The Spiritual State of the Emerging Generation: A Conversation with Christian Smith

Albert Mohler:          Just what is going on in the spiritual lives of younger Americans, now known as emerging adults? This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues and the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Emerging adulthood is a new category for most of us. It acknowledges something that is going on in the culture around us and as Christians, we have a big stake in knowing what’s really going on in that phase of life. The questions of what’s going on in their spiritual lives, well, that’s the focus of our conversation today. Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan Jr Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. His book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, made quite a splash back in 2005, offering what I consider a brilliant analysis of where we stand in terms of the religious life of teenagers. And then in 2009 came a second volume entitled Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. In both of these books, we are offered a view into the lives of young Americans that, quite frankly, we just otherwise would not have had. And what we have here is not only sociological analysis, but a great deal of information that should be of practical value to pastors, youth ministers, parents, and frankly, anyone concerned about the future of the church. And I’m counting on the fact that that includes you. With me now was Professor Christian Smith. Dr. Smith, when you wrote these two books, I just have to ask you in the background to this, what gave you the real urgency to look into the religious and spiritual lives of younger Americans?

Christian Smith:        Well, as a sociologist, I was looking for another project to invest in and I realized that a lot of scholars have studied the religious lives of adults and a lot of scholars have studied adolescence, but not a lot have studied the religious lives of adolescents, and it seemed to me that since this is a time in people’s lives when their identities and commitments are being powerfully formed, that it was really a problem that we didn’t know enough about it. And the Lilly Endowment was interested in funding it, and I’d also come to a view, having raised kids, that how people in a culture treat and talk about their young people tells you a lot about their actual commitments, their actual values. So I thought that studying young people would be a great window into understanding the larger culture in society better.

Albert Mohler:          I read your first book, that is the book, Soul Searching, which came out in 2005, with tremendous interest and wrote about it, talked about it. And I’ll tell you, I think the first thing that struck me was the rather counterintuitive fact that you bring in terms of your analysis and that is that when you’re talking about these teenagers back in 2005, they really weren’t marked by the kind of generational rebellion that many people kind of stereotypically associate with adolescence.

Christian Smith:        Yeah, this is one of the somewhat surprising findings. I think a lot of baby boomers think about teenagers as through their own lens, through the lens of the ’60s and ’70s, and that is rebellion and discontent and against authority. And what we found is that generations change and the current generation is much more bought into mainstream values and practices and commitments and interests, and only superficially rebellious. So, I’m actually comforted by the fact that what’s going on out in the world can change our way of seeing things, rather than just finding what we expect to find.

Albert Mohler:          You know, the other thing that really struck me from your first book, and there are many problematic and troubling issues that you raised on the realities of the spiritual lives of younger Americans, but there was also an incredible affirmation of the role of parents and other adults, but parents in particular, in the lives of these young people.

Christian Smith:        Yeah, exactly. In fact, if there’s one overriding message from our entire research project, which has been going on 10 years now, it’s that the most important factor in the religious lives of young people are their parents. And that counters a lot of messages that are out in the culture that tell parents, “You don’t matter anymore when your kid hits a certain age, it’s just the media and their peer groups and your job is over.” And I think a lot of parents feel disempowered. But what we’re turning up sociologically is, even after they leave home, the formation that parents worked in the lives of their children still has a powerful impact. It shouldn’t be surprising to us, if you step back and think about it, but again, there’s so many messages that tell parents that they’re irrelevant after a certain age that I think we’ve come to start to believe what we shouldn’t have believed.

Albert Mohler:          Now, in your first project of this sort, Soul Searching, you were looking at the lives of teenagers. In the newer work, Souls in Transition, you’re looking at the lives of emerging adults, you call them. And let me ask you a key question here: are these the same young people?

Christian Smith:        They’re the same young people. In the first book, that was the first wave of data collection, was a sample of 13 to 17 year olds. And we have been tracking the same sample of young people, more than 3000, over the years, as they grow up, we send them birthday cards, we send them some reports to keep in touch with them, find out when they move, what’s happening. And we go back to them, this is called a panel study or a longitudinal study, and we go back to them in older years. And so this latest book reports on the same group of people five years later.

Albert Mohler:          I think that’s a remarkable way to do the research, and I don’t know of anything like it. It seems to me that this is virtually unprecedented in terms of religious sociology. And as a Christian theologian looking at this, it has to appear to me as a gold mine. And as I look at it, I’ll tell you, the thing that strikes me just operationally is you must really like these young people because it’s rather heartwarming to read of how you met with them and talked to them. You spent thousands of hours invested in this research.

Christian Smith:        Yeah, we have a lot invested in it, and there’s a set of young people that I’ve personally interviewed two and three times over and sort of watched them grow up from little boys to young men. And yeah, we care a lot about it and we like the people we’re working with. And even though we report a lot of statistics, the way we’re doing the methods and the way we write the book also puts a strong human face on it, and you realize every statistic is a real human person whose life is going on out there one way or another.

Albert Mohler:          About five years ago, when I read Soul Searching, I have to tell you the net effect for me was more encouragement than discouragement. And as an educator, a theologian and a churchman, a pastor, I found a lot of material in Soul Searching and the general tone of the research that led me to believe in hope. There really is a great deal of hope to hold on to these young people. And especially for an evangelical to say, when you look at the influence of parents and pastors and adults in the congregation, there really is an opportunity to reach these young people. Then I read your second book, 2009, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, and as you’ve just explained, these are more or less the same young people. I didn’t feel so heartwarming by the second volume. Do you have the same kind of feeling about the research. And I guess to tell you the truth, it’s the issue of their alienation, their estrangement from some of the beliefs and attachments they had, even when they were teenagers.

Christian Smith:        Yeah, well, I think you have to put it in a longer term perspective. I do think it’s possible to get discouraged about a lot of things going on out there, but while they’re teenagers, they’re still at home, their parents have more direct influence on them, they’re still, most of them, in an educational system. After 18, the pipe kind of spills and they go ahead in all different directions. Again, the parents still matter even after age 18, but the life becomes more messy and challenging and difficult. But at the same time, I think it’s important to remember, this book, Souls in Transition, is based on 18 to 23 year olds, and we’re continuing to track them, we’re going to study them again when they’re in their late 20s, believe it or not, if we can stay in touch with them. And it may be that things will change in future years, so you have to take kind of a long term life course trajectory. For some young people, they sort of drop out of things for a while, and then they’ll come back. But we don’t entirely know; that’s why we’re going to be studying it.

Albert Mohler:          Well, I’m going to look forward to that volume. And I don’t mean to imply that all is lost, there’s just a sense of further alienation. And I’m, after all, reading this book as the father of two children who are right now 21 and 18. So, we’re kind of moving from Soul Searching into Souls in Transition in terms of the age cohort here.

Christian Smith:        Yeah, there’s a lot of factors as I write in the book about emerging adulthood, this time between age 18 and 29, is how scholars talk about it, that are pretty powerful forces working against the committed practice, regular practice of a traditional religious faith.

Albert Mohler:          Now, play that out just a little bit, let’s talk about what those particular stresses and factors pulling them away from those beliefs and convictions might be.

Christian Smith:        Yeah. Well, this idea of emerging adulthood is unlike in generations past, especially today, there’s a postponing of settling down. I won’t go into all the details, but the idea is, by the time you graduate high school, it’s probably for most American youth, a very, very long time before they get married, have children, have the career that they’re really going to have in their lives and own their own place, which is how most Americans define being a true adult. And that can stretch maybe a decade, and in that time, again, there’s this general sense of postponing being settled. It’s a period of openness, of transience, of exploration, of uncertainty, of focus on the self, of trying different things, of experimenting, failing, restarting for very many. And the rules, for example, of how to find a life partner and settle down are much more murky. The idea that you would date someone, that you would court someone, the rules, the procedures are much more unclear. And so, there’s just a lot more uncertainty. And traditionally, settling down in American culture involved, for very many, at least, being part of a religious congregation, raising your children in a certain faith. And if settling down is being postponed, then a lot of that gets postponed, too. Really sinking roots into a church, say, or even the act of getting married in this culture historically has been a very pro-religious, faith affirming kind of act. And the more that marriage gets postponed in age and the longer people wait to have children or never have children, sociologically, the glue that connects people to American religion weakens.

Albert Mohler:          Just recently, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on this 20-something generation and I thought immediately of your book. In fact, you have a very important section in which you talk about this new life stage for young people. You’ve even experimented with the terms that are out there, youth-hood, 20-somethings, adultescence, and extended adolescence, and you landed on emerging adulthood. I think you make a good case for that. But I think it’s important for people to realize that, even as the New York Times is primarily concerned with the social, psychological, you might say institutional impact of this extended period of adolescence, the delay of taking on the traditional markers of adulthood, what really comes clear in Souls in Transition, in your book and in your project, is that this comes with a significant spiritual cost as well.

Christian Smith:        Mm-hm. Yes, and the most general way to put it is in American society, family and church are very closely linked. Family and religious faith are closely linked. And so, when kind of settling down into traditional family form is postponed, so is sort of adhering to a faith practice and being a committed member of a religious congregation. Typically,  not always, but it’s a pretty strong association. And so, we have built into the life course of all young people who are passing through their lives a very long stretch when there’s not a lot that encourages them to continue in the faith that they were raised in and to pass it on to their children if they’re having children, at least during this stretch. And there are a lot of forces that sort of pull them away from it. At the same time, I think it’s worth saying that there is a substantial minority of emerging adults, we estimate about 15%, who are serious, who are committed to their faith, we call them committed traditionalist, so it’s not impossible. The odds are not overwhelming. There are young people, emerging adults, who are practicing their faith and serious about it, but there’s a lot that’s working against that.

Albert Mohler:          Well, thankfully, I’m surrounded by the very evidence of what you’re talking about. And I get to see those young adults, those emerging adults who really are committed and are giving their lives, with tremendous passion, to the Christian faith and indeed, to world missions and ministry and service. But at the same time, looking at this, I have to tell you that what you document in this book in terms of the alienation and estrangement from, well, you define it as the traditional beliefs, I’m going to have to say the biblical convictions of Christianity, that this comes as a matter of tremendous concern. I’m looking forward to talking with you about moralistic therapeutic deism, because as you talked about that in your first book, I think that gets right down to where we are. 

Albert Mohler:         (Intermission)           You know, as I was starting that conversation with Professor Christian Smith, it struck me that some folks might wonder, “What is all this sociological analysis about?” Well, my guess is, by the time you listen to just a few moments of that conversation, you’re aware that this has very direct and important, indeed even urgent, impact on our lives as churches, as Christians, as families, as parents. I think it gives us an invaluable insight. And it’s in the language of a sociologist. It’s in the language of an academic researcher. What we have here is not, frankly, a homiletical text. It’s not a theological analysis, per se. It’s sociology. It’s a reminder to us that there are disciplines that can bring, to our own thinking, important data, indeed, framework changing data, to think about what’s really going on, not only out there in the world, but in the internal lives of the people around us. Many of the people we care most about, including teenagers and young adults. You know, as I listen and really reflect upon what this professor is saying, and as I read his research, I’m struck by the fact that he’s asking many of the questions we should have been asking. He is probing where, quite frankly, parents, grandparents, youth ministers, pastors and other very committed Christians should have probed. What we find is that moralistic therapeutic deism that Professor Smith and his associates really give us so clearly in view.

Albert Mohler:          When I first read Christian Smith’s book, Soul Searching, my imagination was struck by the fact that I think he landed on something as a sociologist that, quite frankly, theologians should have seen a long time ago. And that is a name, a label for what we are seeing in terms of American culture and the emerging kind of spirituality that seems to, well, characterize this postmodern, post Christian, post whatever age. In looking at the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers back in the book published in 2005, Christian Smith and his associates identified the general belief system that so many of them hold as moralistic therapeutic deism. And the more you come to understand that term, the more you come to understand it’s not just about teenagers. Christian Smith, how did you come up with this? As you looked at the research and you interviewed these young people, how did you come up with this term that seems, I think, so well to encapsulate and crystallize the moment: moralistic therapeutic deism?

Christian Smith:        Yeah. Well, in the summer of 2003, I spent a lot of time interviewing teenagers, a lot of teenagers, and I was somewhat surprised to hear what they had to say because I was expecting to hear some different things than I heard. And so I did a lot of wrestling that summer with what in the world is going on with American teenagers including evangelicals, Baptists and Pentecostal and so on. And it started off, it struck me, first of all, the deism part because so many of them were not talking about God. They believed in God, but they weren’t talking about God as a presence in their life or an actor in history but sort of far away and removed. But I realized that it wasn’t the traditional deism of a Thomas Jefferson or John Locke, but that it was a therapeutically conditioned deism. And by that I don’t mean going to therapy. I mean the whole cultural mindset of the world. “My life is about me. I’m here to feel good. I’m here to be successful. I need to be working on overcoming my personal problems,” and so on. And eventually, it just struck me that what was going on here was a kind of a deism that had a strong therapeutic edge, but it was also moralistic, so that even though a lot of teenagers are functionally morally relativistic, they still are moralistic in the sense that they will assert things as right or wrong. And the difference between morality and moralistic, in my mind, is they don’t really have any good reason for asserting that things are right or wrong. They don’t have a rational account for why something’s wrong. They just say, “Well, this is wrong, and that’s wrong,” and that their religion sort of supports their idea that things are right and wrong, but it’s not particularly coherent. So, when I put all that together at the end of the summer and talking with a lot of people and wrestling, and it just struck me that the real religion of American teenagers is not Methodist or Catholic or Jewish or whatever, it’s moralistic therapeutic deism.

Albert Mohler:          In your book, you really outline this in a way that I think is very helpful and I’m going to take you back to the book for a minute. You suggest that moralistic therapeutic deism consists of beliefs like, for instance, one, a god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on Earth, and then two, God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. Three, the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Four, God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except one God is needed to resolve a problem. And five, good people go to heaven when they die.

Albert Mohler:          Now, in your book that dealt with these young people as they’re moving into this emerging adulthood, you suggest that this moralistic therapeutic deism is still more or less there as a background belief.

Christian Smith:        Yes, moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t disappear after age 18. It’s still very much in the background and the way most 18 to 23 year old talk about religion reflects an essentially moralistic therapeutic deist frame of mind. What we did find though is, as these young people get older and their life experience gets more complex, is the MTD, or moralistic therapeutic deism, gets somewhat more challenged. Some of them, maybe one out of 10 even, stop trying to believe in that and they just become outright sort of irreligious. They’re basically against religion. They don’t believe in it anymore and they’re hostile to it. Most still are some version of MTD. Some of them have had problems in life that moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t quite fit, because life is more complicated than moralistic therapeutic deism suggests. And so, they’re still wrestling with things, but it’s definitely the case that moralistic therapeutic deism is sort of the background framing assumption of what people are growing up into.

Albert Mohler:          You know, I think it’s something they’re growing up into, because I think it’s the air around them. I think if we asked the question, “Where are they getting this?” It’s not just from their peers, it’s not just from the media and the cultural elites, I think they’re getting it, more than we want to recognize, from their parents and their families. And I have to say, as a theologian, even from many of their churches.

Christian Smith:        Yes. This is something we concluded from our analysis and we see it in all waves of our data collection that young people, again, it fits the theme, they’re not rebels and alienated, they’re not radically distinct from the mainstream. They very much reflect back, are good barometers of what’s going on in the adult world around them. And so, very many young people, including a good chunk, though not all, of American evangelicals, have learned their moralistic therapeutic deism from their churches and youth leaders and parents and so on. Sometimes even against the better intentions of those, but somehow when it all comes out in the wash, there’s an awful lot of MTD out there.

Albert Mohler:          I should say so, and there’s an awful lot of MTD, as you say, that comes out in terms of what you would find in the normal Christian bookstore, I regret to say, or you would hear as what passes for much preaching. You know, in your book, especially in Souls in Transition, you deal with this period of extended adulthood and you deal with the spiritual impact of what we just have to acknowledge is a changed set of sexual rules among 20-somethings. Talk about that a bit.

Christian Smith:        Yeah, it’s clear that understandings of the body and sexuality are an important part of this whole emerging adult culture. Some of it comes from simple technological developments or changes. The introduction of the pill in the ’60s, which has essentially detached fertility, or parenting or childbearing, from sexual activity. So, it’s become much more common. I mean, this has been developing over some decades now. But for young people, it’s much more common, it’s not even thought about that sex would be perhaps a recreational activity or just a natural thing you do with somebody that you’re having feelings for, or even, in the hookup culture, somebody you just met. And the idea is, of course it has nothing to do with making a commitment to anybody. Of course it has nothing to do with perhaps bringing a new human being into the world. It’s just something you do for fun or for thrills. And that fits in with the whole emerging adulthood theme of postponing settling down. And yet, at the same time in the minds of many young people, they are aware that something about that, it doesn’t fit with the religious tradition they were raised in. And so, for very many, it pushes them away from going to church or practicing their faith because they have a bad conscience, that they know they’ll feel uncomfortable or they won’t be accepted, they think. And so, all the developing sexual norms and practices, for the most part, have the effect of pushing people away from their religious communities.

Albert Mohler:          You know, as I was reading your book, the first of this set, Soul Searching, I was struck by how you encapsulated in a couple of the quotes and kind of analytic summaries you give, the whole mentality of a generation. I want to read you one. As you were talking about the teenagers, these young people as they were adolescents, you said, “For most teens, nobody has to do anything in life, including anything to do with religion. Whatever is just fine, if that’s what a person wants.” I went on to write, as I was reviewing your first book, that that, “Whatever,” marks so much of the American moral and theological landscape. I thought of that just as in recent days as Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom has been released, and in that particular novel, and Franzen, like so many novelists, someone like Francis John Updike in a previous generation, kind of catches the Gestalt, the mentality of a generation. There is one woman, a middle aged woman, and whenever anything is brought up that seems to be what a previous generation would call morally abhorrent, her word for it is just, “Weird.” That’s all that’s left of her moral vocabulary, is, “Weird.” And so, I look at these two words, “Whatever,” and, “Weird,” it seems to me that that really relates very much to what you’re talking about here in terms of the ambiguity of the beliefs of so many of these young people.

Christian Smith:        Yeah, I mean, our culture, I think it’s not unrealistic to say that we’ve gotten to a point where we have real difficulty knowing the basis of what we value and what’s right and wrong. There’s a strong sense of loss of any reference point, and so that quickly moves into sort of an orientation of each person is on their own, anybody can decide for themselves what they believe, as long as nobody gets in the way of anybody else. It’s kind of a vulgar version of liberal individualism where anybody can do whatever they want, but not just when it comes to politics or the economy, but morality, and you shouldn’t judge anybody and from a purely intellectual point of view, it’s sort of insane to say, “Nobody can make a judgment on anything.” And that’s just really problematic for any culture or society but young people, again, not to blame them, they’re not the cause of it, they’re being socialized into a culture that doesn’t give them many tools to sort out how to have a good moral argument, how to confront something that’s different than what you believe and to sort it out. And so, essentially they’re being deprived, from my point of view, from good moral reasoning. And I think that’s, again, it’s not their fault. I think it’s a symptom of the larger condition of our culture and society.

Albert Mohler:          I want to zero in on the population of these emerging adults you refer to as the “committeds”. This about 15% that you’ve estimated, I think a lot of us is interested in the next generation of young Christians, are going to want to zero in on that and ask the question, “How does that happen?” What kinds of practices and relationships and approaches seems to encourage or seem to encourage that a young person will end up in that category?

Albert Mohler:          You mentioned two things that struck me in a very powerful way in your Souls in Transition book, and that is that those “committeds”, those most connected and least alienated young adults, tended to have a relationship with parents that seemed to be pretty vibrant and alive when it comes to talking about spiritual matters. And also, you talk about the fact that if they’re connected to some other adult within a congregation, that seems to make a big difference.

Christian Smith:        Yeah, so in other words, important relationships are at the center of things here. Sometimes people ask me, “What program can we implement?” Or, “What’s a package solution?” And you know, what really this comes down to are relationships with people that care for and form and teach others. So yeah, if you want an 18 to 23 year old to look impressive theologically and church life wise, there’s almost no substitute for having had a parent, during their teenage years, now, we’re talking about five years earlier, what factors, there’s almost no substitute for having had a parent or parents who are themselves committed, practicing their religious faith, and who are teaching their children, who are passing it on, who let their children know, “This matters to us. We have standards and hopes for you here.” Almost always, you also need to have other adults, non parental adults in the congregation. It could be a youth minister, it could be an aunt, it could be just adults who care about teenagers, with whom they have real relationships, who they think they can turn to for help and advice. And only rarely when you don’t have the parents can the other adults make up for the lack of parents in that situation, there is a scenario whereby that happened. But for the most part, you’ve got to have those ingredients in the mix, or else when they’re 18 to 23, they’re going to have failed, at least for a while, if not for good.

Albert Mohler:          Give us a preview of what’s coming. I think these two books add so much to our understanding of this particular age of Christianity, and in particular, these life stages for Christians and adolescence and extended adolescence or emerging adulthood. As you’re continuing this research, what should we be looking for?

Christian Smith:        Yeah, well, emerging adulthood is defined normally as ages 18 to 29. And the Souls in Transition really only covers the first half of that, 18 to 23. So we are continuing to track these young people, and in 2013, we’re going to re-survey them and re-interview them. And the goal, of course, is to see in the more settling down years of emerging adulthood, in the latter half, do the trends continue? Or do things start to change?

Christ/ When they start to get married or think about married and get their real jobs and have children, do young people start to head in different directions? And we just don’t know the answer to that, and that’s why we’re doing the research, but the focus is on when they get older and start to begin to think about settling down.

Albert Mohler:          Well, I’m looking forward to seeing that research. But for now, you’ve given us an awful lot to think about in these two books: Soul Searching and Souls in Transition. Christian Smith, thank you for joining me.

Albert Mohler:          Most of us are aware that the world around us has changed. The mentality of the world around us is remarkably different than it was for the generation of those who are now at middle age or in senior adulthood. We recognize that younger adults and teenagers are facing a world in which the rules have been changed, in which the major lines of thought have been realigned. We need to understand that they are a part of a generation that is facing struggles and trials and challenges that are quite different than the generations that came before were not shaped by World War II or Korea or the Vietnam War. They were not shaped by the culture of protest of the ’70s and the ’60s. They were shaped more or less by America in the ’90s and well into the opening years of the 21st century. What we’re looking at here is a generation that will soon come to maturity in American life and in our churches. The question is, are we going to be ready? As a theologian, a pastor and a parent, I have to tell you, I read these volumes by Christian Smith and his associates with intense interest. I hope you found that conversation equally interesting. And as a matter of fact, I think it’s important that we step back for a moment and try to figure out a bit of what’s going on here. I mean, first of all, let’s remind ourselves that Christian Smith, who was, when he began this project, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is now on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, he is approaching this from a rather dispassionate standpoint of the academic researcher. He’s applying the traditional means and methods of the discipline of sociology. So what we’re going to find here is a framework for seeing things we otherwise might not see, but it’s going to take Christian conviction to get us where we need to go. And furthermore, committed Christians, indeed, evangelical Christians committed to the authority of scripture, to the integrity of the gospel, to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, who are concerned about these young people, not just because we find them interesting subjects for research, but because we dearly love them and care for them, we have to draw some sharper distinctions. Let’s go back to the very beginning here. In that first volume, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, what Christian Smith and his associates really found as they did these intensive interviews was that these young people were not, as a rule, really alienated from their parents. They weren’t rebellious. They weren’t setting their parents beliefs on one side and saying, “Well, whatever that is, I’m going to go to the opposite direction.” But he did find that what they were getting from their parents and from their churches was, by and large, not what we would describe as a clear set of Christian beliefs, a clear set of Christian convictions. Indeed, when we hear them talk, and they speak about their beliefs as they were raised in our homes and in our churches, what we’re hearing is that what they picked up in a countless number of families and churches is not biblical Christianity, but what was defined as moralistic therapeutic deism. And folks, here’s where it really hurts. This is where it cuts close to the marrow of our bones. It’s not because they haven’t been listening, but because they have. They’ve listened to a generation of Christians and Christian parents and baby boomers and others who have bought into the American dream rather than into biblical Christianity, who bought into the idea of autonomous individualism without understanding how directly that is in contradiction to the discipleship to which Christians are called. And in terms of notions of truth, of doctrine and theology and conviction and belief, what we see in these young people is, frankly, what they have now been receiving from many pulpits and Sunday School classes and youth Bible studies, not to mention what they pick up from their own parents. So I think the important take home I got from that first book and project, Soul Searching, is that these young Americans, these young teenagers, they were teenagers then, are really soaking up like sponges the society around us. When you come to the second volume, Souls in Transition, that word, “Transition,” just comes out as the main theme of the book. Talking about the religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults, well, Christian Smith and his associates found that in that particular period, not only had these young people who had picked up that moralistic therapeutic deism, this kind of feel good, rather indistinguishable set of religious beliefs, not only did they bring that with them, but if anything, they began to move in ways that were more distant from biblical Christianity. This should come as an alarm bell, and I think one of the most important things we all need to hear from this research, and I really appreciate the fact that Christian Smith was candid about this in the interview, this change of life pattern, this emergence of this new period in the lifespan of extended adolescence or emerging adulthood, comes with a very significant spiritual impact. And not only is it a span of life, it’s a span of life in which the traditional markers of adulthood are being postponed. It’s a span of life in which young people are now assuming a new normal, and this new normal is a time of rather radical sexual experimentation, of concerns about the self, and quite frankly, and tragically, even heartbreakingly, Christian Smith and his associates document how much help these young people know they need. They know they are not meeting these traditional markers of adulthood. They know they are not taking on the same kind of responsibilities their parents and their grandparents did at similar ages. They know that they are incomplete projects, and they’re looking for help. This is where the church can step in. This is where parents must step in. Did you hear Christian Smith, though, take us back from extended adolescence and emerging adulthood back to adolescence? Did you hear him say that when you look at those young adults who are committed Christians, who are continuing in a way that is deeply committed to Christ, to Christianity and to the church, you have to go back to adolescence and see that by and large, they had parents, at least one parent who was living out authentic Christianity and was actively, continuously engaged with them about their own spiritual lives. And did you hear him say that another marker of what makes for a continued commitment, an involvement on the part of these young people, in the community of faith, in the church, in the body of believers, is a relationship with an adult who is not a parent? You know, 15% is a fairly frightening statistic when you set it aside and realize that what Christian Smith and his associates are telling us is that about 85% of younger Americans in the age cohort of 18 to 23 feel themselves, know themselves, even describe themselves to be alienated from traditional Christianity and distant from the beliefs that they associate with Biblical Christianity. That leaves only about 15%, and using the sociological pattern of research that Christian Smith and his team use, that doesn’t even mean necessarily that that traditional belief is evangelical Christianity. So this tells us that young adults, this period marked by emerging adulthood, these young Americans are a phenomenally important mission field. We are concerned about them because we love them, because they are our own children, the children of our friends, the children of our congregations. We recognize that they are populating America in a whole new way, and all you have to do is look at the fashion billboards and the magazines and the media and you’ll recognize this is an incredibly informative and impactful generation. And yet, they are desperately seeking help. If there’s any one particular message that comes out of this huge project undertaken by Christian Smith and his team, it is that there is an opportunity for intervention. There is an opportunity for influence. It is heartbreaking to read many of the interviews that are included in this research and it’s rather sobering to read the analysis. The theological analysis is problematic. These young people have basically absorbed the whole worldview of autonomous individualism and many of the currents of postmodern thought to the extent that many of them really are relativists, or at least they’re trying to be. And when it comes to traditional Orthodox Christian doctrine, to Biblical Christianity, many of them are not only more emotionally alienated, they’re cognitively and intellectually alienated as well. The vast majority of these young people clearly believe that, when it comes to sexual morality, it’s pretty relative. And when it comes to the question of salvation, well, the idea that one must come to a conscious faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved, that is to them, horribly limiting, judgmental, discriminatory. They’ve been breathing the air of a society, of a culture that has been shaped by exactly what Smith and his associates call moralistic therapeutic deism. So when we hear them talk, and when we read these interviews, when we look to the data and hear their lives, what we’re hearing is what they’ve been hearing. When it comes to other aspects of their lives, I guess the one thing that struck me just operationally and morally, with great, great significance, was the sense of sexual experimentation that is now taken as the new normal. And if you listened to Christian Smith in that interview, you heard him clearly say that by any sociological analysis, and quite frankly, you could say any pastoral observation, in any clear eyed view of Christianity over the lifespan, the delay of marriage comes with a significant delay in taking on spiritual responsibility, and leadership and participation in the life of a congregation and a more sober minded and serious understanding of life. In other words, it turns out that in terms of common grace, one of the antidotes to moralistic therapeutic deism and the solitary concern of the self and the focus on autonomous individualism is the experience of getting married and becoming a parent. So the delay of marriage and this extended adolescence and delay of adulthood comes with a very significant spiritual cost, one we need to mark and note with care. You know, the hope is that this kind of analysis, this kind of research will help us to understand the reality that is before us, not just so that we can know more and, quite frankly, be more aware of a generation and its struggles and trials, but so that we as Christians, as parents, pastors, youth ministers and, quite frankly, as believers who care about the generation coming, will be better armed to know how to help. How do we help? Well first of all, we’d better check and see what we’re teaching, what we’re saying, how we’re living, because the news is they are watching, and they are soaking it up like sponges. Secondly, parents have a tremendous opportunity. If you heard Christian Smith clearly in that interview, deciding to intervene in that life stage of 18 to 23 is too late. It’s during the period of adolescence that parents can make the most determinative difference. And as for those of us in the church, sitting alongside and in front and behind of all those young people in the pews, all those teenagers, did you hear Christian Smith say that one of the most important things that can happen, that can keep young people tied to the church, to the congregation and to their convictions, is that there’s a relationship with an adult who is not a parent that makes a difference. That means the responsibility is ours.

Thanks for listening to Thinking in Public, I hope you’ll be back with us next time. These are important questions and I hope they are important conversations as well. I hope you’ll be going to my website at for a wealth of resources available to you. You’ll also want to follow at Twitter at /AlbertMohler, and you’ll want to go to the website of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at For information about Southern Seminary, its programs, its faculties and to know more about what’s going on on this campus, you’ll find all kinds of information with plenty of detail at I want you to know about one conference coming up very quickly. Reformation 500 is going to take place on this campus September 27 through 28 of 2010. Southern seminary is pleased to host the first North American conference for Reformation 500, a global project to direct attention toward the year 2017 and the 500th anniversary of the reformation. It’s going to be a conference for scholars, pastors, students and all persons who are interested in what it would mean to renew our interest and reclaim the mission of the reformation. I hope we’ll see you there. Thanks for listening to Thinking in Public, I’ll meet you next time.

As the period of emerging adulthood grows longer, young people are becoming more alienated spiritually.  Notre Dame Professor Christian Smith has done extensive research on the spiritual state of the emerging generation.  His research has led him to label the emerging generation’s religion, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  On the inaugural program of “Thinking in Public,” Dr. Mohler discusses the implications of this research with Dr. Christian Smith. Giving tremendous insight into what exactly is going on in the hearts and minds of young people as they make decisions about morality and faith, this conversation is a must hear for those who want to influence the rising generation.