… And Stuff
This came up in the Bible study Sunday night. We were in Galatians 3-4 and the discussion led to the “True Gospel”.
In a recent study by the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a close look at the religious beliefs held by American teenagers, the study was trying to find out what young church goers actually believe about God. Instead of a clear understanding of the God of the Bible what they found was that the faith held and described by most adolescents came down to something the researchers identified as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these: 1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” 2. “God wants people to be good and stuff, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” 4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
That, in sum, is the creed to which much of American faith can be reduced. After conducting more than 3,000 interviews the researchers reported that, when it came to the most crucial questions of faith and beliefs, many American youths responded with a shrug and “whatever.”
“We go to church and stuff, I believe in a God and stuff”
As the researchers explained, “For most teens, nobody has to do anything in life, including anything to do with religion. ‘Whatever’ is just fine, if that’s what a person wants.”
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote,
“The casual “whatever” that marks so much of the American moral and theological landscapes–adolescent and otherwise–is a substitute for serious and responsible thinking. More importantly, it is a verbal cover for an embrace of relativism. Accordingly, “most religious teenager’s opinions and views–one can hardly call them worldviews–are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion.”
The kind of responses found among many teenagers indicates a vast emptiness at the heart of their understanding. When a teenager says, “I believe there is a God and stuff,” this hardly represents a profound theological commitment.
One other aspect of this study deserves attention at this point. The researchers, who conducted thousands of hours of interviews with a carefully identified spectrum of teenagers, discovered that for many of these teens, the interview itself was the first time they had ever discussed a theological question with an adult. What does this say about our churches? What does this say about this generation of parents?
The researchers note that many responses fall along very moralistic lines–but they reserve their most non-judgmental attitudes for matters of theological conviction and belief. Some go so far as to suggest that there are no “right” answers in matters of doctrine and theological conviction.
The “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” that these researchers identify as the most fundamental faith posture and belief system of American teenagers appears, in a larger sense, to reflect the culture as a whole. Clearly, this generalized conception of a belief system is what appears to characterize the beliefs of vast millions of Americans, both young and old.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents.” As the researchers explained, “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”
In addition, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism presents a unique understanding of God. As Smith explains, this amorphous faith “is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”
“In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”
Obviously, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not an organized faith. This belief system has no denominational headquarters and no mailing address. Nevertheless, it has millions and millions of devotees across the United States and other advanced cultures, where subtle cultural shifts have
All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life.
We now face the challenge of evangelizing a nation that largely considers itself Christian, overwhelmingly believes in some deity, considers itself fervently religious, but has virtually no connection to historic Christianity. Christian Smith and his colleagues have performed an enormous service for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in identifying Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the dominant religion of this American age. Our responsibility is to prepare the church to respond to this new religion, understanding that it represents the greatest competitor to biblical Christianity. More urgently, this study should warn us all that our failure to teach this generation of teenagers the realities and convictions of biblical Christianity will mean that their children will know even less and will be even more readily seduced by this new form of paganism. This study offers great insights into what we need to do:
- Live a compelling Christian life based on visible gratitude we have for the crucifixion and the great life-changing hope we share in the resurrection.
- Teach our families and others about the consequences of sin and the grace that the real God has come to offer to all humankind.
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Here is a song to bless your day.