Interview with Kenda Creasy Dean
Thinking in Public
September 12, 2011
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line
theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your
host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: Kenda Creasy Dean says that youth ministry is the defacto research and development branch of American Christianity, and she ought to know. She’s the professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, and she is my guest today for Thinking in Public.
Professor Dean, thank you so much for joining us.
Dean: Thank you, it is great to be here.
Mohler: Kenda you have been a part of the National Study of Youth and Religion, and in my estimation that is one of the most important research projects that American Christianity has really had to confront over the last several generations and decades. Kind of summarize for us what that’s all about.
Dean: Well, the national study for Youth and Religion is certainly the biggest study we’ve had to confront and Christian Smith as you know is the principle investigator of that and so coordinated his colleagues from all over the country to interview 3300 kids and their parents. And it’s longitudinal, which in my mind is really where the pay-dirt on that study in that Chris is going back to the same sample every 5 years and checking in to see what’s going on in terms of their relationship to faith and their relationship to churches, and how that’s influencing other parts of their lives.
Mohler: I think there are two tremendous gains from this study, and the first is its explicit purpose, which is to look into the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers and now young adults, and adults in the third stage moving into more mature adulthood. But the second gain is that it has given us some conceptual handles. Sociologist like Robert Berger, Robert Bellah, Robert Wuthnow for years have given us some handles to describe what we are looking at, but the great gain in this had been the indictment that comes with the 3 words Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Mohler: Because we have all sensed that something has gone shallow in America’s Christianity, and you hit that head-on.
Dean: Well it’s true, I mean, it’s funny because Chris and I kind of argued about that term., I’m like nobody will be able to remember that term, Chris; you’ve got to come up with something a little easier to remember. But it was so descriptive that people did in fact recognize it right away. And as you know basically what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is; it’s a ten-dollar word, or phrase that talks about religion as a way to be nice and feel good about yourself, and otherwise God pretty much stays out of the way. And that turns out to be the defacto, kind of the default, religious position of most American teenagers. And what’s really telling about that is because of unbelievable consistency between teenagers and what their parent’s faith is, then the conclusion was made that it was in fact the default religion of American churches as well.
Mohler: In your book, and it’s a very important book entitled, Almost Christian if nothing else the title is really important the subtitle What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church; you point out that this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is really a substitute, a false Christianity, a parasitical reality. You define it this way, you say:
It’s an adherence to a do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow Him into the world.
Dean: Right and I guess that I would want to emphasis that I don’t think that’s because of, you know, bad intentions or anything. The bottom line and I am not even sure that I would say that it’s even, I don’t think it’s an adequate Christianity. I’m not even sure there’s a way that you can call it a false-Christianity, but I am reluctant to go that far with it because the people who are, or many people who are espousing this are people who are trying to live their lives as Christians. But unfortunately what they understand of Christianity, or what we have been able to communicate as Christianity is such a watered-down version of anything that people who if you read the Bible about who Jesus is, he’s hard to recognize in something that’s that shallow. So it’s very difficult to line those two things up together. But it’s not out of ill-intentioned kind of Christianity or anything like that. A lot of people, you know, who are card-carrying, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are people who we go to church with.
Mohler: Oh, absolutely.
Dean: And you know there are days when I fall in that category, I try not to but you know it’s a very natural impulse for humans to want to accommodate their religious faith to whatever the dominate cultural mores of the day are. And that’s pretty much our version of it.
Mohler: Yeah, I think about many of the kinds of predictions that were made, especially back in the 1960’s, and I had an interesting conversation with Peter Burger on this program in the first season, in which I asked him to revisit the whole idea of secularization. And as he said that it turned out that the prophets of hard secularity were basically wrong.
Dean: Right, right.
Mohler: You look at teenagers and they are not alienated from religion. They think as you say it is kind of a nice thing. On the other hand, he said what we now have to give attention to is secularization from within. And that is basically the belief system is actually secularized in ways that without a pretty careful biblical and theological understanding you might just miss altogether.
Dean: Yeah, I think that might be accurate. I think that what has happened is that we have become pretty unattached to a lot of our own theologies, our own understanding of Christian story. Now here’s a place where I think it is possible to critique the National Study of Youth and Religion. People of faith know that religion is not just what you believe. it’s what you desire, it’s who you are, its identity, its aspect. It’s a lot of things; it’s just not what you think. And it’s easy for people to look at the National Study of Youth and Religion and say, oh well if I don’t believe X, Y and Z then they don’t get it. And it’s a lot more complex than that, but having said that, it is true that there is very little recognition of a connection between what the early church would have understood as theological teaching and the identity that people are calling Christian, even in American pulpits. In fact, I talked to American teenagers in the church that I attended after the first release of some of these findings came out. It wasn’t published yet, but I did some focus groups of kids in my congregation, and I just sort of ran by them the principles of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to say what do you think about this? Is this what you come to church for? And one of the kids said, well sure that’s what Dave preaches from the pulpit. Dave would be horrified to think that’s what they heard. But that was in fact the way they interpreted it, because there just were not a lot of help in handing on- translating the faith between what kids hear in church and how it gets interpreted in their own lives.
Mohler: You know some time back the idea of the culture of civility was an issue of a great deal of interests of American historians, how that developed.
Dean: Right, right.
Mohler: And as I was reading your book, it struck me, in fact one of your sections you asked the question that I guess is kind of obvious to adolescence listening to people in church…What’s wrong with being nice?
Mohler: That is what we say. So we tell them in the sandbox and in the crib, and that’s pretty much what we tell them in the 7th and 8th grades as well.
Dean: Yeah, and I want to go on record as saying that I think being nice is a good thing.
Dean: But it’s not the same thing as being a Christian. I think that the bottom line is, Jesus might have been a nice guy, and I kind of assume that he may have lived his life that way, but the fact is compassion and justice and suffering love, that goes way, way beyond being nice. And so what Christians are called to be is much more than the benign kind of safe niceness. That is the way we understand the phrase. And the word nice actually comes from a medieval word which meant “foolishness”. And if you look at it that way then well ok, maybe Christians are nice in the sense that we are fools for Christ. But that’s not the way we use it in common language.
Mohler: Exactly. You site in your book the fact that both George Whitfield and John Wesley preached sermons entitled, the Almost Christian, taken of course from Acts 26:28, “almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” as King Agrippa spoke to Paul. And the title of your book is Almost Christian. Why?
Dean: Well, what happened was as I was going through all of these interviews was that it became clear that this was not a ministry issue, this was a church issue. And the reality is that there aren’t very many problems that the church is dealing with now that we haven’t always had to deal with in some way shape or form. I’m a Methodist, so I am drawn to a Wesleyan way of looking at the world. And Wesley understood “Almost Christian”, and the way (I love his humility) and he himself said, “Look for most of my life, I’m in this category.” And what I am basically going through I am living out what I understand to be the teachings of the church, but I am not really sold out in love to either Jesus or my neighbor. And it’s that dimension of love that was the difference between an Almost Christian and what Wesley called an Altogether Christian. It’s somebody who lives their life in perfect love, at least as perfect as possible this side of the grave. So this was the distinction for him, and I tend to adopt that worldview in terms of my own way of parsing out the church.
Mohler: Well, to be honest having read so much material from the study and both of the volumes that came out by Christian Smith and his associates, I have to tell you that one of the strengths of your book in particular is how you are able to distill some of this research into very pungent, even threatening language for those of us who are church leaders that really should get our attention. For instance you write this:
The predicament described in this book namely that American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity.
You then in define, “But that in fact lacks the holy desire missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship.”
So that’s the predicament, that’s very clearly, candidly stated there.
Dean: Well, and the issue is discipleship, right? It’s not just saying that you’re a Christian, which of course most kids do say. Even in our culture at large there is still enough residual Christian language out there that 75% of the kids in the study self-identified as being Christian. Now, when we talked to them that didn’t mean that they were doing anything about their lives or that they really understood much about it; but that’s the way that they think of themselves. So, there is some residual sense that yeah being a Christian isn’t you know something that I am against being. But living my life as a disciple is something else again. Intentionally saying yeah, I am going to live in a way that tries to follow the path of Jesus. I’m going to follow him into the world. I’m going to try to be with the people that he was with; I’m going to try to live in the same way that he lived. Well, that’s a pretty counter-cultural way to live given our consumer culture that we have right now. So to become a disciple is a completely different thing than self-identifying at a Christian, I think. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re not…see this is where I get in trouble with the media, because I really don’t mean that you’re a fake Christian, I just mean that maybe you are not altogether going as far Christ really calls us to go.
Mohler: Well, this is a safe place to have this conversation.
Mohler: And a safe place to use the language you deploy in your book, and I really do appreciate it quite frankly, because I think most people, most intelligent American Christians know that something’s gone horribly wrong.
Dean: That’s true.
Mohler: And in a few minutes we are going to get to the worst part of all of this, and that is that it is our fault. But let’s hold that thought for just a moment.
Mohler: And look at a couple of the other descriptive things that you deploy here. You cite sociologist Tim Clydesdale, who speaks to the faith of most American adolescents, as what he calls Semi-Religious. And then, I don’t know if you coined the word, but you certainly deserve credit for putting it in here for us, the term Christianish. You’re discovering that the actual Christian experience, or the actual spiritual experience of many of these young people when they think of their Christianity, isn’t Christian, so much as it’s Christianish.
Dean: Yeah, that’s a phrase I actually got from Anne Lamott, but I do think that it’s true that there is kind of a whiff of Christianity about a lot of things that Christians do, but when you really probe it, it gets harder and harder to distinguish between what churches are doing in the name of following Christ and the Triune God; and what churches are doing in the name of good citizenship, or being you know, kind. In the ways that they don’t always – I tell my kids, you need to say who you work for. You know, at some point it matters that, you know, we work for Jesus Christ and we don’t necessarily work for, you know, the Parks and Recreation Committee. Which there is nothing wrong with the Parks and Recreation Committee, but that’s not who employs us as Christian disciples.
Mohler: Very well said. You site in your book early on the fact that this is a problem at multiple levels. You are also very careful to make clear that Christianity is more than a belief system, but it is of course never less than that.
Mohler: And you describe this as a theological problem, and I appreciated that. Spell that out a little bit for us in terms of how this is a theological problem.
Dean: Right, well as you know, I think that there is a tendency for can-do Americans, especially to look at a problem and say, oh wow, well, the problem well – there is a methodology that we need to fix. If we do this better, or if we do this in a different way, then the problem will take care of it self. And I think that is part of our national ethos, that we’re can-do, fix-it people. But the truth of the matter is theologically, there’s a lot going on with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I mean there is a lot going on, we could become really excellent moralistic therapeutic deist and it wouldn’t solve the problem. In fact, it would conceivably make the problem worse.
So theologically, I think it means that, to me theology is an identity issue for Christians, right? We are here you know because we are trying to live out the words of God. And so to be clear about connecting, alright, what is the Word of God, as I understand it? That it is going to inform not only my own personal life, but the life of this community that I’m identifying with as the church and the way I enter the world. And there’s a theological imagination that’s just really impoverished right now among people across Christianity, I think. We often either define ourself either with or against the way media portrays Christians and the media is not so interested in the theological roots of our tradition and so you know we fall right into it. We hear the messages that people say about us, and we start to belief the press releases. And therefore, we live out of those instead of out of the gospel as we have interpreted it, not particular faith community.
Mohler: The concept of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism gives us a handle in order to understand what most of us have perceived is, well, a shallowness in American Christianity. A shallowness that is not just found in this corner or that but if we’re really honest is more pervasive throughout all of American Christianity, and even a good deal of Evangelical Christianity.
I think one of the most important issues we have here is that this gives us a conceptual understanding that makes it even more difficult to understand this reality. It makes us even more responsible to think about what’s behind it and what we can do about it.
Mohler: Identifying the problem as moralistic therapeutic deism is a necessary first step. But taking a step back from that it is also important to ask how this happened. In her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary tells us that that answer is also something that the church really needs to understand. It didn’t start with the adolescence. It starts with parents.
Kenda, how did you come up with this? How did you trace the problem with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism from the teenagers back to their parent?
Dean: Yeah that’s a great question, and I think it really is in the data itself the National Study of Youth and Religion, because what one of the most surprising things of the sociologist of the study was the amazing consistency between the religious beliefs and practices and attitudes that were demonstrated by the teenagers in this study; and how closely they conformed to those that were expressed by their parents. And so what that meant was, whatever the faith that we were hearing from the teenagers was in some ways echoing the faith that was being practiced at home. And so you know I think that there’s a way to say look parents are not all that conscience a lot of the times about the faith that they are handing on to their kid, and Christian communities have to take responsibility too. Because we are also trying to say that look the adults that are surrounding kid’s lives are those who are supposed to be handing on Christian tradition to the next generation and if this is what we are handing on, then we have to take responsibility for that.
Mohler: You know the problem of moralism is written large across Christianity and for that matter Christian history. There are very serious moral claims, moral principles and moral teachings in the Christian faith, but they are not in themselves the gospel.
Mohler: And one of the temptations I think that comes especially to parents with their children and teenagers is to substitute the gospel with moralism. Because moralism is something that seems to get so immediately to what we are concerned about, that is that our children turn out to be well-rounded, decent human beings.
Mohler: But they can be decent human beings, as a matter of fact one of the most reassuring things in this masses study is that the vast majority of these kids want to be decent human beings.
Dean: They do.
Mohler: That’s just not what the church of the Lord Jesus Christ has as its first concern.
Dean: Well, and the way that we understand decency, plays into that. If churches are going to define being a Christian in the same way we understand being a decent, you know human being in your school, or in your government, or whatever. First of all, there’s no reason to go to church, it’s replicating the message that you are getting other places. But it’s also a confusing way to understand what our goals are in terms of human decency. To be a decent citizen may or may not be quite the same thing as being human in the sense of we are created in the image of God and therefore our humanity is that which is in relationship to God. That’s not part of the equation that you get outside of a Christian community.
Mohler: Charles Wesley is my favorite hymn writer and so many of his hymns from your own tradition are so rich in concern for the love of God.
Mohler: And you point out that what’s missing, actually perhaps most importantly theologically in terms of the lives of these young people, these Christianish young people that we desperately want to be Christians, is that they do not understand the love of God for them, and their love of Christ in such a way that it becomes an enduring discipleship.
Dean: Yeah, and I think what’s really sad about that is the way that Christianity gets communicated a lot of times in churches and in families is as the moral belief system that you talk about rather than as, this is someone I love, this is someone, I love this person so much I am going to follow this person around, I’m going to align my life with what this person is interested in. You do that in a human relationship too, but when you take that language and you apply it to Christ, it describes very well what the life of discipleship is. And what I see a lot in churches, I’ve been a pastor in churches where this is true, and I’ve probably fell into it myself, is that we tend to want to surround kids with people who know a lot about Christianity and who you know will be able to answer all of the teenagers questions. That’s the most common thing I hear from parents and from adults who are scared to volunteer. It’s like, what if I don’t know enough. The fact of the matter is kids are not persuaded by people who know a lot or who don’t know a lot, it’s a helpful thing, but what happens is, and what they really want is to know who you love, and why you love this person. What about this Jesus, and what about this Triune God is so compelling that you are willing to give, your willing to give a huge portion of your income every single month to this organization that is trying to live out the gospel, what is that all about? And why do you love something enough that you would be willing to give your life, your money, your family, your vocation to this person? And that’s a very different thing than passing on stuff you know about, you know, about Christianity. And I do think they are related because of the example that comes to my mind that will be familiar with anybody who’s ever had a junior high kid. Kids learn best what they love the most. And they learn it in that order, they fall in love with a band first and then they go and learn everything there is about it. They don’t decide first intellectually, I think I’m going to like this music; therefore I am going to go study this band. It’s the other way around. So to have young people, you know just recognize that there is this deep love for Christ and this love for other people that is what is the animus behind our faith, will in fact lead to a much more informed faith than we currently have.
Mohler: There are several paragraphs that I wish I could just read in total here from your book. But I want to read here near the end of your book where you said a couple of things that I think really bear our close attention here. You say this.
It may be that young people are not the religious relativists we make them out to be. It may be simply that Christianity, or what passes for Christianity as teenagers see us practice it, does not merit a primary commitment. It may be that the only time that young people see churches point to Christ’s exclusive claims is when we raise the flag on Jesus to claim him for ourselves, like Antarctica for the Queen. End quote.
Mohler: That’s a pretty powerful paragraph. First of all just what you say here about, maybe what they see from us and the indictment from your language here is so direct, is that Christianity does not merit a primary commitment.
Dean: Well I guess it is a strong claim, but it is the truth from where I sit, I suppose so, I…
Mohler: I am in agreement with you.
Dean: …that young people are more likely to recognize Christianity as being significant if we don’t treat it like an extracurricular activity. You know, kids are pretty smart. They understand the difference between something that is kind of tacked on at the end of the week and something that organizes your life; and they’re looking for something to organize their around life too. And if you organize your life around, I don’t know, your job or sometimes we even organize our lives around ourselves in terms of families, you know we know the classic example, you don’t go to church because it’s family time.
So we’ve got all these little idols that we hold up as being ultimate, well kids are pretty quick to realize those aren’t so ultimate as it is. So they start looking for something worthy of an ultimate commitment. Usually I think that teenagers tend to translate that into a love relationship with somebody else. And that is very dangerous because of course certainly there’s no teenage relationship that can withstand that kind of pressure. And, I think there is actually no human relationship that can withstand it. I think that that is the province of the divine relationship with us. Is that, the divine relationship with us will stick in ways that human relationships just can’t. So there’s something about us that’s wired to look for that.
Dean: And kids know pretty fast if their parents are treating religion as something that is worthy of organizing their lives around or whether it’s just, oh well yeah that it’s just something else that we do.
Mohler: I’m hoping we can turn sort of a corner here, in terms of asking of what we can do. And you point out several very important things in the research and in your writing. But I want to use as a hinge here the important role parents play, because I think a lot of the assumption out there on the part of Christian leaders and especially Christian parents, is that they have less impact on their teenagers than you demonstrate they have. As a matter of fact…
Dean: Yeah that’s true. Yeah right.
Mohler: It is really clear from your research that parents have an awesome impact upon their teenagers and as a matter of fact you have a formula in your book:, you know: what you are is what you get.
Dean: That’s true.
Mohler: What you are as parents is what your children are likely to be.
Dean: Well, I mean, unless you go through a lot of therapy and try hard not to become like your parents, you do tend to become like them. And it’s not foolproof, but it’s the tendency that human beings have is to become like those who raise them. And so I do think that parents underestimate the importance of their faith in terms of the way their kids receive it. I tell you what, one of the best reasons for volunteering to work with young people in anything, is because they are not your kids you are so much more…you have a long view on other people’s kids that you just don’t have on your own. And so I do think that it’s helpful for us to be able to step back and say, you know just because we are not seeing a lot of fruit from the fact that we are going to church now, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. It’s definitely mattering. And in fact the longitudinal research that Chris Smith has done shows that the most likely reason for somebody’s faith to make the transition from high school into the emerging adult years is the religious devotion of parents while those children are teenagers. And I don’t think that the he obviously looked at the childhood years, those are important too. But the bottom line is most parents are going to say, gosh, I’m going to church, my kids don’t care, their sleeping in or they’re grumpy about going, this obviously is making no difference. And I say, you know what, hold on. God’s got a longer view than you do and your faithfulness makes an enormous difference. But it’s easier to do that with other people’s kids than your own.
Mohler: Well, it’s very interesting that you cite that, and I don’t want to leave it for just a moment, because in the second book in that great project Chris Smith and his associates produced the book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. And that’s when I talked about Chris Smith and when I wrote about that book one of the things that I wanted to accentuate is what he says that after parents, the one thing that corresponded to the more successful transition to a more mature Christianity on the part of these young people was a relationship with a significant adult – not a parent.
Mohler: And that really flagged my attention, because that is something that congregations obviously need to give more attention to, more intentionality to.
Dean: Well absolutely. In addition to that for all of the kids out there whose parents aren’t religious, or whose parents don’t, you know, really invest in their religious formation the investment of Christian community, the adults of Christian community on behalf of young people, it helps fill in the gap. When you talk to Seminarians, because that is what I do because I teach at a seminary, the number of people who are in seminary, I wouldn’t want to give you a percentage, but clearly the majority of them come because of the interest shown by a significant adult and that interest is often not the parent. In fact in some ways you need somebody who’s not the parent to kind of be the reality check. Your parents are supposed to believe in you, right, but if somebody else believes in you, then it really counts.
Mohler: Well, I think that makes perfect sense.
Dean: So yeah, there’s a huge role, huge role. I love, this is just a practical thing that Mark DeVries from Youth Ministry Architects recommends and that is instead of thinking about the leader student ratio, we need to have one leader for every five kids, his formula turns that around and he says you know what we need to surround every kid with five adults. Five adults of faith who will in some way as a teacher, maybe as a piano instructor, as a baseball coach, someway be a reminder to that young person that Yea, I am part of a Christian community. I follow Jesus, and this is what it looks like to be an adult of faith.
Mohler: In the real estate world we have buyer’s remorse. In the publishing world, we have author’s remorse. Every book gets finished before the author wants to let it go.
Dean: I am really glad to hear you say that out loud because that is so true in my heart, but I never knew that was a real thing.
Mohler: Oh, I think that is a real thing, and I just want to ask you what remains on the table you think for future consideration here?
Dean: Well, thank you for asking that because that’s obviously something I have spent a lot of this past year thinking about. There are a couple of things that are in the book, and one thing that is not in the book. The one thing that is in the book that I wish I could have finessed or had the foresight to finesse more – I get hit for being too hard on parents and I really, I am a parent so I really do think parents are trying to do the best they can and we don’t have very good equipment. We don’t have very good theology. We don’t have a lot of support even from our faith communities in raising our kids. So, it is a complex problem that’s shared by the whole community, and I don’t really mean to come down on parents as hard as some people have read that book as being.
Similarly, I mentioned this earlier I think that it’s probably a fair thing to look at dimensions of Christianity that go beyond belief; in terms of what do you want in life, what are your desires, who do you want to follow, as well as what do you believe? I think those are fair critiques that could be teased out. But the other thing that is of interest to me just as a researcher is I don’t think the role of religious experience is really unpacked in these studies and that’s largely because Chris is a sociologist. That’s not where sociologist are really not all that interested.
Dean: But he does note in both the souls, soul searching and souls in transition, that religious experience is an experience of the holy of God which is defined in a pretty narrow way in the study. But it has an unbelievably powerful affect in terms of helping people who wouldn’t normally fit the pattern of having faith – come to faith. And that says to me that you can’t really control from religious experience, and yet churches have a great investment in recognizing that we are part of a holy ministry, and there is something that goes on when Christians gather in worship. And when Christians gather to serve others that is qualitatively different than what we experience in other parts of our lives. And that is worth exploring more. There’s a lot more mystery to this than we give credit. And that mystery seems to be pretty darn powerful in helping young people; you know ascertain Christ’s call in their lives.
Mohler: One thing that becomes very clear, both in this book and in this conversation and that is that Professor Kenda Creasy Dean loves young people. And she is of course a parent, and I can just imagine Kenda that your classroom has to be a very exciting place to be. And I want to thank you so much for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
Dean: Well, thank you so much for having me and blessings on the school year.
Mohler: Thank you so much.
One of the most important contributions a book can make is to reshape the discussion. I think that’s exactly what Kenda Creasy Dean has done in her book Almost Christian. We’re talking about the faith of American adolescence, and the theological responsibility of the Christian church in different terms than had we not read this book and encountered this massive study of young people and their spirituality. We now know a great deal looking backwards, where they get these understandings – from their parents and where we go from here. Which is the creation of authentic Christian congregations that take these issues seriously and make certain that what their young people are getting from the church, as well as from their parents can’t be reduced to just Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Several years ago I was speaking to a group of evangelical youth ministers and well, I offended them. I didn’t intend to but nonetheless they felt offended that what most American evangelical young people tell us their getting from the experience they had in church programming in their adolescence is basically a two point message. Number one, love Jesus and number two, don’t have sex until you’re married. Now both of those things are really important, but they’re important within the context of the totality of Christian truth. They’re mostly important within the context of the Christian gospel; and within a life discipleship in following Christ to the glory of God. This is what’s missing from the horizon of so many American teenagers, and in particular the teenagers, adolescence and young adults that populate so many of our evangelical churches. But as this study has made very, very clear, it’s not enough just to look at the data coming from the survey and realize that we really do have a theological crisis when it comes to America’s Christian young people. We also have a crisis when it comes to their parents and to the congregations of which they are a part, and that problem starts as a theological problem. There’s great gain in this, as we’ve said that category, this conceptual tool of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is really, really helpful. And one of the things that we as Christians need to understand is that American culture has created a context in which that’s the natural kind of conception of Christianity that the culture would allow and foster and encourage coming from our churches. In other words, the culture at large is not threatened by the message of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. If anything, if we’re looking for the secular culture to think that the church is presenting a positive message, and we were going to try to conform it to the contemporary expectations of post-modern American society, we couldn’t come up with anything better than this. The Moralistic Therapeutic Deism did not emerge from a Christian consultation in which church leaders got together and said how can we minimize the faith down to something that will not offend the secular culture.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism came about because there is a certain temptation which appears very clearly when we look at the church in historical prospective. And that is the temptation to abandon the gospel for moralism. This is something that is sometimes difficult to talk about. It’s difficult to talk about with youth ministers, many of whom are hard pressed, trying to do a very good job. It’s hard to talk about with parents who after all understand a good deal of their parenting, not only from the church but from well, their parents.
But the reality is that moralism is a danger that’s very close at hand. Now let’s be careful with our terms here. Moralism is not a problem because it holds up moral expectations, that’s not the problem. The problem is that moralism is a false gospel that tells children, adolescences, and for that matter, adults of any age that what God wants of me first and foremost is that you behave. That is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ does come with moral commands and moral expectations, a life of discipleship and following Christ. But the way into the gospel is not by behaving, but by recognizing that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That we are in desperate need of what we can not do, which is behave. We must indeed recognize that all of our righteousness and deeds comes up so infinitely short of God’s righteousness, that the only righteousness that can save us is one that comes from another. That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. God did for us in Christ what we are unable to do for ourselves. Moralism is nonetheless a very tempting substitute gospel. Because, well first of all there’s the urgency of parenting, one of the first things that parents want of their children is that they behave. We discipline them when they misbehave. We reward them and encourage them when they do behave, and they quickly understand that the way to earn our pleasure, our favor is by behaving. Of course the reality is that we love them even when they misbehave. We love them before they existed, and that’s just a model in a very finite form of how it is that God is with His human creatures. He loves us in spite of our disobedience. He doesn’t love our sin, but he loves us in spite of our sin. And He loves us enough that he indeed glorifies Himself by saving sinners. He does so of course by the gospel of Jesus Christ. You can’t reduce any of this to behave and furthermore when you look at Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the bent of the American culture is also very close at hand from the church; very tempting for us to substitute theological categories with these therapeutic categories. To tell people what’s wrong with them is not the problem of sin as the Bible describes it, might well be something that is described as a syndrome, or some kind of complex, some kind of therapeutic problem that can be answered with a therapeutic answer. These young people are getting the message. They hear the moralistic message loudly and clearly. The hear the therapeutic message just about as clearly and when it comes to Deism, well that’s the indictment of just how little theology is actually being communicated to young people. What is really frightening in this, of course and indeed haunting to us is that the reason so many young people know so little about Christianity is not only because they are not taught but because those who could teach them know so little about authentic, biblical Christianity.
So what’s the way out of this? Well let’s first of all consider the good news. It’s good news in the volumes of Christian Smith as he looks at the meta-project of this giant study and survey. It’s good news in the work of Kenda Creasy Dean and her book Almost Christian, and that is that parents are the most determinative influence on their children. That’s good news! It’s good news that by the way the Scriptures tell us to expect. What you are is what you get; I love that formula in the book Almost Christian. That’s a word that parents really need to hear, what we are, is what our children are going to get, in terms of the understanding of the faith of the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the life of discipleship. But the good news is also that parents in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ are not and should not be alone. The congregation of Christians, the local body of Christ should be a Christian fellowship, a community of faith under the mutual lordship of Jesus Christ that encourages every single part of that church including the children and teenagers of that church to follow Christ in faithfulness. Of course that is first of all a gospel message. We desperately want children and young people, teenagers and young adults to come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and then to follow Him as faithful disciples. There are some congregational gifts to that. It turns out that these gifts are absolutely essential. As I mentioned, Christian Smith in his research said that when he talked to young adults one of the things that came most clearly in focus was that fact that those who made the successful transition in terms of Christian discipleship from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, or emerging adulthood as he calls it, is the fact that they had first of all parents who had such an influence on them and then, very significantly, some other adult or adults in the congregation that invested in them, taught them, believed in them and modeled discipleship for them; faith and conviction for them. Now that’s where churches really need to take a lot of attention here and recognize that we can’t just franchise out youth ministry. And youth pastors will be the very first to tell us that. You can’t just make it a department of the church. You can’t just make it a program or a division. In fact I love what Kenda Creasy Dean says when she points out that what churches want to do in facing a crisis is come up with bigger and better programs. But as she said, just doing better at communicating Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is hardly the answer.
Authentic, biblical Christianity authentic biblical congregations, that’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we hope for and now we know why the stakes are even higher than we may have thought. Lacking those congregations, lacking authenticity, lacking a clear focus on the gospel, lacking a clear theological vision for first of all this is a theological problem. Minimizing conviction, confusing the message, all of this leads to the kind of confusion that is in the indictment of this book. The fact that many young people are basically becoming not Christians, but Christianish. They’re not repelled by the gospel as much as their, you know, unknowledgeable of the gospel. It’s also a matter that comes down to the title of this book Almost Christian. Let’s be really honest, we do not have as our assignment, we do not have on our hearts as a burning concern the tremendous desire and vision that the young people in our churches will become almost Christian. We desperately want them to become faithful believers, followers, disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hopefully this conversation will help us think some very, very important, healthy and necessary thoughts to get us further along the road to making that happen.
Thanks again to my guest Kenda Creasy Dean for joining me today.
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Before signing off I want to invite you to join me for an exciting conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary, November 4through 5. Re:Invent, a youth and family ministry conference will equip you to become more effective in leading transformational youth and family ministries in the local church. For more information visit sbts.edu.
Thanks for joining me today for Thinking in Public. Until next time: Keep Thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.