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Dr. Christian Smith is the Director of the Center for Social Research, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor, and the Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. I do not think I am alone when I say I consider him the foremost thinker and writer in regard to how young people, particularly Millennials, engage matters of faith. He’s published a number of books on the subject, perhaps most notably Soul Searching and Souls in Transition.
Dr. Smith’s work, along with Dr. Thom and Jess Rainer’s book The Millennials, was really one of the first major sparks that made me interested in how young people interact with spirituality. Sometimes people ask me if I’m interested in pursuing Ph.D. work, and I half-seriously, half-jokingly answer, “Only if I get to study under Dr. Smith.”
Last week, I emailed Dr. Smith to see if he would be willing to answer a few questions for me. He’s in China right now, but he was gracious enough to respond. I’ve included my questions and his answers below.
Chris Martin: Pastors often struggle to connect with Millennials in their communities. Some say it is because Millennials feel entitled. Others say that they can’t get Millennials to stop looking at their phones. If you had to choose one attribute or phenomenon ingrained in Millennials that may make them more difficult to reach and understand than previous generations, what would you choose?
Christian Smith: I cannot answer this because I do not think there is any one factor. There is a huge multiplicity of a host of factors, different complexes of them shaping different kinds of youth. There is no single dominant challenge or magic bullet. That is what makes it so hard.
CM: “Extended adolescence” has been identified as a problem and sometimes as an “epidemic,” among Millennials. What do you think is the root cause of Millennials’ tendency to delay modern American milestones of adulthood?
CS: The coming of “emerging adulthood,” about which I write in Souls in Transition. Again, a variety of economic, technological, institutional, and cultural transformations have converged to allow youth to delay settling down into full adulthood until their late 20s, for some, even later. And since serious religious faith is commonly associated with full adulthood, most youth tend to postpone confronting those issues too till later, if ever.
CM: In your studies, have you come across positive correlations between achieving modern American ideals of “adulthood” (i.e. home ownership, marriage, children, etc.) and higher levels of spiritual maturity or faith involvement? Do you have reason to believe there is a causative relationship between achieving the milestones adulthood and becoming more spiritually mature? Why?
CS: Yes, but again it’s complicated. Some of the most religiously committed youth—especially white evangelicals and Mormons—believe in no sex before marriage, so (since they want sex) often marry younger. That puts them on a path to more quickly realizing full adulthood, though not necessarily. Their faith and involvement in churches probably also provides resources to help achieve that. On the other hand, many young people unintentionally launch into real adulthood by getting pregnant by accident, and that hardly has to do with religion and usually does not end well. So, it’s always complicated.
CM: You coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” in your book Soul Searching because you found many teens who subscribe to different faiths, but believed in a similar “God” who created the world, wants people to be happy, and rewards good people with heaven. What obstacles may this common philosophy present for Christian pastors attempting to shepherd the people who hold to it?
CS: Well, first, MTD [moralistic therapeutic deism] is not Christianity. It’s a different religion. So if youth raised in Christian homes (and their parents!) think that MTD is Christianity, then they can assume that they are good Christians and not worry anymore. What pastors say can float right over their heads, which very often happens. The challenge is getting people to see the contrast between MTD and real Christianity, without being negative, condemning, defensive, sectarian, etc. People obviously find MTD to be attractive. Why? And how can they come to see that Christianity is actually vastly superior?
You may only enjoy that interchange if you’re as big of a nerd as I am, but Dr. Smith is the master of this stuff, so it is a treat to be able to hear his thoughts on some of these issues.
What does Dr. Smith say in sum? “It’s complicated.” I really appreciated his non-answer answer to my first question—it was really what I was hoping he would say. You can’t really boil the Millennial phenomenon down to one single factor. Sure, the internet has massive influence, and the diversity of Millennials is unprecedented, but it goes much deeper than that, too.
I don’t know if this is the case for you, but whenever I find myself faced with tangled wires like those in the main image at the top of this blog post, I nearly break out in hives. Understanding Millennials and seeing them fully grasp the gospel can feel a bit like untangling all of those wires. It’s complicated, and it can be incredibly frustrating. I hope my work here, on the blog, helps make it a little less so.
I’m thankful for Dr. Smith, and I hope any pastors, church leaders, or even parents trying to better understand Millennials and how they think of faith issues were able to learn a bit through our brief interview.