Read Part 1.
National Study of Youth & Religion
The bad news does not end with LifeWay’s latest survey. Considered the most comprehensive study on the religious views of teenagers ever conducted, a four year effort led by Christian Smith called the National Study of Youth and Religion in 2005 determined that the majority of American teens believe in God and worship in conventional congregations, but their religious knowledge is remarkably shallow, and they have a tough time expressing the difference that faith makes in their lives.
Though the phone survey depicted broad affinity with religion, the face-to-face interviews found that many teens’ religious knowledge was “meager, nebulous and often fallacious” and engagement with the substance of their traditions remarkably shallow. Most seemed hard put to express coherently their beliefs and what difference they make.
Many were so detached from the traditions of their faith, says the report, that they’re virtually following a different creed in which an undemanding God exists mostly to solve problems and make people feel good. Truth in any absolute, theological sense, takes a back seat.
“God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist” who’s on call as needed.1
It should be observed that this survey is 12 years old and these teens are now grown up and have apparently carried over their view of God and truth into adulthood, as the LifeWay survey indicates. Indeed there is some evidence that as a result of this understanding of God and Scripture the majority of the evangelical church has now become infected with a social disease. The disease is popularly called MTD, or Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. A generation which has been trained by its elders (intentionally or by neglect) to believe in “an undemanding God” who “exists mostly to solve problems and make people feel good,” can be excused for confusing biblical Christianity with a sickly, unhealthy mimic. After all, moralism can appear at first to be godly living, therapeutic psychobabble can have similarities to biblical principles for sanctification, and deism fits well into a worldview that finds God unnecessary except during times of emergency.
When one is infected with MTD the knowledge of truth (if it exists at all) is superfluous and unwanted baggage. The study of Scripture or theology has no real relevance to those who have reduced their religion to how to solve problems and feel good. If one subscribes to “pan-theology”–it will all pan out in the end—then why sweat the details? Does it really matter that Jesus was born of a virgin or that He has always existed in contrast to being the first thing created by God? Does it matter if Jesus Christ died as our substitute or was bodily resurrected?
Essential doctrines such as these are mattering less and less among those claiming evangelical faith. As an example, it is interesting to examine church websites and search for a statement of faith. What is commonly found on most church websites yields either minimal results or none at all. I was recently reading an article in Christianity Today which was highlighting some fast growing churches. One in our area was featured so I took a look at their website. What I found about their published beliefs is representative:
Having witnessed first-hand the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our own lives, the community at … strives to create an environment where the “un-churched” as well as the “de-churched” will feel unconditional acceptance. We gather weekly to share stories of courage and sacrifice; stories that have the power to change our lives and the lives of others. We value the power and authority of the living Word of God and the life changing effects it has. Therefore, our community has been founded on the principles discovered within the Bible.
Life changing effects are mentioned, as are “principles discovered within the Bible” but there are no details as to what these effects and principles might be. The emphasis is on an environment in which everyone, especially the un-churched (read unsaved) and de-churched (whoever they are) get to share their stories and are comfortable.
From these statements one would expect in attending this church to have a good time, be accepted, be instructed in some general principles for living and go home relatively happy. Few will notice that this philosophy of church life is virtually the definition of MTD and does not represent the New Testament view of the Christian faith.
It is almost certain that the leadership of this church, and others like them, intend no harm to the body of Christ. Their philosophy of ministry appears to be working, numbers are growing, enthusiasm is high, and all seems well. But appearances are often deceiving.
If we use the mirror of the Word of God, rather than the mirror of culture, we discover that the church was designed by God for the believer as a place of worship, ministry, instruction and fellowship (Acts 2:42). It was not designed for the un-churched or de-churched. The church in the New Testament is not a place where those who do not know Christ and thus are under the wrath of God (Rom 1:18) are comfortable. The church is not the place where people are given a few principles found in the Bible, but a place where the Word of God is seriously preached and taught passionately (2 Tim 3:16-4:5).
Churches which are being organized to please the culture instead of God are steadily growing spiritually sick. However, because they are growing numerically, offer enthusiastic worship services and outreach opportunities, and have perfected the art of meeting felt-needs, the symptoms of MTD are being ignored.
(Coming soon: Part 3, biblical illiteracy and biblical inerrancy)
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute and MBS and ThD degrees from Cambridge Graduate School. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.