In Praise of Christian Smith

In Praise of Christian Smith February 16, 2005

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.

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  • manofredearth

    “(13-17 year old Christian teen’s) 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.”A good post in general. I quoted the text above because I’m running some ideas through my mind about it. Our congregation offers Sunday School, confirmation, small groups, and other oppurtunities for the youth to take in information and experiences that would develop their faith beyond “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. However, I imagine that many (even most) of our teens would still offer answers very similar to the ones above. At what point is it the fault of the educator’s approach or content and at what point is it the inability of the student to articulate things that are just going to take a bit more time to develop? I understand that having students who can articulate their responses beyond what appears to be MTD is the point, but is it possible that it’s a process that extends beyond a student’s 17th birthday?Maybe we should go back and ask the same group in five to ten years to articulate their faith and see what they say and ask what it has been that has brought them to the point they are at.I think homeschooling could help here, too. /humor

  • tony

    manofredearth:Sorry, that can’t be your out. Smith made it clear that the youths’ inarticulateness about their relious identity was not developmental. They were quite able to articulate clearly other things that adult institutions have made it important for them to understand. For instance, they were very articulate about STDs and drunk driving. It was only about their faith that they were inarticulate.

  • chad

    i ran across smith’s book in an interview he did in books and culture. fascinating stuff! and scary! and true! i would say it should be a must read as you stated. however, from his descriptions of moralistic theuraputic deism, i don’t think we would see much difference in a teenager’s idea of God and faith from any adult who claimed to be a follower too. from what i read in the interview with smith, most adults i know follow the same idea of God.

  • manofredearth

    At the risk of discovering I’m actually a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist, I’ll press on…lol.The examples you gave, Tony, of STDs and drunk driving are incredibly objective, whereas an adequately explained theological position from a teenager, or anyone for that matter, is not. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, trying to sell our teens short; I’m just seeing the comparisons as apples and oranges.I think the last time someone gave a group of people cut-and-dried theological statements to adhere to when questioned, those people became labeled “fundamentalists”. 😉 Ok, so we have creedal churches, too, but I’m in the United Methodist Church, where we’re supposedly non-creedal (yet there they are every Sunday morning for all to stand and recite). :DThe sad truth is that the majority of the parents in our church drop their kids off for one program or another thinking that anything they need to know about faith they’ll just pick up from us. Out of about eight families of middle school and high school parents, in Sunday School this past Sunday, only one parent said that she prays with and discusses scripture and faith with her kids. One mother actually said that they were done teaching their kids about faith (because the kids don’t listen to them anymore), and that it was now our time (the youth ministry et al) to reaffirm what the parents have taught the children in their homes. She had said this in response to a comment I had made, that I was their assistant and that parents are the true front-lines in the spiritual education and growth of their children. I was literally speechless. After I was unable to come up with an on-the-spot comment to address what the mother had said, we just moved on to another topic.I probably need to read the book to get a better grasp on the situation as Smith sees it. Like I said earlier, though, these are just thoughts bouncing around in my head.

  • Len

    Ordered. Thanks.

  • geoff

    great post tony. i was interested to read your comments, manofredearth, and tony’s reply. i tend to agree with tony’s suggestion that teens are capable of far greater sophistication than we might give them credit for. my experience of growing up in a home where homesless folk, the mentally ill, prisoners, recovering addicts, and countless others found the radical hospitality of Jesus (as offered and interpreted by my parents) gave me a very complex faith at an early age. i lacked certainty about the gospel’s power to make me happy – after all, these people were invading my space and onconveniencing my life! – but i knew the gospel was not (just) about me and jesus. an important (and countercultural) lesson to learn early in life.anyway, years later i have come to realize how formative my childhood/teenage experience has been. this experience of being immersed in the mess and inconveneince of an open, missional home continues to shape my faith(fulness)….and i don’t think issues of sexuality (STD’s) and pleasure/responsibility (drink driving) are qualitatively different from issues of “theology”….and i’m not even sure a study like this would help us understand the relevance of the kingdom in the lives of teens anyway…shouldn’t we be asking for holistic articulation, not (just) verbal explanation. some people may be able to “say” what the gospel means and not approach it in any meaningful way.okay…that’s my 2cents…i appreciate the conversation.shalom.

  • RobeFRe

    While it can be expected that teenagers would have a less developed articulation of esoteric concepts than adults, I think the articulation of personal relationship is dependent upon the quality of that relationship, and the quality of that relationship is somewhat determnined by the ability or understanding of the articulator to relate, in this case in an open hearted and submissive manner to God who is dedicated to the uplifting of the one submitted. Most adults have no concept of the Divine Reversal, how can their children? To be Christian, or to be forgiven? What fertile soil Farmer Jones has tilled! Thank you Tony.

  • RobeFRe

    teens, being closer to children than I, must of a natural order be closer to Godliness than I, but how can that be? I know so much more….Luke 10;15

  • J-Wild

    As a youth minister I welcome some outside “indictment” of youth ministry…we need it! I do think there are a lot of youth ministers out there (myself included) who have a deep feeling that the discoveries in “Soul Searching” are what they have been seeing and experiencing with their kids. It will be nice to have these thoughts and feeling articulated for us in this research.I do think we need to be careful about dismissing a teens spiritual progress based on the depth of their relationship with God. I long ago made peace with the fact that a teen will probably only get about 20% of what I am trying to teach, show, or illuminate for them (if that much). There is only so much spiritual introspection that a typical teenager is capable of and willing to do. My struggle is having the discernment to not confuse “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and “Trying to Sort it All Out Journeyism”. As we continue to figure out what a Post Modern framework of God looks like, there are going to be teenagers who will only grasp on to parts of that reinterpreting. Depending on what they lock onto those parts might not be adequate enough to anchor them in a long-term commitment with God.

  • Stacy

    My staff and I have been following this study. One of my leaders (a grad student at Penn State) got the book before I knew that it was published. I’m looking forward to reading it…btw, Megan Patrick says hi!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this post, I look forward to reading this piece of research. I think “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is a good description and has certainly challenged my thinking. There is a lot happening in Youth Ministry here (England) that is provoking a more radical discipleship but I can see real relevance for us in terms of Church and Parenting.Youthblog.

  • Zane Anderson

    Another excellent Christian Smith book is called “Going to the Root.” Worth its weight in gold.House Church Network

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