Getting Religion: How Teens Come to Faith

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Just before the Year 2000, a research study explored how teenagers are influenced toward faith. It found that 41 percent were “greatly” influenced through television, 32 percent through music and a mere 13 percent through religion.1 In addition, the author suggested that media are “culture brokers” in that parents discuss morals and values in the context of movies, television and music.

Peggy Lynn Mullikin, in a recent article about teen religion and spirituality,2 mentioned specifically the series Touched by an Angel as a show parents used as a springboard for discussions with their children about religion, morals, values and beliefs. At the same time, programs focusing on the occult have also become influential among teens: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed are just two examples featuring characters who battle evil using magical powers — including witchcraft and demonism.

Another dimension of the media with extraordinary influence on teens is music. Madonna, of course, has made religion an integral — and controversial — part of her identity and music. Her “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer” videos were only a beginning; she built her whole “Re-Invent Yourself” tour around her new religion, Kabbala (a form of Jewish mysticism). Her most recent music video has her pictured in front of a cross. Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has become immensely popular with Christian teens. Rap, too, often comes in religious if not Christian varieties.

The American Publishers Association reported a 37% increase in religious publishing — the increase was fueled, of course, by the Left Behind series, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez. These books were counterbalanced by The Da Vinci Code, a phenomenally successful “religious” book that distorted the Bible and Christian history.

These numerous influences from contemporary culture, make it very important that teens’ parents and peers provide a strong anchor in Judeo-Christian values if the teenager is to move toward adulthood solidly grounded in the faith of his or her parents. Those teens whose family activities are centered at the church and who have a close, communicative relationship with their parents are far more likely to accept the family’s religious beliefs as their own. In addition, the teens who have a strong family relationship and strong church connections are less likely to engage in risky or deviant behaviors during their teen years.

Mullikin reports, “Religious individuals feel they have more in common with each other, despite variation in economic differences, than secular and religious members of the same socioeconomic group.” Further, teens with strong religious faith tend to have higher self-esteem and more positive social relations than those without a religious identity. All the research, however, indicates that young children tend to absorb their parents’ beliefs therefore, as teenagers, it is important that they make an individual choice regarding their own religious identification. Perhaps, the period of transition from mimicking parents to individual choice isolates the importance of peer influences. In fact, some researchers indicate that individuals who are “formerly religious” generally are those that leave home early and associate with non-religious groups. Not surprisingly, those teens choosing a religious college or university are more likely to maintain the spiritual identity of their parents.

The benefits of strong faith, though, extend far beyond mere spiritual identity. Having deep roots of faith is associated with “lower levels of depression, higher levels of ‘other centeredness’ and stronger moral commitments (honesty, fairness, choosing reconciliation over vengeance, respecting the dignity of others, and avoiding gluttony and sexual promiscuity).”3 Further, those teens that get religion and practice their faith by attending church regularly, usually stay in school, thus having greater career opportunities, stronger marriages and families, and less divorce.

So the lesson for parents is simple: your teenager will make better media choices if they have a strong religious foundation at home; they will talk with you more frequently about religion and be more likely to attend a religious college if you make religious faith central to your life. Their lives as adults will have a stronger moral foundation and they will be better prepared for life’s challenges if they make an individual choice as a teenager to accept the faith of their parents and make it their own.4

End Notes

  1. L.S. Clark, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  2. Peggy Lynn Mullikin, “Religious and Spiritual Identity,” Journal of Communication and Religion, Volume 29, March 2006, pp. 178-203.
  3. Mullikin.
  4. Mullikin.

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