In Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press,2010), Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary analyzed data from a study of over 3300 teens to determine that three out of four teens who identified as Christians were in fact “moralistic therapeutic deists.” Almost wholly unable to articulate the teachings and tenets of the faith, they at best conceived of God as no more than a benevolent grandfather in the sky, mildly hopeful that they will make good choices, but always willing to sympathize if they fall short. For this god is far more concerned with their happiness than their holiness. The gospel of repentance and redemption has been replaced with a gospel of non-judgmental niceness.
While Dean’s study focused on millennials, I would suspect that her findings do not reflect anything especially new in American Christianity. After all, Jonathan Edwards wrote On Religious Affections in 1746 to challenge those who associated Christianity merely with false emotional experiences rather than true emotions which informed holy actions. Speaking anecdotally, Dean’s assessment certainly seemed true for myself and my peers, a generation ahead of the teenagers she was studying. Even those of us growing up in evangelical households or exposed to student ministries, even those who learned “the Romans Road”, often found it very easy, particularly once we got to college, to slip into this same gospel of niceness. A quick scan of my Facebook feed of high-school friends who were regulars in evangelical youth groups in the late 1990s brings this home clearly. Populated by quotes like “Don’t try to become anything new, but rather uncover the real you,” there’s a clear lack of a robust theological understanding of justification and sanctification. Conversations with certain older parishioners at my church also prove the point. The church is both a social club and an etiquette enforcer, not much more.
The problem for all these people is that a gospel of niceness provides little support for the true terror and tragedy of life. It doesn’t stand up to death, loss, failure and the reality of other people’s sinfulness and our own. In the case of millennials, this failure of the gospel of niceness to deal with the reality of life does not usually drive them to a deeper faith or commitment but inoculates them against anything the church might teach, as they identify their beliefs with Christian doctrine. In their minds, Christianity has been tried, tested, and found wanting. However, older generations, and even my own, have to some degree stayed in the church. What has changed for Dean’s teenagers then?
It seems to be this: for Generation Xers of a certain education level, at least those living in the more conservative parts of the country, the church still offers social security, social connection, and even social prestige. However, with each passing generation, this social currency ebbs. So the teenagers Dean studies have no incentive to return and give Christianity another try, a truth which is apparent, at least in the Episcopal Church, in dwindling parishes across the country.
The solution cannot be either a reiteration of the gospel of niceness or a quest to become relevant in a society which is uninterested. Rather, Dean’s study suggests at least one alternative. The parents whose children are most likely to be able to articulate and understand their own faith are parents whose children have seen them make some type of radical life-style decisions which are directly tied to their faith convictions. While teens might roll their eyes and complain about their parents being “weird,” it is the parents who make the radical choices that run counter to the culture, but along with the teaching of Christ, whose children stay involved in the church.
I’ve thought of Dean’s work as I followed the on-line kerfuffle following Ann Coulter’s condemnation of the American health workers working for Samaritan’s purse a few weeks ago: “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded to ‘Idiotic’.” In Coulter’s condemnation of these Christians’ choices to risk their lives, I heard the echoes of moralistic therapeutic deism, which has infected the church for some time but is only now bearing its inevitable fruit. I’ve also thought of it as I followed the media coverage surrounding Pope Francis. While secular journalists often seem to misunderstand his theological statements, they are fascinated by his commitment to a Christianity which involves genuine commitment and radical sacrifice. But where does this leave me? Jesus doesn’t seem to call me to leave my academic studies to go to Africa. My husband and I have not yet been blessed by children to model radical commitment to the gospel. I realize, however, that I am surrounded by Christians living out this radical commitment in different and unique ways.
An elderly widow in my parish lived modestly her entire life in order to make an almost six figure endowment earmarked for mission and outreach to the parish. Although others have told her she is wasting her money giving to a church in a town with a declining population and no interest in church-going, she gave…and the church continues on.
A colleague in my program takes time away from her theological studies to volunteer every Friday with adults with cognitive disabilities. These are the people that other academics (like Richard Dawkins) argue should never have been permitted to be born, but she goes…and begins to write of a new way that the people she serves bless the church and her.
Then there are my former InterVarsity Christian fellowship co-workers who are committed to living out a winsome witness in campus ministry even on campuses where the administration has made it clear that Christians who subscribe to traditional doctrine are no longer welcome. It hasn’t been easy to have doors slammed in their face, their claims ridiculed, and their integrity questioned…but they go, and whole campuses begin to catch on fire for the gospel.
When I look at these actions, I see a church no longer dying. I see the fruit of the gospel. I see that, even out of the stones, God can raise up children for Abraham.