Soul Searching

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, sociologists Christopher Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton shed a lot of light on the state of American teens. On the way there they coin a phrase, moralistic therapeutic deism to describe the popular religion of American teens.

For the most part, this well documented, no, this excellently documented book is a mix of good news and not so good news, The good news is that most American teens are not to be stereotyped as rebellious and disinterested in religion, especially the religion of their parents. Smith and Denton urge parents and ministry workers not to stereotype teens but rather to engage them. According to the authors, teens have more of a “whatever” attitude and are not really spiritual seekers, nor are they looking to run from church, at least not between the ages of 13 ad 17. That is good news. On the other hand, only 2% of American teens are highly devoted to their religion, whether it be Hindu, Christianity, or Mormonism. The real bad news to come . . . I mean, not so good news.
Smith and Denton traveled the country and interviewed teens from every walk of life and religious background. The book may be standard reading from years to come. However, the bad news is the religion American teens believe is this moralistic therapeutic deism. The authors confess that “no teenager would actually use the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (MTD) That is the authors’ term. It’s important to note that most teens from a diverse assortment of groups, ethnic and religious, employ these beliefs. Smith and Denton mention they could have filled another chapter with quotes from interviews exploring the nuances and variants of MTD.
MTD can be outlined as follows:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and other world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

This set of beliefs is about employing a “moralistic” approach to life. If a person want to be happy and live a good life then you must be a good moral person. This is summed up as being nice, pleasant, kind, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful. Of course, the teens interviewed would not say they’re living up to these ideals; these are ideals, not practices.
On the surface this doesn’t sound so bad, except it leaves Jesus out. Actually, it leaves quite a lot out. It’s not enough to be moral, in fact, it can be misleading. God isn’t looking for good behavior; he’s looking for repentance and faith. Repentance from sin and faith in His provision in Jesus Christ.

What is missing in MTD is the acknowledgment of sin, not just sins. Our culture spends millions, maybe billions on telling people they’re not that bad, but really good at the core. Self-help is an attempt to make oneself better, not change the essence of the person, that is turn a sinner into a saint. With the advent of moral relativism and religious pluralism one can see how we’re seduced into believing that people are generally good and we can learn to be better through education and social policies. The wrath of God on those who don’t believe isn’t even on the radar screen.
Although this study is for American teens, it applies to the country in general. This is America’s religion. Michael Horton, author of Christless Christianity:The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, sees this as the systemic problem of American Christianity. Horton’s book gets more theologically involved in citing the Augustinian-pelagian arguments. American Christians are really “semi-pelagian” according to Horton. That is, we help God in our salvation instead of recognizing God is the one who saves only by His grace.

MTD, America’s religion does pose some problems. This view is so wide spread and so adaptable, you find it everywhere. Its ubiquitous nature is prevalent on TV, in music lyrics, and at the movie theatre. These are the three top three sources of influence on our culture.

Moral relativism, religious pluralism, New Age Religion, and simply, the human condition has paved the way for this religious quagmire. Worldview teachings, basic apologetics offer some help in slowing the tide. However, what is desperately needed is a revelation from God on mankind’s real condition – sin. However, there are some tactics Smith and Denton prescribe in the “not so scientific postscript.”
In Soul Searching, the authors prescribe answers for teens since it is a “report” about teens, but adults would do well to employ these themselves. Other than engaging teens rather than condemning them, Smith and Denton offer this advice.
1. The best way to get youth involved if for their parents to be more involved.

2. Don’t be shy about teaching youth.

3. Teen teachers, youth workers need to work harder at articulation

4. Bring faith issues out of the background by challenging teens’ conventional understanding of their religious convictions

5. The communities of faith might help youth make distinctions among serious, articulate, confident personal and congregational faith versus respectful, civil discourse in the pluralistic public sphere, versus obnoxious, offensive faith talk that merely turns people off.

6. In concert with #5 the community of faith should teach the diversity of morals in society and why Christianity is a good moral choice. [this is teaching apologetics and worldview.

7. Another important way is for adults to engage teens on a personal level. This means adults other than family members.

8. Along with #7 comes teaching teens to practice their faith outside the collective weekly meetings.

9. Religious communities that are interested in the formation of Christian values and faith in the lives of their teens must better address the competition that takes the time and attention of teens away from Christian ideals. This will likely include establishing and creating new norms, practices, and institutions appropriate to specific religious situations and traditions.

10. Faith communities need to be aware that using “faith in an instrumentalist way” is not healthy in the long run. This means that presenting “faith” as a way to be good and not get into trouble, is in the long run not helpful to anyone.

11. Finally and most generally adults should be taught to stop (if they are) thinking of teens as “aliens or others.”
Both books mentioned in this article are more than helpful. Soul Searching, appears as it was first Denton’s dissertation for her PhD. This is my opinion and may not be the case. However, at least the information they’ve gathered is revealing and in some ways contrary to conventional thought about teens.
MTD is a national problem, not just limited to teens. MTD reveals no need for a savior. It places each individuals destiny with their own hands. However, the problem of MTD runs deeper. Happiness is illusive to teens and to adults in America. Portrayed as the goal of life, happiness is rarely achieved.

This study addresses the condition not only of American teens but the church in general. MTD is the popular religion of America. It exhibits a shallow view of human needs, and erroneous view of the human condition. MTD looks only to “help” people get better, but doesn’t address the biblical view of sin and the need for a savior. Nor does it see the need for Jesus Christ’s atoning work. In reality this is anti-christ.

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