The National Survey of Youth and Religion has some fascinating things to say about who these teenagers are that roam the hallways and youth rooms of our mainline churches. One of the most significant findings of their in-depth research is that Christian teens, by in large, seem to subscribe to what the researchers call "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." The MTD creed goes something like this:
(1) "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."
(2) "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."
(3) "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
(4) "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."
(5) "Good people go to heaven when they die."
I think that hits the nail on the head. And this isn't just the viewpoint of many teens. It has permeated into the adult ranks of the Church as well. In the text that summarizes the studies findings, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the authors argue that MTD has replaced a more traditional version of Christian belief and practice:
We have come with some confidence to believe 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 stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith" (page 171).
This "different religious faith," perhaps not by accident, happens to be a perfect bedfellow with our modern consumer culture that sells happiness as the goal of life and supplies consumer products that promise to satiate our unending appetite for feeling good. The researches argue: "Therapeutic indvidualism's ethos perfectly serves the needs and interests of the U.S. mass-consumer capitalist economy by constituting people as self-fulfillment-oriented consumers subject to advertising's influence on their subjective feelings."
None of this should be a big surprise. I recall when I started serving at my current church several years ago and early on held a meeting with the adult and teen leaders of the youth group. When asked how they understood the purpose of our youth ministry program, the general response was something along the lines of "We come together to be nice to each other and have fun." In essence, youth group as "The Nice People's Club." Here's the problem: there are lots of "Nice People's Clubs" out there in the secular world. Does the Church not have an identity distinct from secular culture? One of my favorite texts in seminary, perhaps suprisingly as it was written by conservative authors, was Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. In it they strongly argue that when the Church ceases to have an identity separate from the secular culture, it ceases to be the Church. The authors write: "...both the conservative and liberal church...are basically accommodationist (that is, Constantinian) in their social ethic. Both assume wrongly that the American church's primary social task is to underwrite American democracy." (p. 32)
Of course, it goes without saying that if all we want our young people to learn is that God wants them to be good citizens -- to be nice to each other and to live a happy life -- it doesn't take long to teach that message. They pick that up pretty early on. So, once they get it, what use is the Church to them -- unless of course the Church is working to make them happy, too.
So, here's what I'd suggest. Go to the teens of the church, present them with this notion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and ask them what they think. Is this how they understand God and faith? If so, are they willing to risk going deeper with their faith? And if they don't see themselves reflected in MTD, are they willing to try to articulate what it is they do understand the Christian faith to be about? Maybe it's time to just sit down with kids and start having these conversations -- to ask them what they really think about God, sin, death, salvation, the afterlife, justice, and love. We might be suprised at what they have to tell us.