by Steve Watters
When I worked at Focus on the Family, I remember sitting in a meeting where the visiting leader of a ministry to young adults shared a shocking statistic. He claimed that 65% of Christian kids leave their faith as they become young adults.
Having watched my twin brother become a prodigal after we grew up as preacher’s kids and then watching others drift away after our paths crossed at a Christian college, I knew such departure was possible within fairly strong Christian homes. I remember thinking at the time, however, that the stat seemed exaggerated. That thought came back later when I was in another setting at Focus on the Family where Christian Smith, a Notre Dame professor and Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, discussed his findings.
In his presentation, Smith explained that many of the popular stats about youth and faith are simply bad research. In what has been the largest, most comprehensive study of American teenage religion and spirituality, he found that 81 percent of Protestant parents see their children retain their faith. In fact, he added that non-religious parents should be the ones worried about their children since only 63% of them manage to keep their children non-religious.
It turns out that kids are predisposed to follow what they get from us as parents—that they watch what we say and do and tend to adopt what they observe as their own. But then the more pressing question becomes, “what are they getting from us?” The bad news is that what children are increasingly getting from their parents is often called Christianity, but isn’t saving faith in Christ.
While the majority of the teens Smith studied followed their parents in claiming belief in God and found faith to be important in their lives, the belief American teens expressed in the study was quite different from biblical Christian faith.
“W]e have come with some confidence to believe,” Smith writes in the book Soul Searching, “that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
You’ve likely heard this term before, but, it’s important to understand the tenants of this faith.
By moralistic, this belief system implies that if you’re a good, moral person then God will give you a good and happy life. To that end, it encourages adherents to be nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of their health, and doing their best.
This segues into the concept of a therapeutic focus, because in this worldview, “The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.” Your primary purpose is your self, and faith is simply the means for fulfilling your needs. Smith says:
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 … Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace.” (“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.)
Finally in the context of deism, it’s 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. Smith describes this god as a “cosmic butler” or “divine therapist” on call to help while being non-judgmental and mostly keeping a safe distance away.
I was convicted when I first read this description of moralistic, therapeutic deism (MTD). I’m one of those people who has a hard time pointing to a specific date of becoming a Christian because of my experience growing up steeped in a world of church and family faith. I was humbled to recognize, however, that for all the time I spent growing up in a Christian home, paying for Christian education and then working for Christian ministries, the parasite of MTD had influenced my faith.
I recognized that I had a moralistic bent. More than I would have admitted, I was driven to live a good moral life so that God would make things go well for me. I was also convicted to realize that too often I had looked to Christianity and the Bible in terms of what was in it for me and the ways it could make my life better. And while I wouldn’t characterize my view of God as deistic, I hadn’t been viewing God as sovereign over all and as the rightful judge over every aspect of life. I bring this up to say that until a few years ago, I was on course to pass along a faith to my children that may have guided their behavior and helped them to be good citizens, but in fact wasn’t the Gospel.
Christian Smith is continuing to track the teens from his study throughout their twenties and he’s found that the parasitic version of Christianity is failing its followers. He says that moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t answer life’s questions and doesn’t give power or wisdom for life’s challenges. More importantly, it doesn’t prepare adherents for the final day of judgment we will all face (Revelation 20:11-15).
For that reason, we have to be vigilant to live by and instruct from nothing less than the Gospel. My wife and I know that the salvation of our 4 children (currently ranging in age from 5 to 14) will require a work of the Spirit and that we can’t make them come to faith. But we also know that God works through means and that our obedience in raising our children in the fear and instruction of the Lord (even though it will be imperfect) is a significant means He uses. We aren’t fearful about haunting statistics, but instead we pray the Spirit will help us to be faithful every day.
We pray that in the midst of a deistic cultural Christianity, we can teach about the true and loving God who is over everything, who is powerful and active and who will hold us all to account. And while we hold up a biblical standard for what is right and wrong, we pray we won’t be moralizing and imply that when we do right, God owes us something. Instead, we pray we can continually show how our failure to obey completely points to our need for a savior. And even though the Christian walk may result in many blessings, we pray we can point our kids beyond themselves to the wonder and majesty of God and a life focused on glorifying and enjoying Him forever.
So what does it look like day to day–to lead children in the Gospel instead of cultural Christianity? That’s the point of this blog channel. We hope you’ll keep reading.
Steve Watters is vice president for communications at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is also working on an M.A. in family discipleship.
Before starting at Southern Seminary, Steve served as director of marriage and young adults at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. Steve initially started at Focus as a policy analyst after earning an M.A. in public policy from Regent University. In 1998, Steve and his wife, Candice, founded Boundless.org webzine for Focus.
Steve and Candice are co-authors of the book Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. Steve and Candice have four kids ranging in ages from 5 to 14. They speak, write and feed the blog FamilyMaking.com as they’re able.
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