Charlie Chaplin, the legendary silent-film actor, once entered a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest at a crowded vaudeville theater in San Francisco. Apparently the competition was fierce, because the real Chaplin lost. In fact, he didn’t even place among the finalists. Charlie’s own fans didn’t recognize him in their midst—even those who were trying to imitate him.
And my research with more than 800 Christian teenagers shows that if Jesus himself walked through your youth-room door today, most of his “fans” in your group wouldn’t recognize him, either. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, really—I explore, in-depth, a wide range of Jesus-focused questions with Christian teenagers in my book The Jesus Survey (Baker Books). I’ve plucked six of the most surprising things I learned out of the pile:
MOST CHRISTIAN TEENAGERS DON’T BELIEVE IN CHRIST
The Jesus Survey gauged the beliefs of Christian teenagers in four essential “Jesus-focused” areas: • The Bible is trustworthy in what it says about Jesus (Luke 1:1-2; John 21:24; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21). • Jesus is God (John 1:1, 14; 10:22-33; Philippians 2:5-7). • Jesus physically lived, died, and came back to life (Luke 1:26-38, 2:1-7, 23:26-24:12). • Jesus is the only way to heaven. (John 14:6; Acts 4:10-12; 1 John 5:12; Revelation 7:9-10).
Results from the survey show that nine out of 10 (91 percent) Christian teenagers say they have significant doubt , and sometimes outright disbelief, in one or more of these essentials of their faith. Unfortunately, these results reinforce the findings of a similar study conducted by Thom and Jess Ranier (titled Millennials), and also undergird a number of ongoing trends reported by the Barna Research Group in recent years.
From a denominational perspective, the picture is equally bleak. Four out of five (83 percent) of Baptist teenagers say they have doubts about these basic tenets of their Christian faith. Among Methodist teenagers, that number jumps to 95 percent. In Catholic youth groups, almost all (99 percent) struggle to embrace basic beliefs about Christ. And for Lutherans, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ students, the number is 100 percent.
The Jesus Survey reveals that only a third of Christian teenagers (31 percent) confidently believe the Bible is trustworthy in what it says about Jesus. This is true even though all they know of Christ is rooted in the biblical account of his life and ministry. Additionally, about two-thirds (60 percent) are either uncertain or unsettled about the issue of the Bible’s trustworthiness. Even more alarming, one out of 10 teenagers in your youth group actually strongly rejects the trustworthiness of the Bible.
Similarly, less than half of Christian teenagers (39 percent) express strong confidence that Jesus is the only way to heaven. On the other side, about one Christian out of eight in our youth groups (13 percent) is fully committed to the opposite: They believe strongly that Jesus is not the only way to heaven. In all, almost two-thirds of Christian teenagers (61 percent) are either unsure or unwilling to commit to the belief that “Jesus saves.”
So what is the truth about the path to eternal life, according to a quarter of Christian teenagers? “Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and other great religious leaders all have equal standing in leading people to heaven.”
RIGHT BELIEF TRANSLATES INTO REAL EXPERIENCE
“Confident Christian Teenagers”—the “tithe” (9 percent) of our youth group kids who buck the trend and express confident, consistent faith in four essential beliefs about Christ—are living a markedly different experience with God than their peers. Consider:
• Eighty-six percent (nearly nine out of 10) of Confident Christian Teenagers strongly agree with this statement: “I’m 100 percent certain that the Holy Spirit of Jesus is present and active in my life today—and I have proof that this is true.” Among all other Christian teenagers, barely half (52 percent) make the same claim. Put that statistical variance of 34 percentage points in the context of a presidential election, and you can quickly see how significant that difference is.
• Likewise, nearly all (94 percent) of Confident Christian Teenagers strongly agree with this statement: “I’m 100 percent certain Jesus has answered one or more of my prayers—and I can prove it.” Again, only about half of all other Christian teens (55 percent) say the same thing.
This data suggests a connection that I think is, by far, the most important finding of The Jesus Survey: “Right belief translates into real experience.”Click to tweet
YOUTH GROUP KIDS ARE SMARTER THAN WE THINK
Over the past several years, fantastical “Christ Conspiracies” have found traction in the media. In the cottage industry of Christian response books, the familiar warning is that conspiracy theories like The Da Vinci Code are corrupting our youth and leading faithful teenagers away from Christ.
Well, here’s some good news from The Jesus Survey: Your kids are smarter than they get credit for being.
For starters, Christian kids are near-unanimous in their rejection of the silly Da Vinci Code premise that Jesus ditched the cross and married Mary Magdalene instead. More than nine out of 10 (92 percent) reject that theory outright. What’s more, in a remarkable show of consistency, Christian teenagers treat hoax theories in general as hooey. Nine out of 10 (92 percent) reject the idea that “Jesus’ death on a cross was some kind of hoax,” and almost all (95 percent) scoff at the idea that Jesus was actually just a myth.
THE BIBLE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WE THINK
We’ve already seen that Confident Christian Teenagers who adhere to the four core beliefs about Christ report a markedly stronger daily experience with God. No surprise, then, that Christian kids who believe the Bible is trustworthy are most likely to also believe all four of the core beliefs I’ve listed at the start of this article. For instance:
Among Bible-believing teenagers, four out of five (80 percent) express a consistently strong conviction that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead after his execution. Among kids who are uncertain or unsettled about the Bible, that number drops to less than half (48 percent and 37 percent, respectively). And, among Christian teenagers who simply don’t believe the Bible can be trusted, only one in seven (16 percent) fully believes the story of Easter is true.
Further, within the group of Christian teenagers that strongly affirms “Jesus is the only way to heaven,” virtually all (99 percent) also believe the Bible to be trustworthy. Additionally, roughly four out of five (82 percent) Bible-believers strongly claim that the Holy Spirit is active in their lives, and a similar number (83 percent) confidently claim indisputable proof that Christ has answered their prayers.
This data appears to reinforce the idea that right belief translates into real experience, and suggests that confidence in the Bible’s trustworthiness is the first step toward right belief.
THE BIBLE IS MOSTLY A NON-FACTOR FOR CHRISTIAN TEENAGERS
In 1536, William Tyndale was choked, impaled, and burned on a stake as punishment for translating the Bible into the language of the common man, thereby making Scripture accessible to anyone who could read English. For many Christian kids, that incredible sacrifice was made, mostly, in vain.
Although three-quarters (73 percent) of Christian teenagers say that daily Bible study is important for followers of Christ, a surprising number of our kids (26 percent—about one in four) actually reject that idea. For them, daily Bible study is either optional or completely unnecessary. This seems an unusually large number considering that all the students who took The Jesus Survey were involved in a church youth group at the time of the survey.
Regardless of the perceived value (or lack of value) they place on daily Bible study, practically no Christian teenager reports consistent interaction with Scripture outside of church. Barely 5 percent (about one in 20 youth group members) say they open the Bible on a daily basis. And fully two-thirds of Christian teenagers (67 percent) say they seldom or never study the Bible on a daily basis. Even among Confident Christian Teenagers, only about one in five (19 percent) makes Scripture-reading a daily habit.
Why do Christian kids who attend youth group dismiss daily Bible study in such large numbers? That’s a question that deserves a thoughtful, and personal, exploration.
CHRISTIAN TEENAGERS ARE NOT SHY ABOUT SHARING THEIR FAITH
An overwhelming majority of Christian teenagers (84 percent) believe it is their responsibility to “tell others about Jesus with the intent of leading them to be Christian, too.” Given their earlier hesitation in affirming that Jesus is the only way to heaven, this number pleasantly surprised me. And, in fact, even among teenagers who believe Jesus is not the only way to heaven, more than half (55 percent) still endorse the call of the Great Commission.
What’s more, your kids are actually following up their belief with action when it comes to evangelism. More than half (56 percent) report that, “I shared about my faith in Jesus with a non-Christian during the past month.” That’s an encouraging finding—until you begin to think about exactly what these kids are actually preaching.
If the evangelistic content shared by Christian teenagers reflects what they say they believe about Christ, then three out of four (74 percent) are actually spreading untruths about Jesus to their friends, neighbors, coworkers, and more. And that begs one final question: At what point does the sincere, mistaken faith of our teenagers actually become a false religion instead of authentic Christianity?
Again, I have no real answers, but with eternity in the balance, it’s time to take that question seriously and evaluate our own youth groups.
Mike is a former youth pastor, a bestselling author, and founding publisher of FamilyFans.com.
THE JESUS SURVEY
The Jesus Survey was conducted over the course of three months during the summer of 2010. More than 800 teenagers (ages 12-18) participated in the survey. All self-identified as “Christian” and were active in a church youth group at the time of the survey.
In all, the survey sample represented 16 Christian denominations in 24 states, and delivered a 99 percent confidence level with a confidence interval (margin of error) of +/- 4.4 percent.
Want to know more? Read the full results in The Jesus Survey (Baker Books).