Rob Rienow, a pastor at Wheaton Bible Church outside Chicago, tells a story to describe the beliefs of the teenagers he sees. Rienow, 28, has been ministering to adolescents in the area for six years. He recently asked a group of kids from troubled homes the question, Who do you think God is? Their answers were as individual as the kids themselves. One thought God was like his grandfather: "He's there, but I never see him." Another took a harder view, describing "an evil being who wants to punish me all the time." Two more opinions followed. Finally, the last teen weighed in: "I think you're all right, because that's what you really believe." In other words, as Rienow relates it, God is whatever works for you. On this, all of the youths agreed.
The unsung story of today's teenagers may be how religious or spiritual they are. "We're witnessing a new revival of religion," says Conrad Cherry, director of the Center for Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University/Purdue University. Prayer circles and faith-based groups like True Love Waits or Fellowship of Christian Athletes have proliferated in high schools and college campuses like so many WWJD bracelets; Christian rock festivals and CDs rival their secular counterparts, bringing the message out of the pulpit and into the mosh pit and tattoo tent. Three decades after the rebels of the baby boom appeared to run away from organized religion, "a lot more teenagers are becoming more willing to say, 'Hey, I'm a Christian'," says Jacintha Bavaro, 16, who sings in the choir of her Roman Catholic church in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Jacintha's mother, Laura, 37, concurs. "They talk about it and seem a lot more into it than when I was a teenager," she says. "We used to pretend we were going to church and go to Dunkin' Donuts."
But the generation's spiritual profile, as Pastor Rienow found out, is quite complex, and often improvised on the fly. In a new NEWSWEEK Poll of teenagers, 78 percent said their religion was important to them, but only half said they attended services regularly, a figure that has declined since the 1970s. These numbers reflect several conflicting currents. Fundamentalist groups--Christian, Jewish, Muslim--have become more attractive to teenagers, as they have to adults. For a generation raised amid decay in families, schools and the streets, strict doctrine offers an anchor. "Where the youth movements of the '60s and '70s were liberationist, movements are now constrictive, all about setting limits," says Wade Clark Roof, author of "Spiritual Marketplace" and professor of religion and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "There is a hunger for guidelines that parents haven't offered."
At the same time, though, a much broader swath of the teen population is reacting to the collapse of institutions as a license to experiment. Rather than seek absolute truths in doctrine, they cross denominational boundaries, savvy consumers in the broader marketplace of belief systems. Many describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious. "I believe there is a higher power at work in my life, but I do not have a name for it," says Amy McKinney, 18. "When I pray I do not ask a god to make everything all right. Instead I ask myself to be strong." In place of strict adherence to doctrine, many teens embrace a spirit of eclecticism and a suspicion of absolute truths. In a 1999 poll of teenagers by the religious researcher George Barna, more than half agreed with the statement "All religious faiths teach equally valid truths." Where explorers of the baby boom tried on Zen today, Methodism tomorrow, teens might cobble together bits of several faiths: a little Buddhist meditation or Roman Catholic ritual, whatever mixture appeals at the time. Tommy Greenberg, 16, who says he's one of few Jewish students in his Minneapolis high school, has attended Lutheran services with a friend, just to see what it was like. "If they'd been saying things in Hebrew," he says, "I'd have thought I was at Temple Israel. …