Smells like teen spirit

teens for jesusThe New York Times' Laurie Goodstein continues her in-depth coverage of evangelicals. She picks up on an evangelical campaign warning that teenagers are abandoning Christianity. The campaign is based, as Goodstein notes, on a fairly laughable statistic that only 4 percent of teenagers will be "Bible-believing Christians" by the time they reach adulthood. I'm not sure how the statistic-inventer defines Bible-believing Christians, but that compares to 35 percent of Baby Boomers and 65 percent of the World War II generation. Some 6,000 pastors are attending meetings across the country to address the problem:

While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it "the 4 percent panic attack"), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.

"I'm looking at the data," said Ron Luce, who organized the meetings and founded Teen Mania, a 20-year-old youth ministry, "and we've become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We've been working as hard as we know how to work -- everyone in youth ministry is working hard -- but we're losing."

The board of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing 60 denominations and dozens of ministries, passed a resolution this year deploring "the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church."

Among the leaders speaking at the meetings are Ted Haggard, president of the evangelical association; the Rev. Jerry Falwell; and nationally known preachers like Jack Hayford and Tommy Barnett.

Ted Haggard, eh? Would that be the same Ted Haggard who told Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader -- also known as the Bible Belt Blogger -- that the 4 percent claim was a scam? Here's what Lockwood reported on Sept. 11:

A full-page advertisement in this month's Christianity Today warns that America's evangelicals may soon be on the endangered species list -- as rare as snail darters, spotted owls and Chinook salmon.

But the ad, which is endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals, is a false alarm -- or at least an exaggeration -- according to the group's president -- Pastor Ted Haggard.

"We're church people. We always use fear and guilt to motivate people," Haggard told Bible Belt Blogger, punctuating the quip with hearty laughter.

Ha ha ha! Anyway, it's not that Goodstein fell for the ruse. She goes to great lengths to document just how ridiculous the 4 percent claim is. But she tries to get at the heart of the story by interviewing teens and others who seem to earnestly believe that Bible-believing Christians are threatened. She gets specifics from Christian teens trying to avoid immoral behavior in a world that countenances much of it. She interviews Notre Dame's Christian Smith for perspective. She also interviews an author who tells of kids who felt peer pressure to become Christian:

The phenomenon may not be that young evangelicals are abandoning their faith, but that they are abandoning the institutional church, said Lauren Sandler, author of "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement" (Viking, 2006). Ms. Sandler, who calls herself a secular liberal, said she found the movement frighteningly robust.

"This generation is not about church," said Ms. Sandler, an editor at Salon.com. "They always say, 'We take our faith outside the four walls.' For a lot of young evangelicals, church is a rock festival, or a skate park or hanging out in someone's basement."

Wouldn't that be interesting if that were the case? After years of reinforcing the idea that church is a rock festival, skate park or small group -- growing teenagers had no institutional church to go back to? It's definitely something worth looking into. Better data on what, if anything, is happening with evangelical teenagers would help stories tracking the group. The Barna Research Group, which specializes in surveying Christians, has put out books on teenagers in recent years. What other hard data are out there? What do recent surveys, such as the ones showing teens are less likely to have sex, have to do with this?

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