We just finished up a two-day consultation here at Princeton that brought together some of the best minds in the study of American religion, people like Cynthia Woolever, Diana Butler Bass, Dorothy Bass, and Don Browning, the dean of American practical theology. Really, it was great to talk with these people, some of whom very much had emergent on their radar, while others did not (“I’ve been meaning to read that Christian Century article,” a few told me).
But the highlight for me was both getting to know and hear a presentation from Christian Smith. Smith is a sociologist at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he is a preeminent sociologist of American religion (in the post-Wuthnow generation). I’ve already blogged about his excellent book, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Today he presented the findings from a massive multi-year study on American teens (13-17 years old) and religion. The book to come out of the project is called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teens, and much of the research from the stufy is available at the website of the National Study of Youth and Religion.
Smith’s overall work, it seems to me, is to investigate how religion and religious institutions can develop and even thrive in a postmodern/pluralistic context. The way that so many kids in America are Christian — and a vast majority are — is disturbing. Their Christianity is so nebulous, so watered down, that Smith calls their religion “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” That is, they believe in God, they believe God wants us to be “good people” and to make “good choices,” and they believe that God is available to answer them or help them out when they need him. Other than that, they can articulate exactly nothing distinctive about the Christian faith.
Listen, you can read the book. And the fact is, you should read it, and read it right away. Even if you don’t care about teens (which you should), the study basically shows that all these kids are doing is reflecting their parents’ faith.
It’s very disturbing stuff, and it’s a harsh indictment on the state of the church, youth ministry, and Christian parenting.