This is a follow-up to Aaron's article just below. I found this article by Dr Michael Horton to be very helpful and troubling as we think about what most young people in our churches today really believe about God. It's an excerpt from a fine article in Modern Reformation Magazine called "Are Churches Secularizing America." The gist of the article is that our pragmatic approach to teaching youth has produced a generation of kids who are more deist, than christian and who believe that morality, not truth is what counts. So if you're good and do good, you go to heaven, but if you're bad and do bad, you don't. Christ is virtually absent from their belief systems as are such vital truths as justification by faith alone and regenerating grace. This is well worth reading by anyone who has teenagers (and 20 somethings) in the home, or who works with them in the church.Soli Deo Gloria
Diagnosing the Illness: "Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism"
Americans have always been "can-do" people. Pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we assume that we are good people who could do better if we just had the right methods and instructions. Add to this the triumph of the therapeutic in popular culture and we end up with "moralistic, therapeutic deism."
Besides psychologists, sociologists are documenting the fact that Christianity in America-including evangelicalism-is less interested in truth than in therapy and in attracting consumers than in making disciples. James Davison Hunter, Robert Bellah, Wade Clark Roof, and numerous others have made these points in their extensive studies of religion in America. However, there are two relatively recent sociologists who have contributed significantly to the spiritual condition that I am highlighting in this article : Christian Smith and Marsha Witten.
As noted above, from 2001 to 2005, University of North Carolina (now Notre Dame) sociologist Christian Smith led a team in a remarkable study of teen spirituality in America today. From his extensive interviews Smith concluded that the dominant form of religion or spirituality of American young people today is "moralistic, therapeutic deism." It is difficult to define this somewhat amorphous spirituality, especially since, ironically, "22 percent of teen 'deists' in our survey reported feeling very or extremely close to God (the God they believe is not involved in the world today)." (13) Apparently, God's involvement is restricted to the inner sphere of one's private world.
Smith observed that most teens-including those reared in evangelical churches who said that their faith is "very important" and makes a big difference in their lives-are "stunningly inarticulate" concerning that actual content of that faith. (14) "Interviewing teens," he relates, "one finds little evidence that the agents of religious socialization in this country"-i.e., parents, pastors, and teachers-"are being highly effective and successful with the majority of their young people." (15) In contrast to previous generations that at least had some residual knowledge of the Bible and basic Christian teachings, it seems that there is very little serious ability to state, much less to reflect upon and examine their beliefs, much less to relate them to daily life. Many young people seem to be living on the hype and the familiar circle of friends in the youth group, both of which eventually lose their influence, especially in college.
Smith defines "moralistic, therapeutic deism" as expressing this sort of working theology:
"God created the world."The sense one gets from reading Smith's study jives with my own anecdotal experience of popular religion in America today. Basically, the message is that God is nice, we are nice, so we should all be nice.
"God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions."
"The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
"God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."
"Good people go to heaven when they die." (16)
Do young people raised in evangelical homes and churches really believe this? According to Barna's reports-not to mention the studies of sociologists like Smith (as well as James Hunter, Wade Clark Roof, and others)-the tragic answer is yes. (17) This approach, Smith says, reflects similar studies of their parents' generation. Even Lutheran youths active in the church could not define "grace" or "justification," he says, pointing up the disparity between what churches say they believe and what they are actually communicating week in and week out. Smith pointed out that in the working theology of those he studied, "being religious is about being good and it's not about forgiveness....It's unbelievable the proportion of conservative Protestant teens who do not seem to grasp elementary concepts of the gospel concerning grace and justification....It's across all traditions." (18)
Whatever churches say they believe, the incoherent answers offered by those entrusted to their ministry further substantiate my argument that a moralistic religion of self-salvation is our default setting as fallen creatures. If we are not explicitly and regularly taught out of it, we will always turn the message of God's rescue operation into a message of self-help.
- Dr Michael Horton (Modern Reformation, March/April 2008 Volume 17 Issue 2)