Teenage Christians and the Bible

Teenage Christians and the Bible July 8, 2012

Mike Nappa did a survey of 845 Christian teenagers — at least those who think they are Christians and who are involved in a youth group — to find out what they believe. He believes his study reflects Christian teenagers (he says his study has 4.44% margin of error), though I’d slightly modify that to conservative evangelical-type Christian teenagers who attended a church camp called Reach Workcamps. The study is not comprehensive nor complete, but I believe it taps into genuine evidence for the conservative Christian culture. His book is called The Jesus Survey: What Christian Teens Believe and Why. [Our social scientific readers can examine the specifics and point out the pros and cons of this study.]

Nappa begins with the Bible, and so what do said Christian teenagers believe about the Bible? Let me suggest that the numbers we are about to present, if accurate, would represent the right end of the spectrum of Christian teenagers in America, and if true, then the concerns Nappa has are even more of concern if this is applied more broadly.

Does the evidence Nappa discusses concern you? Do you find it generally close to your perception of teenagers? What do you think is the best way to bolster the confidence of teens/young adults in the Bible?

He probed in three ways: “The Bible is 100% accurate — historically, factually, and theologically — and therefore completely trustworthy in what it says about Jesus” and then negatively “widely acknowledged errors and can’t be completely trusted in everything it says about Jesus” and then he probed what these teens thought about the Bible in comparison with other sacred texts.

What did he find?

1. He finds four groups: Unshakeables (confidence in the Bible), Uncertain (lean toward trustworthy but don’t fully commit), Unsettled (uncertain, conflicted, possibly confused), Unbelieving (can’t be trusted). This is his synthetic categorization of data that moves in two directions: 86% or so affirmed the first question but that number shifted significantly when they were probed from a negative angle. So the numbers below are synthetic.

2. Percentages: Unshakeable (31%), Uncertain (31%), Unsettled (29%), Unbelieving (10%).

3. In his view, about 70% of Christian teenagers have doubts to disbelief about the trustworthiness of Scripture. His recommendation, of course, is to teach the trustworthiness of the Bible, but I have to wonder if there aren’t other facts at work precipitating such conclusions. And he quotes Christian Smith who, in this sort of quagmire of conflicting ideas among young adults, says it is individualism mixed in with multiculturalism. To be sure, this cultural factor is at work, but I’d like to suggest there are other factors, not the least being what the teens’ parents believe about the Bible, or how they practice the Bible, what the church and its pastor/s teach and practice, and what the youth leaders believe and practice. These numbers are riding a Christian culture and reflect that culture. They are not, then, so much the vanguard as they are the cars the engine is pulling.

4. He believes the “no decision” group will lead to a No kind of decision later on.

5. His study showed that youth leaders misperceive the beliefs of their youth groups dramatically.



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  • In terms of the beliefs and practices of the leaders and adults being the engine that pulls the cars, could it be more factors here like biblicism and literal readings of the Bible, which in the information age are less and less credible? I find the Bible highly trustworthy, but I don’t read it, or teach it, like the fundamentalists do.

  • There are developmental issues here that we ought not ignore. In mid-adolescence most have the capacity to know that there are significant philosophical questions and to be concerned about those questions, but few have developed the capacity to process the questions. In other words, teens question established ideas naturally, but they carry out their questioning ineptly. We should never be surprised that teens are skeptical about what their parents or other authority figures teach them, and we should never be surprised that they don’t articulate the arguments that their elders find highly persuasive.

    That makes me suggest something other than more teaching on the authority of the Bible, which sounds like working harder on indoctrination and socialization, or more teaching on apologetics, which few teens will be able to grasp regardless of the quality of the presentation. I think the need is for committed, relational mentoring through adolescence into young adulthood. Let them process their questions with people who will listen, tolerate their rebellion even when it’s sophomoric, and guide them to insight when teachable moments arise, as they always do in time.

  • Andrew

    I was an “unshakeable” teen a few years ago. Then I read the bible too much. It was clearly more complicated than what I had been lead to believe. Now I am “unsettled”. And only 25.

  • Stephen

    #3 reminds me of one of my most memorable moments in teaching the Bible: When a Danish student said, “I don’t read the Bible because I don’t want to lose my faith.” Clearly he had faith. He experienced it in a ‘Gospeling’ community. And it was transformative. Yet he knew within the Text, there were many disturbing stories and conflicting pictures of God–at least how he read it, and he protected his faith by not reading the Bible. This has always stayed with me as I minister and teach here. I don’t think he is alone.

    I am in agreement with comment #2. I am also interested in why we must always begin with the Bible’s trustworthiness? Why not God’s? Why not the church–the body of Christ? I guess this is what Scot is getting at in his critical insight. Perhaps what we need to teach youth is that to question can be an act of worship and fidelity.

  • Padraic

    I agree with Stephen in comment 4. I am a 27 year old pastor working with a majority of luke warm, KJV Bible reading, 19th century fundamentalists whose offspring are de-churched and they don’t seem to understand why. When I approach them from a critical, contextual perspective, their walls pop up and fear sets in. It seems like their is a growing gap between “Conservative Evangelicals”, “Post-Evangelicals” and “the masses”. Truly, an exciting time to be a pastor!

  • DRT

    I like the survey, but then I would love to see them ask each of the participants to describe in their own words what “The Bible is 100% accurate — historically, factually, and theologically — and therefore completely trustworthy in what it says about Jesus” means.

    A conservative student has been exposed to biblicists as defined by Christian Smith and given that, this simply shows that they have not received enough brainwashing.

    Give the same survey to United Methodists and they are not likely to be thinking of the biblicist definition and I bet they may even come out more bible believing.

    But we won’t know what it really is that they are believing in unless we ask them to rephrase the question in their own words…..or a similar approach

  • DRT

    A quick follow on to my previous…

    As I study the Christian landscape more and more I realize that words no longer reflect their common definitions in Christianity. They have been nuanced and coopted by the sect to such a degree that we cannot expect that these people will have the common definition in mind. Or more appropriately, I am willing to be that there is a significantly large population that do not use the common definition that the results are biased in ways we cannot predict.

    I would love to see some good old statistical design of experimental approach where we test the meaning of the language in addition to the answer to the question.

  • JoeyS

    That’s just a bad question from the get-go. It doesn’t seem to leave room for thoughtful reflection on the scriptures but pigeonholes them into a specific belief about scripture. Either they fully trust it (which reminds me of conversations around innerant) or they should be taught better? It’s too black and white.

  • Cal

    It’s indeed funny that as someone who converted at 18, I was shocked with a lot with Christians (or “christians”) my own age were doing/thinking. I wanted to talk about Scripture, to learn more and understand and I was met with a relatively lukewarm care. In fact, after being only a convert of a year in a young adult smallgroup at the local congregation, I was regarded as the scholar because I did a little research.

    The main problem is understanding with the results is that no one is being taught what the Scriptures are for. Some think its a moral guidebook, others some religious artifact with divine information that must be scryed out.

    I liked how Greg Boyd put it when talking about Scripture and “problem passages”. Our faith is in Christ Jesus, and because of Him we affirm the Scriptures. In fact, we read them because they’re all about Him! From Genesis to Revelation, we’re reading Christ.

    Stephen, your story on the Danish student is quite sad.

    DRT, I also disliked the manipulation of language by some. Every time I say “Sovereign” I’m thinking of Neo-Calvinist libertine-legalisms and mini-poperies. When I say “holy”, I think of the fundamentalist baptists who won’t let a woman go out without looking like June Cleaver.

    I do think you misunderstand what biblicism means when you use it to label fundamentalists. They are biblicists usually, but biblicism means that you think the Bible is sufficient for Christian life and the work of God in salvation. This is opposed to things like creedalism, where something else complements the Scripture (even if it is from the Scripture) for a Jesus community. This is another case where one group poisons a term for the use by others.

    As for me, I appreciate creedalism but I certainly lean biblicist. Perhaps the answer is to, like Scot, take creed from Scripture (Paul’s modified Shema or Phillipians 2) instead of making a statement and pasting Scripture verses underneath it.

  • MikeK

    It’s hard to know if the design of the survey really measured what he reported. I noticed in the Amazon excerpt Nappa publishes the survey; it’d be good to read how he selected the campers and anyone else, and how the analysis went from there.

    For example, on (5.): the way it is represented in your post, it appears he also surveyed (or interviewed) youth ministers at the camp: true?

  • Perhaps this survey shows something more general than just what these kids think about the Bible and the Christian faith. I’m thinking of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, in which he narrates how religious (especially Christian) belief is just one option among many and that the sensibilities and background conditions strongly influence what people find believable. If this is the case, then the strategy to “try harder” as one commenter put it – to get more Bible, more apologetics, more of the right kind of thinking – into young people, is a short-sighted and ultimately fruitless goal. We need to get closer to root issues.

  • Stephen

    I agree with @StephenRankin in comment #11. But what sort of root issues are you thinking about.

    @Cal (#9) I actually think the Danish student’s confession was fantastic (read my comment #4). It was honest. The truth was that this is the reality for many of the others that have grown up in the church and here was a newer Christian speaking the plain truth. He had a faith. He had read some of the Bible and found it difficult even frightening and foreign to his experience of his “Gospeling” community. If he had taken this survey-he would have answered ‘negatively’. We were able to begin to teach him and the other students not from a place we might wish they were in relation to the Bible but from where they actually stood. We could present the Story of Scriptures and that helped him and the others tremendously. But we also praised his doubt, his honesty and criticisms. And it allowed the other Christians to become more honest to their relationship to the Bible as well. I think it’s amazing Nappa was able to get some students to be honest in the ‘negative’ for his survey. Honestly, I am usually more concerned with the completely positive answers than those who are ‘in the middle’ or ‘cannot be trusted’.

  • Cal


    I should have elaborated more. I’m not sad that he said that, I’m sad that it came to that. The environment had left him scared of the very testimony to the King he has faith in and presented a gospel so 2-D that the Scriptures could take his faith.

    I’m glad he did admit his doubts and troubles though. It allowed him to come to terms and not become scared of the truth. As Kingdom people, the truth should never be feared.

    And then there’s that Kierkegaard quote:

    “Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God, dreadful still is to be left alone with the New Testament”

  • Wyatt

    Another untouched item. Why is it that much of the church thinks teenagers have nothing to offer the church other than being brains you pour biblically-based teaching into, being humored with pizza parties and so-called “missions trip”? My question is if teenagers can be believers and have great faith and are recipients of the same Holy Spirit entitled to the same gifts, why can’t they minster in the church with gifts like teaching, prayer, miracles, service, prophecy, etc.? Did the Master say somewhere that only people 18 and over are eligible for service in the church and allowed to do “the stuff?” These kids don’t see themselves as contributing to something bigger than they are because the so-called leaders of their churches don’t see them.

    Lots of teenagers don’t believe or run from the church because they know they are more than minds to be dumped into and too much of the church simply doesn’t get it. Teenagers want to be part of the community but too much of the church tells them to forget it and so the bible becomes supremely irrelevant because the teenagers doesn’t see the community lived out the way our Lord speaks of it.

  • What? 70% of teens have doubts about an authority? Get out of here. Where do people come up with this stuff?