Review: Soul Searching by Christian Smith

by Karen Gabriel

With so many books on “youth ministry” available today, it’s often difficult to decide which ones to pick up and which ones to leave on the shelf. If you are interested in youth and what is happening in the spiritual world of teens then do pick up Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

Parents, pastors, and youth leaders alike will gain surprising insight when reading this book. It is the culmination of a sociological study conducted across the country through surveys and one-on-one interviews with American teenagers. Two things make this book a must read: first, the candid, word-for-word, dialog that the authors record with teens; and second, the conclusions that can be drawn from those discussions.

The authors canvassed over 250 teenagers between the ages of 13-18 from around the country. The teens provided a snapshot of America. The good news is that most American teens seem to be interested in spirituality. According to the findings in the book, they also tend to “go along” with the religious practice of their parents. The bad news is that they tend to be highly illiterate regarding the teachings of whatever faith that they do practice. The authors refer to the term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” the view that being “Christian” is equivalent to “being good,” and that “being Christian” means you have access to some sort of “great therapist in the sky.” Very few teens had the sense that the faith they practiced was any different from any other religion. Most related in their interviews a willingness to see “all religion as the same”.

Perhaps the most disturbing discovery was the reality that very few teens could articulate the central truths of their own faith traditions. When the question was asked of them: “What is the central teaching of your faith?” the authors got the impression that the teens had never had this sort of conversation with an adult before. In fact, the authors describe the teens as being “incredibly inarticulate.” One of their examples includes a quote from a “17-year-old white mainline Lutheran boy from Colorado: ‘Uh, well, I don’t know, um, well, I don’t really know. Being a Lutheran, confirmation was a big thing but I didn’t really know what it was and I still don’t. I really don’t know what being a Lutheran means.” More often than not the youth being interviewed failed to even use the language of the faith teaching that they identified as “most important” to them. In individual interviews teens used the phrase “to feel happy” more than 2,000 times as opposed to using “Christian phrases” like, “sin,” “righteousness,” “salvation,” and “Trinity,” only 154 times.

The “Conclusion” and “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” found at the end of the book is worth the price of the book alone. While sifting through the first several chapters may seem tedious with all the statistics and frustrating (but enlightening) quotes from teens, the Conclusion pulls together the hard work of the authors. The reader is left with much to ponder. Parents are reminded that the role they play in the faith formation of their child is real and intense, for better – and for worse. The authors also remind the church that the message she conveys is vital as well. They admonish the church to “better attend to their faith particularities,” as well as observing the trend “that many youth, and no doubt adults, are getting the wrong messages that historical faith traditions do not matter, that all religious beliefs are basically alike, that no faith tradition possesses anything that anybody particularly needs.”

Confessional Lutherans need to read this book. Although it is primarily a work of “sociology” and not of “theology”, it outlines the battlefield that exists in the church today. Through the muck and the mire that is “American religious and spiritual life”, Lutherans hold up the “Light of the World,” which is the clear articulation of the Gospel: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for fallen man. Soul Searching is a perfect reminder that all disciples are made by baptizing AND teaching.

Karen Gabriel is trained as a DCE (although not currently serving in that capacity).  In addition to occasionally writing, she presently keeps the paperwork for her husband's machine shop concrete tool business.  A mother of three, Karen is a member of Zion Lutheran Church in Laramie, Wyoming.

Created: June 25th, 2007