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Faith of Our Fathers
The Spiritual Inheritance of Today’s Teenagers
An article from David R. Smith at

Dylan has his father’s stature and personality; he has his mother’s eyes and nose. But physical attributes aren’t the only way Dylan’s parents have marked him. Apparently, he’s inherited their spiritual traits, as well.

“Religion…With a Side of Complacency, Please”
The Barna Group, a research organization based in Ventura, CA, recently released the findings of a study performed on teenagers and their (new) faith practices. It’s more than a little unsettling.

The good news – which is in short supply – is that more than half of all American teenagers (6 in 10) report engaging in some form of “group spiritual activity” in a given week. While that hints at some positive potential, the remainder of their findings tells a sadder story.

Comparing today’s teenagers to those from 1997, the first year Barna performed these studies, they found that participation in Sunday school has fallen from 35% of all teens in 1997, to a mere 30% of teens today. Unsurprisingly, they found that small group attendance also fell, from 30% in 1997, to 21%, these days.

Even the simple and private act of prayer has tumbled. These days, only 71% of teens pray compared to 81% of kids in 1997. And when prayer drops off, so does evangelism.

The number of born again teenagers who claimed to have “explained your religious beliefs to someone else who had different beliefs, in the hope that they might accept Jesus Christ as their savior” fell from 63% of teens in 1997 to 45% of teens today.

And you can call it a byproduct of the current economy – or just an obvious extension of the previously mentioned findings – but the number of teens who claim to give their own money to churches has dropped from 35% to 26% since 1997.

You don’t have to be a NASA physicist to understand these numbers. More than half of teens still want something from church…they just don’t want the obligations that come along with it.

Many people are blaming an overemphasis on “programming” and “big events” in the youth ministry world, elements that often replace the simple act of one-on-one connection and discipling young people. Whether or not programming is to blame, it’s obvious that many of our churches teenagers today aren’t being encouraged to grow, use their gifts and serve (which is one reason Jonathan and I just wrote the book coming out this December, Ministry by Teenagers.)

And while there may be some debate about how to solve this problem, there’s little doubt about its cause.

“I Learned It From Watching You!”
Interestingly, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has also just concluded some telling research. Instead of focusing on teenagers, they chose to study the overall “religious knowledge” of American adults, including those who professed to be Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Agnostic, and Atheist, among others.

Wanna guess who scored the best?

Let’s just say it wasn’t Protestants. Nor was it Catholics. Heck, it wasn’t even Mormons or Jews. The amazingly ironic results showed that Atheists and Agnostics had the most knowledge when it came to religious matters.


That’s right. Each religious group was asked 32 different questions about their particular, self-identified faith system, and on average, Atheists/Agnostics got 20.9 of their 32 questions correct, while various Protestants got 16.0 (half) of their respective questions correct.

So, those “without religion” evidently know more about it than those of us who profess it.

In fact, time and again, Atheists and Agnostics knew more about matters of faith than Christians did, including topics like “the Bible and Christianity,” “world religions,” and “religion in public life.” For instance, 45% of Catholics were seriously confused about their teachings on Holy Communion (called transubstantiation). And roughly 53% of Protestants could not name Martin Luther as one of the prime instigators in the Protestant Reformation.

But it gets worse. When it came to point blank questions about the Bible, 29% of Americans did not know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. 37% could not name Genesis as the first book of the Bible. And almost half wrongly believe that the Golden Rule is one of the Ten Commandments. (It looks like lots of Americans should be on the lookout for Jay Leno and his infamous, but hilarious, jay walks.)

In what might seem contradictory, earlier research by Pew found that almost 6 in 10 American adults said religion was “very important” in their lives, and roughly 4 in 10 claimed to attend worship services at least once a week.

What explains this incredible disconnect in the lives of adults?

Could it be the age-old problem of biblical illiteracy? Is pluralism rearing its ugly head again? Maybe this latest reality is the result of “hipster Christianity”?

It’s probably a combination of several factors. But without a doubt, their disconnect plays a role in kids’ current struggles.

Faith of the Future
These findings will disturb many parents and youth workers…and that’s good. Too many of us need something to stir us out of our spiritual malaise. If we want our kids’ faith to be more biblically-consistent and life-engaging, we need to take decisive – but simple – action, now.

  1. Understand your influence. We’ve talked about parental influence on kids in previous articles. It’s unmistakable…and inarguable. Almost every facet of their lives is impacted by who we are, what we think/believe, and how we live. Let’s decide to (finally) take advantage of that influence. We can do it in a number of ways, including something as simple as sharing a meal with our kids. This past week, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University released their study entitled The Importance of Family Dinners VI. For another consecutive year, they concluded that “frequent family dinners make a difference.” That’s easy influence. Use it.

  2. Do faith together. Today’s (busy) schedules make it tempting to drop kids off at church while we catch up on errands. And the sheer number of gimmicks available to parents makes it possible to farm out our kids’ religious upbringing to someone or something else. But we need to resist the elements that separate our faith development from that of our kids. has always been committed to “reaching kids,” and now we are on the verge of launching (you can see the layout- but it’s still under construction), a site dedicated to “helping parents build relationships…and teach biblical values.” This site will provide plenty of resources that will help YOU impact your child’s faith development. It’ll mean a lot to your children that you are making personal investments in them.

  3. Make sure your spiritual influence complies with the teachings in James. If there’s one truth that rises above all others in James’ epistle, it’s that faith and works must go hand in hand (James 2:17). No longer can our beliefs differ from our actions. We cannot allow for a disconnect like the one we are currently suffering from. It undermines our integrity and the glory of God. Let’s not only teach a biblically-accurate faith, let’s live it, as well.

Fortunately, some good old fashioned intentionality will go a long way in preserving a strong faith for the future. Since this is the most crucial inheritance we can offer our kids, let’s give them our best.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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Comments on this post

   Jackie         12/30/2010 2:06:30 PM

Excellent and very true!

   Brian         11/2/2010 8:29:13 PM

I used this article as part of my weekly emails to parents. Great insight and very helpful. I got positive feedback from parents as well.

   Jim Hambright         11/2/2010 12:05:41 PM

This article was rated but no comment was left

   Randi         11/2/2010 10:49:21 AM

I really like all of your statistics in this article - not because they are great statistics about the kids we minister to everyday, but because they show the reality of what is going on out there. It can be startling to really think about it. These statistics kind of remind me of the book "UNchristian" (which I think was also a study from the Barna Group) that discusses not just teens, but adults viewpoints toward church and the reasons why they either don't believe at all or have become complacent in their beliefs. These are important statistics to be paying attention to and learning from so that we know how to properly minister!

   Shaun Mattson         11/1/2010 9:02:58 PM

While this is certainly challenging, it is also an incredible opportunity to invite students to engage in faith discussion in new and creative ways.

   Teresa Goller         11/1/2010 11:21:04 AM

Youre right - this informatin is disturbing. Thanks for shaking us up!

   Matthew Schutter         11/1/2010 10:07:40 AM

This is something we can all learn from!


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