The Story: In almost every area of a recent survey, evangelicals stand apart from other teens in both religious belief and also practice.
The Background: According to the Pew Survey, among U.S. adolescents ages 13 to 17, roughly six-in-ten (63 percent) identify with Christianity, including one-in-five (21 percent) who are evangelical Protestant and a quarter (24 percent) who describe themselves as Catholic. Smaller shares identify with mainline Protestantism (9 percent) and the historically Black Protestant tradition (6 percent). About a third of U.S. teens (32 percent) say they are religiously unaffiliated, including 6 percent who describe themselves as atheists, 4 percent who are agnostics, and 23 percent who say their religion is “nothing in particular.”
A recurring finding in the survey is that in almost every area of belief and practice, evangelical teens stand apart from other teens.
For example, in the area of belief, while almost all young Christians say they believe in God (99 percent of evangelicals, 96 percent of mainline Protestants, and 94 percent of Catholics), evangelicals stand out for their level of certainty. Seven-in-ten (71 percent) say they are absolutely certain that God exists. Far fewer mainline Protestants (49 percent) and Catholics (45 percent) say the same.
Evangelical adolescents are more likely than other religious groups to take an exclusivist view of religion. Two-thirds of evangelical teens hold the view that only one religion is true, while far fewer Catholics (31 percent), mainline Protestants (28 percent), and “nones” (6 percent) share that position. Evangelicals are also the only group for which the balance tilts toward the opinion that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral (60 percent vs. 39 percent).
Evangelical teens are far more likely than the other religious groups analyzed to say that religion is very important in their lives. About half (48 percent) say this, compared with 27 percent among Catholic teens and 25 percent of mainline Protestant teens.
They are also more likely than most other Christian teens to look to religion to help decide questions of right and wrong. About four-in-ten evangelical teens (41 percent) rely on religious teachings and beliefs a lot when deciding what is right and wrong, compared with a quarter of Catholic teens and about one-in-five mainline Protestant teens (19 percent).
Evangelical teens are more likely than those in other religious groups to rely on religious institutions to help them sort out right from wrong. And a quarter of them look to religious leaders a lot when making ethical decisions, while only 13 percent of Catholics and about one-in-ten mainline Protestants (9 percent) say the same.
Conversely, evangelical teens are relatively unlikely to say they look to practical experience and common sense a lot when deciding what is right and wrong. Only half of evangelical Protestants rely on practical experience and common sense in this way, compared with roughly six-in-ten unaffiliated (61 percent) and mainline Protestant (64 percent) teens.
In the area of religious practice, at least half of evangelical teens say they attend church weekly or more often (64 percent) and pray at least daily (51 percent), while smaller shares of mainline Protestants, Catholics, and religiously unaffiliated teens say the same.
Evangelical teens are far more likely than their mainline or Catholic peers to say they attend church once a week or more often. About two-thirds of evangelicals say they attend this often, compared with four-in-ten each among mainline Protestants and Catholics. About two-thirds (64 percent) of evangelical teens say they attend because they want to.
Evangelical teens are more likely than those in other religious groups to say they still participate in a religious education program (57 percent) or religious youth group (64 percent) at least sometimes.
They also stand out from the other groups analyzed in this survey on how they engage in religious practices with their family. Eight-in-ten or more report that they often or sometimes say grace before meals with their family and talk with their family about religion. About half say they at least sometimes read religious scriptures with their family, and about nine-in-ten say they enjoy doing religious things with their family a lot (34 percent) or some (54 percent).
Evangelical teens are considerably more likely than others to say they regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace; 70 percent say they do, compared with 54 percent of both Catholics and mainline Protestants and 31 percent of unaffiliated teens who say this.
What It Means: Evangelical parents are more likely than other parents of teens to say it is very important that their teen is raised in their religion (71 percent). Overall, we appear to be doing an adequate job: eight-in-ten parents who affiliate with an evangelical denomination have a teen who also identifies as an evangelical Protestant. Two-thirds of evangelical teens also say they have all the same religious beliefs as their parent, compared with 53 percent of mainline Protestant teens and 52 percent of Catholic teens who say this.
But while the statistics are encouraging, we have to ensure our children are not being raised to share only our religion but also our relationship with Christ. As John Starke, lead pastor at Apostles Church Uptown in New York and a former TGC editor, says, “Often when we talk about wanting our kids to align their beliefs with ours, that means a kind of cultural form of beliefs, rather than a biblical faith, and it tends to be a cloistered faith, rather one of understanding.”
One way we can help teens fully share our beliefs is to explain why we believe what we do. For example, rather than just saying you believe a doctrine “because the Bible says so,” take the time to explain why you believe the Bible. You could say, as does the British theologian Alister McGrath, that Scripture is regarded as a channel through which God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ is encountered. Through faith you accept Scripture as a testimony to Christ, and submit to Christ as the one of whom Scripture speaks. We also believe the Bible is true because of the testimony of a thoroughly reliable witness: the Holy Spirit. Not only does the Bible tell us so, but God himself testifies to the veracity of the claims made in his book.
Explaining the faith in this way won’t guarantee that your teen will adopt your beliefs. But if they reject your faith, they should have a clear understanding of what they’re rejecting.