Houston Graduate School of Theology

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A Legacy Lost or Found?

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By Dr. James H. Furr, President and Professor of Church and Culture, Houston Graduate School of Theology

In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published a landmark book entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Drawing on telephone survey data from more than 3,000 teenagers and from personal interviews with more than 250 of them, their unsettling summary described the beliefs and practices of these young Americans as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). The five major convictions that express the MTD “creed” are as follows (pp. 162-163):

  1. A God exists who created and orders 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 then they die.

These convictions are not understood to result from conscious reflection, much less intentional Christian education or faith formation. “Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical and tacit, not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion” (p. 166). No one uses the actual phrase as self-descriptive, however well its features may apply.

From most traditions of Christian theology, the five tenets are alarmingly flawed. They assert that God is detached from human life, but available in genie-like fashion when we want help. The understanding of what is good shifts from God’s standards to whatever the prevailing culture may posit, diluting what we may attempt to teach as biblical norms, sacrificial service, or prophetic justice.

Perhaps the authors’ most disconcerting observation is not the content of this portrayal of faith, however distorted, but its source. What evil conspiracy or demonic actors have perpetrated this perspective on our pure and unsuspecting youth? Smith and Denton contend that this version of theology “is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. 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” (p. 166).

This leads me to suggest the proverbial good news and bad news. The core of the problem is not a simple challenge related to Christian education curriculum or youth ministers. All of us who influence young people may perpetuate this circumstance because, as the truism goes, faith is more deeply caught than taught. The good news is that every disciple of Christ can contribute to the faithfulness of future generations by merely, but profoundly, living in genuine obedience to our living Lord. Perhaps even more than we want to acknowledge, young people are watching us and listening. What are they seeing and hearing?

Matt Forster