Over ten years ago, the National Study of Youth and Religion launched a landmark study under the oversight and direction of sociology professor Christian Smith to examine the shape and texture of the spiritual lives of American teenagers. The first phase of the project collected data from over 3,000 teenagers through interviews and surveys spanning from 2001 to 2005. The findings of this study were published in 2005 by Smith in a work co-authored with Melinda Lundquist Denton entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. The results revealed that the faith held by most of the adolescents interviewed resolved itself into something that Smith and his team styled, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).
Smith and Denton define MTD in the following way. The “moralistic” aspect “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful” (p. 163). The “therapeutic” aspect is “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, 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, etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace” (p. 163-164). Finally, the “deism” aspect “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” (p. 164).
Smith and Denton believe that this new “faith” of American teenagers can be codified into a creed of sorts: “(1) A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. (2) God wants people to be good, 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” (p. 162-163). The practical outworking of such a God is unsurprising. As Smith and Denton describe, “This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. 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” (p. 165).
Two basic questions press themselves upon us when confronted with this information: (1) Where did this brand of diluted, fanciful, spiritually disjointed faith come from? (2) How does this faith play out in the future for those who hold it? For the first question, the answer revealed in the findings of the NSYR project is so obvious as to almost be clichéd. Smith and Denton report: “One of the key themes of this book is that parents are normally very important in shaping the religious and spiritual lives of their teenage children, even though they may not realize it…Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents” (p. 56). Smith and Denton conclude: “In sum, therefore, we think that the best general rule of thumb that parents might use to reckon their children’s most likely religious outcomes is this: “We’ll get what we are.” By normal processes of socialization…most parents most likely will end up getting religiously of their children what they themselves are” (p. 57). Again, they note: “The majority of U.S teenagers tend to be quite like their parents when it comes to religion” (p. 68).
However, Smith and Denton do not place all of the blame at the feet of the parents. They are also convinced by the data that the education programs of most churches across America are woefully deficient. They write: “It appears to us, in other words, that parents, pastors, ministers, religious educators, and congregational leaders concerned with youth largely need simply to better engage and challenge the youth already at their disposal, to work better to help make faith a more active and important part of their lives” (emphasis in original, p. 266). This means that in addition to parents, Bible school teachers, youth ministers, and preachers need to work towards the expansion of the theological acumen of their local youth. The general practice of public education is based upon the idea that greater and greater complexity should be built upon the foundational knowledge given earlier in life. Religious education within the local church should be approached no differently. Instead of leaving “the elementary doctrine of Christ” and going “on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1, ESV), many congregations have adopted the motto “keep it simple,” which translates into an educational program that hovers over the “elementary” doctrines and never pushes itself towards the “deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10, KJV).
The second question is answered by Smith’s follow-up work to his 2005 publication entitled Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults published in 2009. This volume re-visited most of the teenagers who were interviewed and surveyed in the first phase of the NSYR project in order to understand the trajectory of the faith formulated in the early to mid-teen years. Co-authored with Patricia Snell, they write about the faith of the teenagers surveyed for Soul Searching as these adolescents emerged into full-blown adulthood: “Many emerging adults continue religiously much as they were as teenagers. Many others become either some or a lot less religious. And a small group becomes more religious” (p. 212). Again, they report, “At least across this ﬁve-year time span [ages 18-23], the forces of religious continuity are stronger than the forces of change. Most youth tend as emerging adults to remain generally the kind of religious people they were as teenagers” (p. 224). Thus, those teenagers leaving their teen years with an MTD faith enter into adulthood with a similar faith. The problem does not go away. It almost always remains.
The implications of Smith’s helpful research are not promising. First, the reality of MTD faith amongst American teenagers ten years ago means that many adults currently in the church today hold to a MTD faith! Granted, Smith’s research was conducted amongst a broad cross-section of religious backgrounds, of which churches of Christ were a small percentage. However, it is reasonable to conclude that MTD has affected our teenagers just as much as it has teenagers from other religious backgrounds. This further implies that those who hold to MTD tendencies may quite possibly plague the future leadership of the church, if it is not already doing so. As such, weak elderships, unmotivated deacons, ill-equipped teachers, and abysmal preaching may see an increase if not properly resisted. Prevention in reference to twenty-somethings and older is too late. MTD has already happened.
What, then, is to be done about this emerging and subversive colonization of faith? Our approach must be three-pronged, consisting of prevention, suspension, and reversal. There must be prevention aimed at the current generation of upcoming teenagers. There must be a suspension of current MTD thought already ingrained in the faith of twenty-somethings and older, and a program of reversal should be enacted.
In order to prevent MTD from creeping into the developing faith of our youth, Bible class and youth programs must be critically examined and, in some cases, re-evaluated. Teens must be helped by their teachers to think carefully and thoroughly about their faith and about the more intricate details of scripture, worship, and general Christian practice. But not only must this be done in the pulpits, classrooms, and Sunday Schools. It must be a guiding principle for youth ministry. Admittedly, youth ministers are under immense pressure from parents and elders to keep the youth active and engaged in church life. However, the all-too-common strategy for this is weak and ineffectual, largely revolving around the cultural mandate to entertain and “keep things fun.” Chanon Ross, in his 2005 article for The Christian Century entitled, “Jesus isn’t Cool,” rightly describes this strategy as involving, “…frontloading youth programming with fun activities, hoping to sneak in a little Bible teaching at the end. The point is not to do anything too weighty that would turn kids off. Keep it light; keep it fun” (p. 22). It is precisely this strategy that has contributed to the MTD mindset. Church leaders and teachers must recognize that teenagers do not require a crucified and risen Lord in order to have positive moral values, family-friendly alternatives to the vulgarity of television and movies, tolerance for others, or a healthy self-esteem. Once teens realize this, they no longer understand the difference that faith can and should make. After all, these qualities and values are available in a variety of contexts in the secular world. Accordingly, the religion of Jesus, as conveyed through the conduit of “light” and “fun” youth ministries, is apprehended as an easy believism at best or as totally irrelevant for daily life at worst.
So, then, it behooves Christian educators (teachers, youth ministers, and preachers, alike) to take their students deeper into the theological truths of God’s word. Moralizing and pragmatic lessons on “Courage in the Life of David” or “How To Be a Christian Friend” simply will not suffice. Youth must be shown the details of God’s redemptive story, why those details matter, and how those details speak to the issues of life that they will encounter. As Ross says, “In the Christian story, we discover a fiercely loyal God who creates, loves, lives, dies, lives again, and calls teens into the passionate grace of the baptized life” (p. 23). As the title of Ross’ article indicates, this God is not “cool.” He makes demands on our lives, the details of which are far from easy to live out. However, these details are the difference. They emphasize that God is not a personal butler or a reassuring therapist. He is a Redeemer King who is making all things new in and through his people (Revelation 21:5).
Throughout this enterprise, a thinking climate must be nurtured that encourages the asking of “hard” questions. It is only when faith is keenly reflected upon, even challenged, that the deep internal connections are made that make faith meaningful and applicable to life. In a 2009 article for the Christian Education Journal entitled, “We Get Who We Are: Cultural Adult Faith Produces Cultural Adolescent Faith,” Rebecca Peters of Concordia University notes, “The intellect and the affect are stirred through active engagement. Youth and adults need to be encouraged to think for themselves and ask questions beyond lower level thinking of recall and comprehension” (p. 382). This means that drills and competitions cut off from deeper elucidation of the truths being learned are inadequate for inculcating a robust faith in our teenagers. As Peters suggests, “It is essential to pass on God’s story of free salvation in Jesus Christ; yet, if believers, whether children, youth, or adults, are only taught correct answers, they are done a disservice” (p. 381). Bible teachers at the teenage level and above must jettison their fears of instructing in the more profound truths of scripture out of worry that such will be too difficult for their students to comprehend. The duty of every teacher, spiritual or otherwise, is to push and challenge the boundaries of their students’ current knowledge base. This is the only way that comprehension deepens and application becomes more apparent and widespread.
Further, and unsurprisingly, a critical aspect of instilling genuine and worthwhile faith in the hearts of church youth is to be surrounded by a community of believing adults who live as true disciples of Jesus. As Ross records from his experience in youth ministries, “Seeing these details [of the Christian story] alive in the lives of other baptized people ignites youthful passion in teens more than any youth event or personal sense of purpose ever could” (p. 23). He goes on to add: “Teens respond to the message that their faith offers an alternative to the world. But this realization requires a community of adults who embody this difference. Where are the adults and trained ministers capable of leading youth and their parents into the particular story of God’s work in the world?” (p. 25). Our young people will not buy what their adult teachers or parents are “selling” if it is obvious to them that they have not “bought it,” either. Accordingly, we cannot expect our youth to be swept up in lives of discipleship if it is evident that their adult leaders and role models are not engaged in the discipled life themselves.
Ironically, the path to suspension and reversal of MTD faith is very similar to the method of prevention. A thinking environment that encourages questions without seeking to gloss over the perplexities and diverse experiences of human life should be nurtured in local congregations. Canned answers must be replaced with responses predicated upon deeper exploration of God’s word combined with prayerful reflection. In correlation with this, the truths arising from Biblical study should be connected with the fluid happenings of daily life. Failure to make faith relevant to life only fuels the exploits of the “spiritual tinkerers” who desperately cling to whatever works to “get along” or “get ahead.” As Peters observes, “Too many people leave the church because they cannot see the connection between faith and life. Not only must we help growing Christians make the connection, we do so by allowing them to question, experience, and practice their faith. When we consider the ministry of Jesus, we see that he did exactly that” (p. 382). Young and middle-aged adults must be encouraged to bring their lives into dialogue with the richness of God’s revelation in order to feed and transform their faith through their relationship with the True and Living God. Only then can we hope to divorce such persons from their colonized MTD faith and wed them to an authentic, transformative relationship with the God who calls his people to present themselves as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1).
Irrespective of the strategy chosen by each congregation, due importance must be assigned to these matters. Within them lie crucial features that speak to the future trajectory of churches of Christ in America.