The God that American Teenagers Worship

Ray Van Neste:

Christian Smith has written a brief article condensing his research on the religious beliefs of American teenagers. It is well worth reading. He argues that the functional religious of American youth (which as he says they learned from the adults around them) is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This is the functional religion even though many identify themselves as Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, or Muslim. His assessment squares well with what I see going on around me.

The three terms in his description are important. This functional religion is “moralistic” because it centers not on redemption or being made right with God but on being a good person- as defined by ourselves. It is “therapeutic” because it centers on feeling good about yourself. It is “deism” because the God in view is removed, not calling us to account. (emphasis mine) As Smith points out this “religion” is not unique to younger people. They are simply reflecting what has been encouraged in our culture for some time.

Here are a few quotes:

“ ‘God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad’ . .
. . ‘God’s all around you, all the time. He believes in forgiving people and whatnot, and he’s there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn’t talk back.’ This last statement is perhaps doubly telling. . . .[God] also does not offer any challenging comebacks to or arguments about our requests.” 50 (page 4 of the online .pdf)

“Thus, one sixteen-year-old white mainline Protestant boy from Texas complained with some sarcasm in his interview that, ‘Well, God is almighty, I guess [yawns]. But I think he’s on vacation right now because of all the crap that’s happening in the world, cause it wasn’t like this back when he was famous.’” 50 (page 4 of the online .pdf)

“Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.” 51(page 5 of the online .pdf)

“In short, our teen interview transcripts reveal clearly that the language that dominates U.S. adolescent interests and thinking about life—including religious and spiritual life—is primarily about personally feeling good and being happy.”
53 (page 7 of the online .pdf)

“. . . we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of ‘Christianity’ in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” 56 (page 10 of the online .pdf)

Original Source: “Summary Interpretation: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” from Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, copyright © 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

My response? Those, who work especially with youth, understand that their view of God most likely has been transmitted down by their parents. So, it is not an easy task to fill what is lacking, but Christ is sufficient for these things:
1. Labor to show the ugliness of our sin nature from the view of a Holy God in Scripture. Sin is not those bad things I happen to do
occasionally. Sin is who I am. Beeline to Jesus as the source of deliverance from yourself.
2. Labor to show the end of all eternal things is being glad in God. Give them a thirst for Christian hedonism.
3. Labor to show them the character of the God we serve. Give them a passion for the majesty of God. Show them how their lives are overseen by the One with Whom we have to do.

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