Book Response: Soul Searching

As part of his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Ministry to Emerging Generations (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Tom’s written a number of book responses and given several short presentations (personal and group). In this series he not only “shares the wealth,” but also looks forward to your feedback as he refines his project: An argument for vocational discernment for graduate studies in the context of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Stay tuned to learn more!). Earlier posts on the program: Ministry to Emerging Generations and The Big Picture of Ministry to Emerging Generations.

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s groundbreaking Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005) offers “a better scholarly and public understanding of the religious and spiritual lives of American adolescents” than was previously available (4). Since Soul Searching’s publication, I have recommended that parents, church leadership teams and youth/campus ministers prayerfully read, consider, and develop structural adjustments taking into consideration “Summary Interpretation: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (161-71) and the “Concluding Unscientific Postscript: Observations and Implications of NSYR (National Study of Youth and Religion) Findings for Religious Communities and Youth Workers” (259-271). On a visceral level, the data provides a starting pointing for exploring questions such as, “Why do so many go astray when they reach college?” The simple response to “the loss of faith” is not a “culture war” per se, but that many young adults fail to come face-to-face with “the God who is” — particularly through the life and teaching of their community of faith and family. After almost two decades on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and my forays into developing material to assist youth ministers in preparing students for the transition from high school to college, I agree with Smith and Denton that “growing up religious” for most Americans means Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) “passed on” by their parents.

MTD combines the Divine Butler and the Cosmic Therapist in a parasitic faith feeding on the doctrines and sensibilities of established religious traditions and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image. Smith and Denton summarize the five creedal statements of MTD:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die (162-163).

Through the sociology of religion, Soul Searching underscores how each one of us, but particularly parents and those in positions of teaching authority within the Body of Christ, shoulder responsibility for debunking Christian MTD and indwelling, articulating, and teaching the Biblical narrative in our home, community, school, etc. Such a mission, directed by the Father and fueled by the Word and the Spirit, involves a critique, filtering, and alternative cultural framework to the media-driven consumeristic society of our day from cradle to grave.

The postscript focuses on addressing teenagers’ benign “whateverism” (266) by working to help make faith a more active and important part of their lives via parental involvement/modeling, religious education (including how to articulate one’s faith in our local congregation and beyond), clarity in moral decision making, regular involvement in religious practices, and countercultural decision-making structure (which, I would elaborate, must be born out of a worldview based on the Biblical narrative/Kingdom of God). Although I rarely agree with a book’s marketing material, I believe that through the 3,370 received parent/teen phone interviews and 267 face-to-face interviews of a rich diversity teens, Soul Searching gives the definitive story of the religious and spiritual lives of contemporary American teenagers (and their “loss of faith”). What Soul Searching lacked was data over a longer span of time. This was (and continues to be) delivered by the additional waves of research and publications, e.g., National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) website (http://youthandreligion.nd.edu/, accessed 12/14/2014), Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011).

During the interceding ten years since its first publication, Soul Searching has proven to be a vital resource for parents, educators, and church leaders as they look at how to best shape their ministries in ways that clearly communicate the truth of Christ to young people today.

To God be the glory!


Note: Desire to learn more? Then be sure to read Bob Trube‘s book reviews of Soul Searching and Souls in Transition, comment below, and/or drop me a line. As I have shared previously, this research has greatly influenced the Emerging Scholars Network’s perspective on religious education and the role of campus ministries such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (e.g., Loving God in the Flesh in the Real World. Thomas B. Grosh IV), not to mention challenging me personally as a parent of four “little women” (teenage twins who turned 16 on Groundhog Day, a ten year old turning eleven later in the month, and a seven year old).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

More Posts - Website

Leave a Reply