The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) sent shock waves through the youth ministry world. This in-depth and trustworthy research project discovered that the faith of most church teenagers can be described as Moral Therapeutic Deism. The core tenants of this belief system are:
- God exists.
- He is nice and He wants us to be nice.
- He is not relevant to my daily life, with one exception. Any time I have a need, He quickly shows up and takes care of that need. Then He goes back to being distant and irrelevant.
Teenagers invited to give a public testimony often say, “I just love Jesus. He’s always there for me.” By that they may mean Jesus is getting them through hard times at home or with friends. And of course, Jesus is very in touch with every life challenge they face and He is omnipotent in His ability to intervene in any situation.
But notice the primary focus of the teenage testimony: “He’s always there for me.” Many believing teenagers tend to know Jesus primarily as a friend who brings them good things.
Worst case, some teenagers may see Jesus as their little buddy who rides with them in their shirt pocket. He always is there in case they need to pull Him out to “poof” some difficulty away. But the problem is, teenagers may believe He can be returned to their pocket—conveniently out of sight and out of mind until needed again.
Most teenagers are focused on the benefits of religion, but not desperately in love with Jesus. Youth ministry has its share of shortcomings, but this limited view of Christ may be the most important of all. Why? Because a limited view of Christ (and thus of God) has all the conditions necessary for Moral Therapeutic Deism to thrive and remain unchallenged.
Youth Mirror Adults
The NSYR study made a second discovery that is just as important. For the most part teenagers do not reject the faith of parents and important adults in their lives. Instead, they almost perfectly mirror that faith. Christian Smith, architect of the NSYR, reports that teenagers, “. . . serve as a very accurate barometer of the condition of the culture and institutions of our larger society. Far from being alien creatures from another planet, American teenagers actually well reflect back to us the best and worst of our own adult condition and culture.”
If church teenagers are full of Moral Therapeutic Deism and teenagers tend to mirror the faith of mom and dad, then this is a church-wide issue. Most church teenagers have grown up surrounded by Christian adults who also embrace Christ for His benefits, a Christ who is too small.
High Christology and MTD
The antidote to Moral Therapeutic Deism is a biblical understanding of the second member of the Trinity. Today Triune God most clearly is revealing Himself through the Son (Heb 1:1-2) in the power of the Spirit. God is orchestrating the surrender of all things to the hold-nothing-back supreme Lordship of Christ (Col 1:18). Young and old believers who grasp the Son begin to grasp God.
At the moment of His second coming, Christ will appear, more majestic and powerful than believers can possibly imagine. He will split the heavens. All humanity will see Him for who He is. A youth leader might consider:
- Do our teenagers know that who Christ will be on that day is precisely who He is today?
- Do they know that His sovereign glory on that day is His sovereign glory now?
- When our teenagers prayed this morning, were they seeing Christ on His throne?
- Do we as leaders really know Him today the way He will be when He returns?
The senior pastor and youth leader can lock arms on this issue. From the pulpit and the front of the youth room they can begin to proclaim to teenagers:
- Your King is not distant. The Spirit of Christ is present and living in your heart just as He is seated on the throne of heaven.
- Jesus Christ is not irrelevant. He is at this moment reigning over every element of the cosmos. That includes all that is happening in and around you.
- He is not the divine butler who only lives to make you happy. He is the majestic King who exists for His glory and for the coming of His kingdom on the earth. He does not primarily exist for you. You exist for Him.
- What might happen if teenagers begin to grasp all this?
- Rather than seeing Jesus as a little buddy tucked down in their pocket, what if they begin to embrace His transcendence and His kingdom purposes?
- What if they discover new awe over the overwhelming glory of Triune God as He reveals himself through the Son?
- What if a true awakening to the Almighty begins in the youth group? Could teenagers and their parents and leaders then spark a similar awakening in the full church?
Is such a possibility worthy of prayer-filled support?