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American Religious Knowledge: What It Means For Your Youth Ministry

American Religious Knowledge: What It Means For Your Youth Ministry


You might have heard by now about the study released a few weeks ago by the Pew Research Center entitled the "US Religious Knowledge Survey." The survey asked 32 questions ranging from specific tenets of various religions to questions about historical figures and their religious affiliation. The results of this excellent study were (sadly) not too surprising to me, and they might not be to you, either. They serve as just another call to action for those of us who work with teenagers. This quote from the study pretty much says it all regarding the religious IQ of the respective religious (and non-religious) groups in America:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

Some bullet points:

  • On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. (Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.)
  • Atheists and agnostics averaged 20.9 correct answers.
  • Jews averaged 20.5 correct answers.
  • Mormons averaged 20.3 correct answers
  • Protestants as a whole averaged 16 correct answers
  • Catholics as a whole averaged 14.7 correct answers.

Here is a look at a breakdown of some of the questions.
This paragraph from the study points to what I think is the biggest issue, and the area we need to focus on as leaders of youth:

Previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world's developed nations. Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults say that religion is "very important" in their lives, and roughly four-in-ten say they attend worship services at least once a week. But the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions - including their own.

This is where the rubber meets the road for me. With the recent release of Kenda Creasy Dean's book, Almost Christian, we are reminded once again that the majority of teenagers in our country practice an extremely watered-down version of the Christian faith. Almost Christian is based on the groundbreaking 2003-2005 National Study on Youth and Religion. Coupled with Dr. Christian Smith's book, Soul Searching, the picture painted is one of a generation of students being raised with no idea of how to articulate the basic tenets of their faith, and much less of an inclination to live them out. As this Pew study shows, those who claim to follow Christ seem to continually be lacking in a vibrant faith-knowledge that leads to a vibrant faith-life. How does this impact us as youth workers, and what can we do?

First and foremost, we must have youth ministries founded on teaching students the Bible

I have written about this before here and here and here. But it bears repeating: we exist in our vocational positions to make disciples. We do not exist to entertain. We do not exist to provide another event on a teenager's social calendar. While fellowship and relationship are vital, we do not exist to hang-out with students, or befriend them in the way the world does; if the foundation of our relationships with teenagers is not built on the call to disciple them, we're no different than any other adult in a student's life. We must see ourselves and our ministries as architects assisting in shaping and constructing the faith lives of teenagers. The primary means by which we lead students to a closer relationship with God is through teaching the Scripture. A knowledge of God and His ways is the starting point for spiritual formation. Your role as youth worker has to be focused on teaching students the Bible.

We must create an environment where the knowledge from Scripture is tied to application

If we teach Scripture apart from its intended purposes of dynamic and life-changing application, we teach students that the words of God really aren't applicable in the lives of a 21st century individual. We have to create environments, through our programs and our overall philosophy, where students are taught the Word, but are then encouraged, challenged, and allowed to apply this understanding in their lives.

We must see ourselves as motivators and equippers of parents

Many advocates of a more comprehensive family ministry approach seem to want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I believe wholeheartedly that parents should be the chief disciplers of their children. However, the youth worker is still, and I suspect will be for a long time, in an extremely unique and valuable position. As a youth worker, you are in many cases the bridge between parents and their children, especially in the difficult times that come in a teenagers' development. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to motivating and equipping parents in their efforts to disciple their students. One of the most consistent findings of research projects like the National Study of Youth and Religionis that students' faith-lives will mirror their parents' faith-lives. Because you play a role in the life of students, you are in a position to speak into the lives of their parents. We must begin to recognize our ability to play a role in coming alongside parents and helping them disciple their students.

Every adult in your youth ministry (most especially you) should model an active and authentic faith-life

What happens when parents don't disciple their students? You and your adult leaders may very well be the only (or at least the best) model of what faith looks like lived-out. Your actions, your words, and your overall interactions with others say volumes about the viability of being a Christ-follower. If you and your leaders are teaching one thing, but living another, this says loud and clear that a relationship with Christ is simply not that meaningful. Your life must be a model to your students.

Certainly there are more ramifications of these types of studies. But, these are the ones that jumped out to me. My biggest question is whether or not we will be able to reverse the types of trends these studies expose. When this generation of teenagers become parents, what will they be teaching their children about faith? If we went to ensure that they are teaching a vibrant faith-life to their children, we have some work to do. I'm up for the challenge. Are you?

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