Souls in Transition: Chris Smith, Chap Clark, and Me

This is part of a series of posts in which I’m reflecting on Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s new book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.

As I wrote yesterday, Chris Smith’s prequel to Souls in Transition, Soul Searching, didn’t particularly jibe with my assumptions about youth and youth ministry in Postmodern Youth Ministry.  Nor did it jibe with Chap Clark’s conclusions in another influential youth ministry book, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers.  In fact, when asked about Soul Searching by the LA Times in 2005, this is what Chap said:

Like Smith, Chap also found religious ambivalence among teenagers. But he argued that the number of religious teenagers was far fewer and estimated that fewer than 10% had religion as “an important part of their everyday life.” It was “simply not on the lifestyle map,” Chap said.

He said Smith’s study methodology might have skewed the results in favor of more religious-minded teenagers. “Kids who are going to church are more likely to stay for the entire survey,” he said.

In a nutshell, the messages of the three books are this:

  • Soul Searching: The religion of teenagers is basically conventional
  • Hurt: Teenagers are abandoned and hurting and find little solace in religion
  • Postmodern Youth Ministry: Teenagers are postmodern seekers, looking for spiritual experiences

I’ve tried to make sense of the varying interpretations of these three books, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I think that Soul Searching is, indeed, reflective of the broad swath of American teenagers.  And I think that Hurt and PMYM are dealing with significant minorities of the teenage population.  I use a Bell Curve to explain my theory.

The first notable use of the Bell Curve of standard distribution to explain human social behavior was in a controversial 1994 book that proposed that IQ scores are the best indicator of someone’s ability to succeed economically in society.  Since then, other sociological measurements have similarly used the Bell Curve, which basically says that 68% of the population falls within one standard deviation on either side of the mean, as shown in the graph below:

So, my best interpretation of these three books, and it’s borne out by my two decades in youth ministry, is that Chris is right, the majority of teenagers are relatively conventional when it comes to religion and faith.  And Chap is right, there is a significant minority of teenagers who are deeply hurt and abandoned and engage in self-destructive behavior.  And I am right, significant minority of teenagers are relativistic spiritual seekers.  I’ve tried to illustrate that with this 20-second video:

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  • Clever … I suspect Smith/Snell would agree with you that there are significant minorities in the postmodern seekers and wounded seekers. What has happened, unless I’m mistaken, is that your focus or Chap’s focus have become the majority for many.

  • Tim

    I would have to agree. My experience in youth ministry has a tendency towards the hurting youth which may be influenced by the fact I work in older mainline churches that have not had good youth focuses. But my experience with youth outside of those setting seem to be traditional/ apathetic. It has been my experience that you have to awaken the spiritual experience seeker in the youth.

  • Hmmm, interesting. Smith uses quantitative methods primarily to arrive at his conclusions (although he did extensive qualitative interviews too) and I believe the other two used qualitative methods (but I am not sure since I have not read those book). If this is the case, then there is going to be methods bias for each of the books which may be enough of an effect to guide the direction of he conclusions.

    Furthermore, my hunch is that each author is biased – not in a bad way, but in a way that reflects their experience, training, hunches, and on and on.

    One struggle I have with the quantitative methods and data collection methods used by Smith is that it is very hard to get any sense of depth in phone interviews asking multiple choice questions. However, the strength of his methods is that he got a nationally representative sample of 3000 plus teens and parents.

    One struggle I have with qualitative data is that it alomst impossible to get a representative sample. Qualitative samples are generally non-representative (often on purpose) such that there is no way to draw any meaningful conclusion to anyone outside the sample.

    So, as to the bell curve – not sure. My guess is that Smith’s data covers at least as much as Tony says, if not more, but not in enough depth. There are probably lots of hurting and seeking kids in his sample, but he just could not get at that hurt or seeking due to the limits of the methods of data collection.

    Also, postmodern youth may not be full on postmodern. There are more than likely degrees of postmodernity and it may vary frm one topic to the next, from one area in their life to the next, on just how postmodern their beliefs are. And, are some youth with a postmodern vocabulary who, in a inch, fall back to something more conventional? Not sure.

    Finally, it is hard for me to buy the bell curve metaphor as it seems to make these groups mutually exclusive, when they are most likely not. There is probably some overlap in postmodern youth and hurting youth, but this metaphor of the Bell Curve makes them not only mutually exclusive, but somewhat opposites. Does more postmodernity mean less hurt (and viceversa)? Probably not that clean.

    But, I do like how Tony presses the conversation forward. What I take from these different views of youth and religion from the three books is that there is a complexity in all this that cannot be narrated one way.

  • I like the Bell curve idea but I also had a significant thought as to what ties these three books together (all of which I have read by the way).

    While all three might represent a different kind/swath/end result for different kids, it all stems from the fact that youth do not understand what Christianity should be. The Postmodern searching crowd seems to be searching, partly because they don’t understand what they have grown up in. The Soul Searching crowd, while conventional in practice, is not really Christian but what he calls “Moralistic, Therapeutic, Diest”. And the Hurt crowd has been flat out burned by the Church.

    One could simply assume that the inarticulateness, the political co-opting, and flat out laziness of many Churches is to blame for this misinforming of the youth. It’s also worth noting, however, that there is often a difference between what the church says and what a person (regardless of age) wants to hear, or not hear .

    People are just generally kind of messed up. There’s probably no easy answer for understanding youth and the church, but we’ve got to keep trying. Good work Tony.

  • Casey McCollum

    Great discussion and much needed – and as someone that has been in YM and now works primarily with college kids I must say that I think Scot hit it right on in the comment above – the pomo’s and wounded tribes are indeed increasing.

  • Tony, I appreciate your approach here. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. Anyone who’s worked with people, let alone kids, knows that multiple approaches are necessary. Good stuff. Keep it up.

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  • Rob

    I have to disagree. The research in Hurt has been consistent with every study group of every demographic done both nationally and internationally. Has also been followed up over the past 10 years with over 20,000 high school kids from diverse backgrounds. Hard to call it a minority

  • First, “Hurt” focuses on midadolescence, not emerging adulthood. Why are you trying to compare two different things?

    Second, “Hurt” focuses more on the development of adolescents into adulthood, not adolescent spirituality. Can you find Chap actually saying “Teenagers are abandoned and hurting and find little solace in religion” in the book? If so, let me know.

    I’m not sure your assessment of “Hurt” is fair in light of these two things.

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