Soul Searching, Part I- Balancing Conservative and Mainline Emphasis

For Christmas I was given a copy of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. The book is an assessment of the data compiled in an extensive study by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill into the spiritual lives of American adolescents, and thus far it has definitely been good food for thought. I’m going to blog my way through this book a bit commenting on some interesting features. As an interesting side note, I also noticed today this poll about the religious beliefs of American in general.

I just finished reading one of the opening chapters which provides a basic overview of the data collected. The focus of the book is on all religious experience, but my particular interest as a youth director is the data concerning Conservative and Mainline Protestants. The church that I am part of is from a mainline denomination, but with perhaps a more conservative congregation than many other churches in our denomination. The data collected shows some interesting divergences between the ways teens view religion in these two camps that are helpful for my experience.

First, the evidence suggests that teens from  mainline denominations feel less “spiritually vital.” They are less likely to report feeling “close” to God than teens from conservative backgrounds, significantly less likely to report feeling as though they have had a “spiritual experience,” less likely to take part in “Bible studies” or “prayer groups,” less active in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, less likely to strictly adhere to traditional Christian beliefs (such as the existence of angels or demons), and more likely to adopt non-traditional, occultic beliefs (such as reincarnation or communication with the dead). I don’t want to exaggerate the situation the data portrays- on a whole both conservative and mainline teens report pretty strong signs of spiritual vitality. However, from the view of traditional practices and beliefs, this seems more true of teens from a conservative background.

On the other hand, there are other signs that should raise flags for conservative Christians. Mainline teens are much more involved in traditional manifestations of the Christian faith- they are much more involved in Christian ceremonies and liturgical functions and much more likely to have participated in a sacrament (including public baptism). These historic aspects of the Christian experience are, perhaps ironically, stressed much less in conservative circles.

In terms of relationships there seems to also be a difference between the two camps- conservative Christians have more of a focus on the family relationship, are more prone to embracing a “Christian sub-culture” (with things such as listening to Christian music, going to Christian camps, etc.), and are more open or public in talking about their faith. Mainline Protestants tend to have more of a community focused relationship- more teens from these denominations indicated that they had worked to restore a broken relationship, that they felt comfortable talking to adults in the church who were not their parents, and that they have approached their ministers for advice about serious issues in their lives. Ironically, perhaps, it is also the case that more teens from mainline denominations are willing to be critical of the adults in their churches and call them hypocritical (but still less than 10% of them say that a large portion of the adults in their church are hypocritical). Perhaps this is an indication that more involved relationships are more revealing of those adults who are authentic in what they believe.

My assessment is that the data shows a need for a balance. Conservative Christians bring to the table a stronger emphasis on an active personal spiritual life. However, mainline Christians are better at realizing that the personal spiritual life of an individual is only part of the story- there is also a significant communal aspect to the Christian faith- one that is embodied in community relationships and in partaking in traditional Christian expressions of the faith (such as the sacraments and liturgy). So as a youth director and a leader in a church that already attempts to balance these two camps, I need to set two equally important objectives: First, to foster personal spiritual growth in my youth. Second, to encourage community relationships not just among my youth but between my youth and the wider church they are a part of.

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