Are American teenagers becoming more religious? Judging by their participation in activities like church youth groups, school prayer circles, and Christian rock festivals, the answer would seem to be yes. Newsweek magazine reports that there's been a huge increase in those activities in recent years.
Seventeen-year-old Nicole Van Wert faithfully attends services at Messiah United Methodist Church in Springfield, Virginia. But she wasn't there on Easter Sunday this year. Instead, she was on a bus, returning home from a 10 day mission trip to Matamoros, Mexico. She and other young people from her religious youth group went to work with children at two churches in the area. Before she left, she talked about the trip.
"We do crafts and tell Bible stories and we play a lot of games," explained Nicole. " It's amazing to see how religious they are, and it's really neat to listen to their sermons in Spanish. We still get the point, even though there is that language barrier."
This is the second year Nicole has spent her spring vacation in Mexico. She says it's an important way of practicing a faith that is the center of her life.
"That is my life honestly. My circle of friends go to church with me. I see them every Sunday morning, every Friday night, every Saturday night. It's a really good environment for me to be in, where I know I won't be pressured into doing anything, and I know they'll accept me for who I am," she says.
Young people like Nicole Van Wert have helped Messiah's youth group grow bigger and more active in recent years. Scott Niehoff, 23, grew up in the church, and he's now the director of Youth Ministries. He sees a big difference between the youth group he belonged to and the one he currently leads.
"The youth of right now are active so much in studies and music. They are very active in the mission aspect, because at church we have a slogan called 'Serving God by serving others.' And they really do do that a lot," he says.
Gabrielle Farrell is the Director of Religious Education at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. While Messiah Methodist has a mostly white congregation that's committed to Christianity, All Souls has a multiracial group of members, who honor a wide range of religious views. Gabrielle Farrell also sees more teenagers coming to her church.
"Attendance here is amazing. For the most part children come with their parents, and even the high schoolers here come even when their parents don't. And I think that the community here allows them to confront questions they might not feel safe confronting at school or even with their families at home," she says. "I think the question of justice might be more on their minds more than it has been [in the past]. And that question is larger than their immediate community. The idea that things that happened far away really do matter and can affect my life might be more present than they ever were before."
Gabrielle Farrell also believes teenagers are reflecting changes in their parents as well, who may be questioning their goals and values more as they grow older.
"I think as adults and certainly as baby boomers have come of age, looking down the length of their lives, that those ultimate questions have come up in the culture more, and so teenagers like everyone else are confronted with the questions more often than they might have been," she says. " 'Chicken Soup for the Soul,' is my daughter's, and I think almost every other adolescents', favorite book. And that I can't imagine 8 years ago."
VOA: Do you think all the challenges of being a teenager today -threats to their security and challenges to their integrity - also have something to do with it?
Gabrielle: "I think that's true. I think we have convinced ourselves that we are far less safe than we were, and that is primarily due to the explosion of information. Whatever happens to a child in India can happen to me."
Scott Niehoff cites still another reason teenagers are going to churchtheir peers. "Their friends have a great time in it and invite them to activities and programs and they can then see how much of an impact those activities have on them," he said.
On Tuesday nights, Scott Niehoff helps direct a Bible study group at Messiah Methodist Church. A small circle of young people get together to listen to Christian music, read Biblical scripture and talk about how that scripture applies to their lives.
"I like Psalm 46 a lot because it also says God is always there to help, providing refuge and peace," he says. " God's power is complete and his ultimate victory is certain. He will not fail to rescue those who love him."
On this night, several teenagers take time out to explain how being part of a church has changed their lives. Rebecca says it's helped her meet people outside church.
"I think learning different ways for expressing your faith gives you a new outlet to meet people in school and other churches and the community," she says. "One of the things I used to do in school is put a Scripture or little quote up on my locker every day and a lot of people would come by and say, 'That's really cool, can I have a copy of that?' And it's really encouraging to be able to meet other people who are growing in their faith."
Melissa talks about how she's changed during her high school years.
"I went through some really hard times in tenth grade and I stopped coming to church, and then I went on a retreat last year, and ever since then it's been a steady growing period for me. My faith is so much bigger than it ever has been," she says.
For Andrew, the turning point was an annual church project called Urban Plunge. Last year during his spring vacation, he spent five days with a group of young people doing landscaping and other community service activities in the Washington, D.C. area.
"It was just a great experience. It helped me grow in my faith probably more than anything's affected me in my life," says Andrew. "Since then I've started a Christian band, and I think that's one of the starters for that."
A new kind of music has become important to many young churchgoers like Andrew. Contemporary Christian music sounds like a lot of popular music today, except the lyrics and the message are religious. It plays an important role at the weekly contemporary service Messiah Methodist holds on Saturday night. The service draws many young people. Melissa Matson explains why.
"The music is the thing that appeals to me. It's faster, and it's newer, more modern. And the sermons are usually geared a little more towards the younger audience, although the older people do go to it, it's geared towards us, the teenagers," she says.
While young people may be expressing their faith in new ways, they haven't changed in at least one respect. They like to ask questions. Neale Donald Walsch recently published a new book called Conversations with God for Teens. He says it grew out of his earlier best seller for adults called Conversations with God.
"We received 50,000 letters in response to that book, and what was fascinating about that response was that thousands came from young people around the world," Mr. Walsch says. " And we also received letters from teenagers asking couldn't we write a book that was addressed to the concerns of young people everywhere."
Neale Donald Walsch says he based his new book on questions he collected from teenagers of many different nationalities. They ranged from big questions like why is there so much hate in the world, to smaller questions like what do I do if I don't like my biology teacher. Neale Donald Walsch says the questions suggested that teenagers everywhere have a deeply spiritual view of the world around them.
"They have an absolute and certain notion there is something larger than themselves functioning in their lives, and they see that something larger everywhere. It's almost inviolable," he says. "That is why some teenagers can't pick a flower or find it difficult to eat the flesh of animals. And we're finding that teenagers interact in a way that honors that sense of spirituality, and they wonder why adults don't."
Even the most committed teenagers say they still struggle with questions. Nicole Van Wert says she has them all the time.
"Most of them are just about how do I know this is real. How do I know some guy didn't in the 1700s didn't sit down and say hey, let's write a book called the Holy Bible. I have questions about stuff in the Old Testament and New Testament and why they clash, and I have questions about how we should view things like homosexuality and sex before marriage. And I feel bad about having those questions but I realize that's part of being human, that's part of our faith, that we have to say, one day, we'll get all the answers," she says.
In the meantime, Nicole Van Wert is drawing on her church experience to plan for the future. She says her work with Mexican children has motivated her to keep studying Spanish, something she thinks will give her an important advantage when she applies for jobs. She hopes to become a social worker, and possibly specialize in child development.