pre-Vatican II (63+).  His findings were published. The youngest generation and the post-Vatical II generation hold to greater individual authority in religious and moral decisions than older Catholics. They show no signs of returning to earlier levels of religious orthodoxy and practices demonstrated by the pre-Vatican II generation. In 2002, 19% of young Catholics attend weekly Mass and only 25% have confidence in Church leaders.

With respect to sexual ethics, the youngest cohort (ages 18-39), oly 37% said it is always morally wrong to have an abortion and to engage in homosexual acts. Only 22% believe it is always morally wrong to engage in pre-marital sexf, and only 10% of them believe it is always morally wrong to use condoms or birth control pills.

The trend among cohorts is a negative one. While parents and Catholic schools can help teenagers, it is the Church and its teachings that are equally important in helping them to develop a theological ethical behavior and to grow spiritually. If the message does not resonate with teenager reality, if Church teachings on the important issues of sexual ethics have no power to change behavior, then it is time to reflect upon  and improve the message. In this regard, I agree with the late JP2 when he said we have a crisis in truth. We also have a divided Church, plagued by profound disagreement between most theologians and the papal magisterium.


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