The National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted from 2001 to 2005, was arguably the largest research project on the religious and spiritual lives of American adolescents. The results were analyzed in a groundbreaking book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers..
The study, however, is ongoing.
They are no longer teenagers, but “emerging adults” between the ages of 18 and 23.
Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell reveals the findings of the study as it enters its next phase.
There is far too much in the book to summarize here, but I will give you one of the headlines. Among these “emerging” adults (note: “emerging” here has nothing to do with the emergent church or emergent movement, but instead refers to their relationship with adulthood – they are making their way into adulthood in a stretched-out, prolonged manner), there are six major religious types:
1. Committed Traditionalists (no more than 15%)
2. Selective Adherents (perhaps 30%)
3. Spiritually Open (about 15%)
4. Religiously Indifferent (at least 25%)
5. Religiously Disconnected (no more than 5%)
6. Irreligious (no more than 10%)
Obviously the two main groups are the “Selective Adherents” and the “Religiously Indifferent.” Together, they constitute a majority. So what do these terms mean?
Selective Adherents “believe and perform certain aspects of their religions but neglect and ignore others.” They “pick and choose what they want to accept.” Most often rejected are traditional views related to sex before marriage, hell, and select doctrines such as the Trinity and the divinity or resurrection of Christ. What is the driving force behind the stance of this dominant group? It is the idea that “the absolute authority for every person’s beliefs or actions is her or her own sovereign self.”
The Religiously Indifferent “neither care to practice religion nor oppose it. They are simply not invested in religion either way. If they had a motto, it would be “It just doesn’t matter that much.” To them, “religion has a status on the relevance structures or priority lists…similar to…the oil refinery industry.”
Yet indifference was not relegated to this group. In truth, indifference permeated all of the categories.
A common belief in our day is that people are deeply interested in spirituality, and becoming spiritual. Reality: this is not as true as we have believed. If you are a Selective Adherent you do not pay it much mind; if you are Religiously Indifferent, you simply do not care.
Yes, such individuals are “open,” but they are “not taking a lot of initiative in pursuit of the spiritual.” And they are very willing to engage explicitly religious conversations.
This represents a massive shift occurring in our culture that carries huge ramifications for the outreach strategy of the local church. Most churches that are committed to outreach have pursued a strategy that was either an open “Ya’ll come” approach, or a more intentional “front door” mentality that attempted to create a destination for those who were spiritually searching to be served.
But this does not work when the spiritually open are not spiritually seeking, or taking spiritual initiative. Solution? As never before, we must take the message of Christ to people where they are. We must build relationships, live out the Christ life, and share our faith in the marketplace, in the apartment complexes, on our campuses.
Of course, this is what is meant to be behind a “front door” approach to church outreach. We build relationships, and then invite those friends to come and see, come and hear, come and experience. But the building of those relationships is now more critical than ever.
The study reveals a significant truth. Souls are in transition.
And as a result, so must the church’s strategy.
James Emery White
Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005).
Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (2009).