What does the faith of the next generation of Christians look like? When we examine the actual beliefs of Christian teenagers regarding Jesus and his meaning for our lives, is what we find encouraging or alarming?
In The Jesus Survey (Baker Books, 2012), bestselling author Mike Nappa (’89) explores these questions by presenting the results of a nationwide survey of Christian teens. Here, Nappa discusses some of his findings with Biola Magazine and talks about the takeaways for parents, teachers, youth pastors and anyone invested in the faith of future generations.
Mike, could you briefly describe the types of Christian teens that you surveyed and the survey methodology?
The Jesus Survey was administered during summer 2010 at Reach Workcamp mission sites in Colorado, Indiana, Maine, New York, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. (You can download a reproducible copy of the actual survey used at nappaland.com/tjs.) More than 800 teens, ages 12 to 18, participated in the survey. All teens self-identified as “Christian” and were active in a church youth group at the time of the survey. In all, the survey sample represented 16 Christian denominations from 24 United States, and delivered a 99 percent confidence level with a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percent.
What was the overall goal with “The Jesus Survey”? What did you want to find out?
The original goal was just to satisfy my own curiosity! I wanted to discover what Christian teens believed about Jesus — and how that was (or wasn’t) affecting their everyday lives. So I asked them.
In terms of the specific survey, the first part was designed to measure what teens thought about four core doctrines of Christ: 1) The Bible is completely trustworthy in what it says about Jesus. 2) Jesus is God. 3) Jesus physically lived, died and came back to life. 4) Jesus is the only way to heaven.
Having established those baselines, the second part of the survey was designed to measure how a Christian teen’s belief or unbelief in those core doctrines affected his or her daily experience with God.
While 86 percent of those surveyed reported that they viewed the Bible as at least somewhat trustworthy, 70 percent expressed persistent, measurable doubts that what the Bible says about Jesus is true. And these are “cream of the crop” youth group kids. How do we make sense of this, and should we be alarmed?
As a former youth pastor, those numbers do concern me. Realistically, just about everything our youth group teens know about Jesus came from what’s found in the Bible, so if they don’t trust the Bible, they can’t fully trust their own knowledge of Jesus. It seems to me that we parents and church leaders can do a better job of helping our Christian teenagers grow confident in the trustworthiness of Scripture.
What’s more (and this surprised me), the data show that Christian kids who do have strong confidence in Scripture actually experience God more noticeably in their daily lives. For instance, four out of five (82 percent) teens who have “unshakable” faith in the Bible also report possessing “strong” proof that the Holy Spirit is active in their lives. Among kids who are uncertain about Scripture, that number is less than half (49 percent). For Christian teens who disbelieve the Bible’s reliability, only 22 percent (about 1 in 5) strongly claim real-life experience with Christ’s Holy Spirit.
Christ’s exclusivity seems to be a big stumbling block for many teens. Fully 1 out of 3 (33 percent) of the Christian teenagers you surveyed believes that Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and other great religious leaders all lead to heaven. Why do you think this is, and what are the implications?
What’s hard about this finding is that these are Christian kids — teens who claim to have already trusted in Jesus for heaven (and more). In spite of that, they seem unaware that their answers to this question actually contradict their own Christianity — and the beliefs of other religions, too. Youth culture researcher Christian Smith calls this a “tolerance over truth” attitude that’s a result of mainstream, social indoctrination. There’s probably some validity to Smith’s opinion, but it’s always easy to blame the world outside for problems inside the church.
Realistically, an enormous error in basic Christian truth like this one wouldn’t be widespread in our youth groups if adult Christians in our churches weren’t also embracing — and promoting — the fallacy. Tolerance and truth are not mutually exclusive — we need to be better at communicating both for our teens.
What’s worth noting here is that belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible is directly related to belief that Jesus, alone, saves. Among “Jesus only” kids, 99 percent also agreed with the statement that “The Bible is 100 percent accurate.” The implication there is both encouraging — and obvious.
Barely 5 percent of those surveyed reported that they study the Bible on a daily basis, with 67 percent reporting that they seldom or never study Scripture outside church, numbers that reflect a downward trend in Bible study from similar studies conducted 10 years ago. How do you think we can reverse this trend and get young people excited about the Bible?
Our first priority must be to help our Christian teenagers grow confident in the trustworthiness of Scripture. After all, why bother studying the Bible if its message can’t be trusted? If you can’t believe the Bible, then whatever it says is irrelevant. On the other hand, if the Bible can be trusted, then the Bible will be read — that’s my opinion.
I don’t see Scripture needing any special ad campaign or “teen friendly” package. It already has within its pages everything a Christian teenager wants and needs in life. What our kids must come to know is that their Bible is real and true and trustworthy. When they come to grips with that, it’ll change everything — and create a hunger for God’s Word that won’t be denied.
In the evangelism area, 84 percent said they believe Christians are “expected to tell others about Jesus,” while 56 percent said they actually did in the last month. Still, 56 percent seems pretty high. Are teenage Christians less afraid of evangelism than we think?
This was another of the surprises of The Jesus Survey: Christian teenagers are actually quite open and unashamed about their religion. What’s more, talking about Jesus to their friends seems to come naturally for this generation. Even among Christian teenagers who say that Jesus is not the only way to heaven, more than half (55 percent) believe that every follower of Christ has a responsibility to tell others about Jesus “with the intent of leading them to be Christian too.” This unexpected openness about faith may be a benefit of that “tolerance indoctrination” our kids are experiencing in their society. After all, if all religions are tolerated, then it’s OK to talk about any religion — even when the topic is Jesus.
At the same time, there is cause for concern about the evangelistic passion of our Christian teenagers. If the things they’re saying about Christ reflect what they actually believe about Christ, then (according to The Jesus Survey at least), three-fourths of them (74 percent) are actually spreading untruth about Jesus to their friends, neighbors, coworkers and more.
What encouraged you most from the results of the survey?
I was humbled and grateful to see, right there in the data, that God rewards teenagers who place full faith in him. Or, as I put it in the book, “Right belief translates into real experience.”
As part of the study, I was able to identify what I called “Confident Christian Teens.” This group of kids consistently and strongly affirmed each of the four core beliefs around which the survey centered. These kids were the minority in their youth groups (outnumbered 10 to 1 actually), but they reported a real-life experience with God that was identifiable and ongoing.
For example, 94 percent of Confident Christian Teens strongly agreed with this statement: “I’m 100% certain Jesus has answered one or more of my prayers—and I can prove it.” Among the rest, only about half (55 percent) could say the same thing. Additionally, nearly nine out of 10 (86 percent) Confident Christian Teens strongly agreed with this: “I’m 100% certain that the Holy Spirit of Jesus is present and active in my life today — and I have proof that this is true.” Among all other Christian teens, barely half (52 percent) could make the same claim.
For parents, youth group leaders, pastors, professors and others who care about the beliefs of the next generation, what are the big takeaways from this data?
The absolute best thing you can do for any Christian teenager is to help that teen grow confident in the trustworthiness of Scripture. Teens who believe the Bible is reliable are more likely to embrace authentic Christian beliefs and — according to the data — are significantly more likely to experience an authentic, noticeable relationship with God. That’s the big takeaway I learned from The Jesus Survey.
If you could summarize your overall assessment of the current generation of Christian teenagers in just three words, what would they be?
Honest. Tolerant. Passionate.
Mike Nappa (’89) is a bestselling and award-winning author with more than 1 million copies of his books in print worldwide. He’s also the founding publisher of FamilyFans.com, “The Free E-Magazine for Parents” and a noted commentator on pop culture, theology, family and film.