Souls in Transition: Six Religious Types

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.

Finally, I want to introduce the six major religious types that Smith found upon his study of emerging adult religiosity.  To each type, he estimates a percentage of the population of 18-23 year-olds and gives a quote that best describes their attitude toward religion:

  • Committed Traditionalists (15%) say, “I am really committed.”
  • Selective Adherents (30%) say, ” I do some of what I can.”
  • The Spiritually Open (15%) say, “There’s probably something more out there.”
  • The Religiously Indifferent (25%) say, “It just doesn’t matter much.”
  • The Religiously Disconnected (5%) say, “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  • The Irreligious (10%) say, “Religion just makes no sense.”

So, there we have it, another massive study by Christian Smith that gives all sorts of insight into the spiritual lives, beliefs, and practices of emerging adults.  If you’ve been with me through the series of blog posts, let me ask you this: Knowing all of this, how should we change Christianity in America, and especially youth ministry?

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  • Tall order on that question. The 25% who say “it just doesn’t matter” is the troubling one for me. Youth ministries might gear up to focus on that which does matter tangibly – service. It is hard to say something does not matter when it actually helps someone in an observable way. But it cannot rest only on the service itself – efforts to reflect on this service and what it means must be part of the process. It cannot just remain on the level of “good deeds,” but must be placed in its historical and spiritual context – without being overbearing.

    Experiencing something that obviously matters and then reflecting on it may be how youth can listen to the Spirit as opposed to trying to convince them of something upfront and then manufacture an experience to fit the belief.

  • tom c.

    I used to work in youth ministry in a mainline setting, so I retain an interest in constructive reflection on the theology and practice of this ministry. That said, as a philosopher, I am struck by the apparent tension between using graphs and religious “types”, on the one hand, and aspirations towards postmodern thought, on the other (whatever “postmodern” might be taken to mean). I’d be curious, Tony, to hear more about how you work out this balance, given your interest in matters postmodern.

    I don’t think I’m a postmodernist, exactly. (I usually try to avoid the word in self-description.) Still, if deconstruction, to take one approach in philosophy often associated with postmodernism, leads the practitioner to deconstruct his or her own preconceptions about one’s others (one’s students in ministry, for example), then sociological tendencies and types would seem to get in the way of this ethical stance.

    I can, however, imagine using empirical research not in order to divine a new, scientific kind of ministry but instead as a means of unseating preconceptions a minister did not know he or she had. Of course, I’m not a deconstructionist either, so what do I know? I do, however, like the ethical stance deconstruction invites towards other people.

  • Annie

    I think the question how we should change *Christianity* is completely wrongheaded.

  • It would be interesting to know how this breakdown has changed over the years. I think the mainline tradition I come from has counted on reclaiming those “committed traditionalists” once they have children–but even those folks aren’t returning. If that’s only 15% as this post and book claim (which I think sounds right based on people I’ve talked to) then we’re doomed to less and less people “coming back” to our churches by natural means–and the lack of cultural pressure from the outside is making this “return” less and less reality. And its not just the mainlines, because now even “seeker-friendly” evangelical churches are experiencing this as well. I’ve been a part of congregations who were still “waiting for their young people” even though those “young people” were starting to have grandchildren. Why has the Church given up on this age group?

    My friend Dave, whose congregation is mostly 18-30, has commented that he saw a huge exodus of post-high school folks when he was a youth pastor because these young people came to faith in a connected, relational environment–and then “graduated” into a congregation that didn’t have any of that depth. They weren’t interested in the “worship-entertainment” deal–they wanted faith and discipleship of the sort they had experienced. So they started a church like that.

    The one thing I haven’t seen yet is an “emergent community” that really and deeply includes people age 1-101 (including the 18-23s) . I think that’s where Christianity must go, and I think that it could well be that the 18-23 year-olds hold the key. They won’t settle for less than the real deal.

  • I like Christian Smith. His research is great and has put a burden on my heart as a youth pastor to really focus on working alongside parents, giving student a healthy worldview, and cultivating an environment of doubt.

    Ultimately, parents spend more than 3,000 hours per week with their teen. Youth workers and youth ministry only spend about 1.5 hours with student a week. So if we could get parents to become spiritual leaders or facilitators than this emerging student generation would be in a better position.

    Students need to know how to think and process. If we can get student thinking about other worldviews, this would be huge. If a student can understand a Christian worldview and a humanitarian worldview and still love Jesus and the Bible, then the student would be in a better place.

    Student need to learn how to doubt a lot earlier in their development period. Right now student are doubting in college and there is no healthy support system to help them process their questions. We need to get our 5th graders asking questions.

    I know Fuller Youth Institute is greatly thinking about Smith’s research and turning his research into resources for youth workers across the country.

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  • Mel

    I haven’t read this book and I’m curious…what demographic was studied that these were the only categories?

    I ask because it seems as though, among lower income and ethnic populations there seems to be a growing segment who might be described as Committed, but not traditional…which I rarely see mentioned.