Teenagers Embrace Religion but Are Not Excited About Christianity

January 11, 2000

Barna Research Online

(Ventura, CA) If you want to understand the future, you have to understand those who will dictate the contours of the days to come. A new nationwide survey among teenagers, conducted by the Barna Research Group reveals many exciting and encouraging changes that are likely to occur. But one shift that should trouble leaders in the Christian chruch is the superficial relationship that most teens have with Christianity-and their plans to reduce their already minimal commitment to the Christian faith.

American teenagers are widely described as deeply religious individuals who have integrated their religious beliefs into their lifestyle and their thinking. This latest study among teens, however, suggests that faith is a passing fancy of young people-just one of many dimensions that they blend into a potpourri of persepctives, experiences, skills, and contexts toward arriving at their worldview and lifestyle. Neither their behavior nor their beliefs support the notions that they are deeply spiritual or truly committed to Christianity. Although their spirituality is more overt than that of their elders, teenagers are even less commited to Christianity than are the Baby Boomers.

Talk is Cheap

While teens are well-known to spend more time discussing religious matters than do older people, that running commentary on spiritual matters has yet to translate to a deeper sense of commitment to spirituality. Even when asked to describe themselves, terms that reflect a religious bent are common, but no more so than is found among adults. For instance, less than two-thirds say that they are "religious"(64%). Only three out of every five call themselves "spiritual" (60%). These figures are equivalent to those among adults.

It is interesting to note that among those who deem themselves to be committed Christians, only half qualify as born again christians, a categorization that includes having "made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in (their) life today."

One way of measuring the significance of spirituality in their lives is to explore their goals for the future. When the national sample of teens was asked to rate the desirability of each of 19 outcomes, the spiritual outcomes included in the list were of moderate significance, at best. Highest among the three religious-oriented outcomes was "having a close, personal relationship with God," which ranked just eighth out of nineteen possibilities. "Being deepy committed to the Christian faith" was in the bottom third of the future possibilites, ranked fourteenth. "Being personally active in a church" placed even lower, placing sixteenth. Overall, the highest-ranking options related to strong relationships and lifestyle comforts. Faith matters were substantially less compelling considerations.

In fact, although an overwhelming majority believes in God, just two out of three teens strongly desire having a personal relationship with Him. Similarly, although nearly nine of ten teenagers believe that Jesus was real, and more than eight out of ten describe themselves as Christian, only half say they are very eager to be deeply committed to the Christian faith. Even fewer-just four out of ten-are excited about being active in a church.

Overt Commitments

Three key measures of faith further reveal the true nature of the spirituality of teens. Although four out of five say they are Christian, only one out of four (26%) also claims to be "absolutely committed to the Christian faith." That is only about half the percentage found among adults-and a strong indicator of the flagging depth of loyalty Americans have in relation to its dominant faith group.

(Chart not included. It shows the percentage of persons who claim they are absolutely committed to Christ. 47% for adults and 26% for youth)

Another measure is that of born again Christians. Survey respondents were classified as born again if they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life and if they believed that after they die they will go to Heaven solely because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Using this classification method just one out of three teens (33%) is born again. Amazingly, less than half of the born again teenagers (44%) said that they are absolutely committed to the Christian faith-yet another harbinger of trouble for the future Church.

Barna Research surveys consistently evaluate the percentage of individuals who are evangelicals. That group is based on people who meet a series of belief-based criteria (see the survey methodology for the content of the definition). Prsently, only 4% of U.S. teens fit the evangelical criteria- roughly the same as among adults (6%).

Current Attendance is Deceiving

Perhaps the most deceptive factor is the high level of church-based involvement among today's teenagers. This study shows that teens continue to be more broadly involved in church-based activities than are adults. In a typical week, nearly six out ten attend worship services; one out of three attend Sunday school; one out of three attend a youth group; one out of three attend a youth group; and three out of ten participate in a small group, other than a Sunday school class or youth group meeting. In totaly, more than seven out of ten teens are engaged in some church-related effort in a typical week. That far exceeds the participation level among adults-and even among teenagers' parents!

Teenagers are More Involved in Christian
Church Activities Than Are Adults
(activities done in the past 7 days)
Activity Teenagers Adults
Attend a Church Service, Excluding special events,
i.e. weddings or funerals
56% 42%
Attended a Sunday school class at a church 35% 19%
Participated in a small group that meets regularly
for Bible Study, prayer or Christian fellowship,
not including a Sunday school or 12-step group
29% 16%
Number of Respondents 614 1001
Date of Interviews 11/99 8/99

But before these levels of involvement result in celebration, be warned about teens' plans for the future. When asked to estimate the likelihood that the will continue to participate in church life once they are living on their own, levels dip precipitously, to only about one out of every three teens. Placed in this context, that stand as the lowest level of expected participation of teens recorded by Barna Research in more than a decade. If the projections pan out, this would signal a substantial decline in church attendance before the close of this new decade.

What's Going One?

These statistics were collected as part of a larger study of teenagers described in a new report by researcher George Barna, entitled "Third Millenium Teens." Among the conclusions of the report is that teenagers are a study in contradictions. One of those is their simultaneous desire to be portrayed as religious people while they invest little of themselves in true spiritual pursuit. The research discovered that religious participation by teens is often motivation by relational opportunities rather than by the promise of spiritual development. The possibility of making and retaining friendships outstrips their commitment to deepening their faith. This relative lack of interest in maintaining church ties in the future reflects their experience with churches todate. Specifically, they do not perceive churches to be particularly helpful.

George Barna, who directed and analyzed the research, indicated tht it is not too late to persuade teenagers to include the church in their future palns. "Most teens are desperately striving to determine a valid and compelling purpose for life. Most of them want to have influence and impact. The Church has an opportunity to address such matters and thus to position itself as a place of valuable insight and assistance." Barna stated that young people will give the Church as change. "But to become an accepted partner in their maturation process, the Church must earn the time and attention of teens-and that means becoming a provider of value well before their high school graduation. The failure to do so virtually guarantees that the Church will continue to see massive dropout rates among college students, with relatively few of those young people returning to the church immediately after college."

Survey Methodology

These findings are drawn from a report on teenagers entitled "Third Millenium Teens" written by George Barna. The report is based upon 2867 telephone interviews conducted among teens during the past three years. The data in this release comes primarily from a survey during November 1999 among 614 teens, ages 13 to 18, living within the 48 continental states. Each teenager was randomly selected from the national universe of teens. The estimated sampling error is +/- 5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility. Households were selected randomly through a random-digit dialing procedure (RDD), and the household screened for the presence of one or more teenagers. In homes with a teen, only one teenager was interviewed. Quotas were alos deployed to ensure accurate regional distribution and minor statistical weighting was used to ensure that the sample reflects natonal demographic norms. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of selecting a representative sample of households and teenagers.

In this analysis we categorize individuals as "evangelicals" based upon their answers to nine questions regarding matters of faith. Those included in this segment meet the criteria for being born again, as described above; say their faith is very important in their life today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Jesus with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Thus, evangelicals are a subset of the born again population. Notice that being an evangelical bearns no relationship to church attendance, to denominational affiliation, or to calling oneself "evangelical".



  • I would like to make two comments on methodology. First, Barna places a great deal of emphasis on stated beliefs versus actual actions to make conclusions. Secondly, he make a theological lithmus test for evangelicals. I tend to use that term to refer to people who identify themselves as born again or identify/regularly attend such churches. People tend to look at Baptists to make judgments about Baptists, not test them on their knowledge of the Baptist Faith and Message.


  • Youth are more active but less willing to be "signed-off" for a lifetime of service for Christ. What Barna disclosed is what I and others in ministry with youth have found. That is, youth are more willing to serve, but less willing to ideologically commit to the Christian position or any position. Now, I am more encouraged than discouraged about that as I will explain below. However, I do think we need to acknowledge that our youth are looking at two prior generations full of "hot air". The Builder and Boomer generations were marked by great verbal commitments with minimal follow-through. The two generations below have somewhat reversed this trend. The follow-through often preceeds the verbal commitments. This fits with our philosophy that we will emphasize service or following Jesus before grandiose verbal commitments. Also, look at the logic of the Scripture. Jesus had people follow Him often before He demanded the verbal witnesses and conclusions.
  • In line with this study, I have found young people more open to the "real" gospel but less open to grandiose verbal commitments, the "sign me up" commitments. Young people will serve first, commit later. If you press for that early commitment without a period of experiencing commitment through following, you'll often push them away. However, look at the Scripture. You will see a picture where Jesus first said, "follow me" before He said "who am I?"
  • However, there is one aspect that greatly concerns me; that is, the future plans of teenagers. There is a tremendous fall-off from the "entertainment" youth groups. All of us in youth ministry have seen it. If we segregate our youth into "youth services", and simply entertain them with concerts, camps, retreats, etc., then they rightly perceive that church is over when they are too old for the youth group. They leave. They should leave. Jesus said "follow me". We say "sit back and enjoy". Is it any wonder that youth decide not remain in church when they are too old for their special "youth church"?

Manna's Response

  • Teens must play an active role at Manna church. First, college students are and will be considered full-time and an active agreement in all aspects of church life. After all, this is a church with a focus on the university community. High school and junior high teens are expected to take part fully in all aspects of church life with the exception of certain decisions that state law requires people over eighteen make decisions, i.e. mainly money and property decisions.
  • There will not be separate teen worship. One reason that teens don't see themselves in a church when they pass the "youth group" stage is that they have been segregated throughout their entire church life. All children over third grade are expected to worship with and take part in communal worship. Families that worship together, stay together. For adults who can not handle children, this place is not for you.
  • Teens will be challenged to serve and live godly lives. If you want you teen entertained, this church is not for you. Teens in this church will be challenged to serve and change their life. We are not a "snow camp", "goldfish eating", cool, entertaining youth pastor church. Although fun is necessary to everybody's life, we have treated teens far too long as empty-headed frivolous people. Not here.
  • Teens are expected to contribute to church life, just as everybody else.