Book Review: Soul Searching
The initial reason I took an interest in this book was because it pertained to me as one who teaches children and youth in my church. Along with Christian Smith, I wanted to find answers to the problem found in churches across America: why are the young people leaving the church as soon as they reach the age of 18? As I began to read, I soon realized that while it contained many helpful insights for my particular situation, the direction of Soul Searching was not solely aimed at me. This book is aimed (not in a negative way) at almost everyone regardless of the religion or denomination.
Christian Smith is a Catholic, but this phenomenon is not only impacting Catholic churches, it is also impacting every denomination and even every religion in western society. Smith's main focus is on the Catholic Church, but his search for answers spans across Evangelical denominations and other religions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Christian Smith is also a sociologist and a good one at that. Although there are times where technical language is used (with charts and data), or vulgar language finds itself on the pages (because of the interviews), Smith brilliantly explains his findings for the common reader. I suspect the reason he does so is because this is a book for the common person, not solely for academia. One last note of praise for this book before I expound on the important findings, Smith brings his message across objectively. He is genuinely interested in finding the right answer, not in affirming preconceived notions (he does point out instances where the data and hypothesis match), nor pushing a certain narrative.
Points of Interest
1. Parents Influence Most
Most parents think their influence on their teenagers is minimal, but Smith found otherwise. It may be true that teenagers believe they are autonomous beings, uninfluenced by anything, but even a simple observation proves that to be false. Smith writes, "Teenagers' attitudes, verbal utterances, and immediate behaviours are often not the best evidence with which to estimate parental influence in their lives. For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adolescents--often more than do their peers--their children's apparent resistance and lack of appreciation notwithstanding" (56).
He underlines this point in his "Concluding Unscientific Postscript":
"The best way to get most youth more involved in and serious about their faith communities is to get their parents more involved in and serious about their faith communities. For decades in many religious traditions, the prevailing model of youth ministry has relied on pulling teens away from their parents. In some cases, youth ministers have come to see parents as adversaries… [but] our findings suggest that overall youth ministry would probably best be pursued in a larger context of family ministry, that parents should be viewed as indispensable in the religious formation of youth."
The strange thing, as Smith points out, is that youth are more influenced by the things that don’t show themselves as influencers. If we wish to influence the youth, we must do so without appearing to influence them. In my estimation, this means that we are to present a positive message more often than a negative one; that is, we say, "Do" more often than we say, "Do not." Of course, in discipline we must lead with the negative, but as Christians, our overall message is positive: "Believe this gospel, repent of your sins."
2. Let's Be Articulate
The second point that stood out to me most is that the reason many young people leave faith at the door of the universities and colleges is because they cannot articulate their religion's beliefs and doctrines. Smith recounts the numerous times where those who claimed to be part of the Christian religion could easily spend an hour talking about contraceptives or the dangers of drug abuse and STD's while hardly able to spend five minutes talking about God. Why? The schools had drilled those topics into the kids, expecting them to understand.
Smith points out that
Adults do not hesitate to direct and expect from teens when it comes to school, sports, music, and beyond. But there seems to be a curious reluctance among many adults to teach teens when it comes to faith. Adults often seem to want to do little more than 'expose' teens to religion. Many adults seem to us to be almost intimidated by teenagers, afraid to be seen as 'uncool.' And it seems many religious youth workers are under a lot of pressure to entertain teens. In fact, however, we believe that most teens are teachable, even if they themselves do not really know that, or let on that they are interested.
It has been well documented that when a generation loses the ability to articulate the foundational beliefs of a movement, it dies. The Christian faith is no different. When we fail to articulate biblical theology to the next generation, we fail to make the Bible real to them. The answer is not to cave to teenagers whims and wishes for a god which accepts their sinfulness, but a God who demands a righteousness only Christ can provide. How can the God of the Bible be a reality to them if we do not articulate it faithfully? They will not experience God unless they meet Him as He is in the Scriptures.
3. Teens Need Adult Relationships
The last point of interest is the need teens have for adults to interact with them. It may be simply entering into conversation, asking meaningful questions, creating opportunities to work together, or a host of other practical interactions. The reality is that teens need adults other than their parents to help them navigate through the formative and often difficult period of their lives known as adolescence. This will take patience, intentionality, and a desire to see the next generation profit.
Our job as adults is not to help teens "have it better than we did." Such is foolishness if by this statement we think immediately of allowing them as much leisure as possible. Life—especially the Christian life—is not simple, clean, and easy, and we would do well to teach that to the next generation.
Although Soul Searching can be monotonous at times because of the data, the information gathered is worth the effort. Smith helps us understand what is worth pursuing and what is worth leaving if we wish to see the next generation thrive.
By Christian Smith, Oxford University Press, 2005.