This blog series will explore the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and their religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.
Before coming to the Iowa Conference UCC staff, I worked as a chaplain at a treatment facility for young people with mental illness and behavioral disorders. One of my standard practices was to complete an “intake assessment” of the religious needs of each young person as they were admitted to the facility. On many occasions, the young person I was interviewing would tell me that they didn’t want to go to church. They practiced ‘religion’ on their own, they would tell me. As I got to know these young people, we would often have conversations about how they can ‘have faith’ on their own outside a religious community.
These young people had ample reasons to reject communities — religious or otherwise. Most of them had been abused; people in their faith communities often looked the other way, or in rarer cases, had committed the abuse. Sometimes an abuser’s faith would be used to justify the harm inflicted on these young people. It was understandable that they would struggle alone with their faith. In the end, it often meant they would have little or no significant faith beliefs or practices.
But, the reality of these young people’s “loner” faith reflect a much broader trend: If you participate in religious communities or groups, you also more regularly engage in personal faith practices such as prayer and scripture reading. One rarely happens without the other.
Researchers led by Christian Smith at the National Study of Youth and Religion found that that less than 7 percent of young adults who did not attend religious services or engage in other outward practices of religion felt religion was not important nor did they pray or read scripture on their own. Stated in another way, less than 1 percent of young people who were highly involved in a religious community did not also engage in personal religious practices. (Souls in Transition, pg. 252)
The most highly religious young people, the survey found, exhibited a combination of internal and external religious practices. In other words, if a young person regularly participates in their faith community, it is very likely that they are also praying, reading scripture and engaging religious practices on their own.
For youth workers and church leaders, it may be tempting to get involved in a chicken-or-the-egg conversation about these statistics. Do personal practices inspire more religious service attendance? Or are personal practices the results of participating in a vibrant faith community? Finding answers to these questions would be frustrating, if not impossible.
What we can say is that BOTH external and internal practices of faith are necessary to form highly religious young adults (and all people). In the United Church of Christ, of which I am part, we are really fond of the outward practices – participating in creative, engaging worship, doing service and mission or working on justice issues in our community. But, these things alone do not make your faith particularly well-integrated into your life.
Over the years, I’ve taken many young people on mission trips. Too many times, I’ve let the evening devotion fall to the wayside because we are all too tired or because people just want to ‘hang out.’ No more can we neglect those inward practices in favor of the outward expressions of faith, or vice versa. Faith is something to be lived — whether we are in large groups or on our own.
Our Next Myth: Parents have little or no influence over the faith lives of teenagers.