Research and policy proposals to make sense of the teenage years tend to address concerns such as educational achievement, sexuality, drug abuse and suicide.

Noted sociologist and University of Notre Dame professor Christian Smith has spent much of his career delving into a curiously overlooked aspect of teenage life — religion.

His research offers insights into teenage beliefs while addressing common questions from parents and youth pastors: Do today’s teens remain loyal to their parents’ faith? Are they abandoning traditional religious institutions to search for a newer, more “authentic” spirituality?

Smith will share findings about teens and faith on Thursday, Oct. 29, as the keynote speaker at “Religious Practice and the Family,” a conference in Washington sponsored by The Heritage Foundation.

Smith directs Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society and is primary author of the 2005 book “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” Smith supports his work on adolescent religion and spirituality with an impressive array of data derived from interviews conducted with teens for the National Study of Youth and Religion.

Smith and co-author Melina Lundquist Denton wrote:

Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers’  benign ‘whateverism.’ As long as religious communities presume falsely apocalyptic scenarios, they likely set themselves up for overreactions and pendulum swings in their ministry to youth. In fact, huge numbers of U.S. teenagers are currently in congregations, feel okay about them, mostly plan to continue to stay involved at some level, and generally feel fine about the adults in their congregations. But the congregation simply does not mean that much or make much sense to many of them.”

Of “Soul Searching,” New York Times reviewer Peter Steinfels wrote:

With a mixture of good news and bad news that punctures many stereotypes about adoloscent religious beliefs and behavior, this extensive study deserves attention for what it reveals across the full range of American religious groups.”

Christianity Today, which selected “Soul Searching”  for its 2006  Book Award for Christianity and Culture, noted:

No book in recent memory has as much potential to transform the
practice of youth ministry…[T]he results overturn nearly every piece of conventional wisdom about teens and faith.”

Heritage’s Oct. 29 conference also will bring together more than a dozen other leading researchers to present fresh findings on these key questions:

• How has the “family revolution” changed religious involvement?
• What effects do a father’s religious affiliation and commitment have on his young children?
• What’s the connection between religious involvement and satisfaction and fidelity in marriage?

The gathering is the third and last in a series of annual conferences called “Religious Practice in America: What the Research Says,” made possible by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Heritage’s research partners for this concluding conference are Child Trends and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

“Religious Practice and the Family” is open at no charge to anyone interested in the intersection of faith with life in the here and now. It will be held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. For details, and to register, go here. 

Ken McIntyre contributed to this post.