There is an imposter out there posing as real Christianity. “We have successfully convinced teenagers that religious participation is important for moral formation and for making nice people... Yet these young people possess no real commitment to excitement about religious faith.” (6) Like sports, religion is “a good, well rounded thing to do.”
This new behavior has been termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Dean notes that three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christians. Yet fewer than half actually practice their faith. (10) While youth groups do provide social ties, they seem less effective for faith. (11) Teens are getting the message from the adults, Christianity is not that big of a deal, God requires little, and the church is basically a social institution. She calls this theological malpractice and asks what would happen if the church really preached the life-changing, radical gospel.
She lists the guiding beliefs of moral therapeutic deism:
- A god exists who created and order the world,
- God wants people to be good and nice to each other
- The central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself
- God is not involved in my life except when I really need God
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Dean participated in the National Study of Youth and Religion and lists their findings: most American teenagers have a positive view of religion (because they don't give it much thought), most American teenagers mirror their parent's faith, teenagers are “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith, a minority of teenagers say religious faith is important (they are doing better in life on many scales than their peers), and many teenagers embrace the moralistic therapeutic deism described above.
Unlike other books on the results of the survey, Dean concentrates on this question: “how can the twenty-first-century church better prepare young people steeped in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for the trust-walk of christian faith?” (22) The key, she says, is the faith of parents and congregations, the sources of the spirituality teens emulate. “Put simply, churches have lost track of Christianity's missional imagination. We have forgotten we are not here for ourselves...” (37) Teens are being offered little to which they will be devoted. “...[W]e can expect the faith of the young people we love to reflect the faith we show them.” (39)
“The question lurking beneath the data surfaced by the NSYR is, 'Do we adults love Jesus enough to want to translate the Christian conversation for our children?'” (122) She gives guidelines for translating our faith to the next generation.
She writes, “So at the end of this project, I find that I have arrived at only two conclusions with any confidence. Here is the first: When it comes to vapid Christianity, teenagers are not the problem – the church is the problem. And the second: the church also has the solution.” (189)
Resources for countering Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are highly devoted teenagers and highly devoted congregations. It can be done, she writes. But it does not happen by accident.
Kenda Creasy Dean is Associate Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She worked on the National Study of Youth and Religion and is the author of several books.
Oxford University Press, 254 pages.