The Self-Esteem Gospel and the Faith of Christian Parents

Three out of four American teenagers, in a recent survey, say that they are Christians. But fewer than half of these who claim to be Christians practice their faith. And among those who say they practice their Christian faith most cannot talk coherently about it.

What's more, many American teens who do say they are Christians have actually embraced what is being termed for good reason “a watered-down ‘mutant’ form of Christianity, one that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose primary aim is to boost people's self-esteem.”

What is very clear is that neither churches nor parents are adequately helping teens to see, or comprehend, what true Christianity is. Thus the faith of “Christian” parents has now been passed along to their children.

These observations come from the conclusions of minister anddean author Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She formed them after helping conduct research for the National Study of Youth and Religion. Dean says the season she spent interviewing teens about their faith was "one of the most depressing summers" of her life.

Her conclusions are in her new book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, which I just began reading. Dean’s study involved in-depth interviews with more than 3,300 American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17,and included both Catholics and Protestants from both conservative and liberal denominations.

She discovered that the previously used term, coined by Christian Smith, fit the actual beliefs and practices of this generation: "moralistic therapeutic deism." The term implies a religion that helps you feel good and do good, but where God mostly stays out of the way except when called upon. These were kids who "went to church a lot," Dean said, "but weren't really affected by it." She added, "That was the thing that was really shocking to me."

books Dean said the "Christianity" many teens believe in can be expressed in the following beliefs:

  • 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 most world religions.

  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

  • God does not need to be involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.

  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Deans says these views are further reduced to a "gospel of niceness. If teenagers lack an articulate faith, it may be because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation.”

Dean said that being nice to each other is not a bad thing, but added, "if the church settles for that as being all that we stand for, then I think we have missed the mark. There are a lot of cultures that would say we shouldn't kill each other, but they would not call themselves Christian."

The problem, said Dean, is that "moralistic therapeutic deism" — or more plainly, "feel-good, do-good religion" — is simply contrary to what the purpose of the church is. Theologically, the church is supposed to exist for the world. We don't exist to perpetuate ourselves or to make ourselves happy. It's nice if that can happen, but that's not the purpose. If anything, that might be a fringe benefit. The gospel story that animates the church is about self-giving love and dying in order to live."

Dean says that the committed Christian teens who do have a good sense of the real faith have four things in common: They have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose and a sense of hope about their future.

Christian parents can help their youth glimpse real Christianity by getting "radical," Dean suggests. I love what she recommends. She believes that parents who perform a radical act of faith and explain to their teens, "this is how Christians live," will teach more about Christianity than many sermons and youth mission trips. Or another radical thing could be giving away 20 percent of one's income to help others, going to a struggling church instead of a successful one, turning down a lucrative job offer to stay in a situation where one can really do some good, taking abused children into one's home, spending a summer in Bolivia working on an agricultural renewal project or something similar.

As I read this I realized this is exactly how my parents lived in the 1950s. They chose to live simply in terms of monetary means (my dad was a dentist), did not move to bigger cities and better jobs, sacrificed for the poor, helped a needy and poor mission church and took teens into our family routines in order to help them. Our home was a hive of missional activity and the term was not even around in those days. Was I blessed or what?

Explaining to one's teens the motivation for engaging in these radical acts is critically important according to Kendra Dean. She said. "If you don't say you're doing it because of your faith, kids are going to say 'my parents are really nice people.’ It doesn't register that faith is supposed to make you live differently unless parents help their kids connect the dots."

The study found that teens who were best able to articulate their faith came from evangelical churches. Teens from mainline Protestant churches were the least religiously articulate. But before evangelical parents assume their kids are just fine they should realize that the evidence says this watered-down view of Christianity was found in teens from all church backgrounds.

One thing from the study finding has made Dean "strangely hopeful.” The youth who see only the watered-down Christianity aren't giving their lives to it. "It's not big enough, it doesn't matter enough, it's not substantial enough, it doesn't have enough teeth for them to give their lives to it," Dean said. "So I actually think it's a good thing teenagers are ho-hum about what they think of Christianity — because that's not Christianity. … But if the gospel is presented in full — and by presented I don't mean just verbally, but lived, in all of its radical implications — I think that will get young people's attention in ways that moralistic therapeutic deism doesn't."

Here are two other links on this story that fill in more of the important information you can gain from Kenda Dean’s provocative and important work.

Author: More Teens Becoming "Fake" Christians: CNN Living

Almost Christian: An Interview with Kenda Creasy Dean. Patheos