And yet, I imagine a lot of people would look at this and say, "Well, those aren't terribly bad things for a teenager to associate Christian identity with -- being nice to everyone, a God they can call on when in need, and a God who helps them feel good about themselves." But you assert that for Christians, there is something fundamentally disturbing about this kind of faith. How would you answer those people who say these aren't bad things for teens to believe in?
I think the bottom line is that it's a very acculturated and self-serving view of religious faith. And at least in the historic teaching of the church, you can't get away with having it be all "about me." That's contrary to what Christianity has stood for historically. So for the church to have a self-serving spirituality winds up really undercutting what the central understanding of the church's purpose has been since the beginning of the church itself.
Now you're right, it's true, there are worse heresies out there. It's a good thing that kids aren't killing each other. We should be glad about that! But if the church settles for that as being all that we stand for, then I think we've 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.
So my view is that the self-centered nature of moralistic therapeutic deism 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.
This seems to be one of your most important points, the difference between a belief in the God of "niceness," which dominates most teens' understanding of religion, and the God of sacrificial love. And that difference can be found in the unique claim that Christianity makes in our lives and our world. You contend that the church has not done a very good job of passing on this claim to our young people, and is in fact, passing on a "watered-down version" of Christianity. That seems like a pretty important wake-up call for the church.
Well, you asked earlier about the most significant findings of this study. One is that moralistic therapeutic deism isn't just about kids. It's about the faith of their parents as well, and by extension, the faith of their congregations. There are a number of other kinds of studies that have shown that if you want to assess the health of a culture, look at what's going on with young people. Youth are barometers of what's happening in the larger system. And the findings of the NSYR would be an example of that. So, I think what it tells us is that we've gotten off-message. The message we have bought into is one that is very closely tied to American civil religion or American civic values. Those may be values we want to uphold, but there are places where they are at odds with the Gospel. Sacrificial love, for example, goes against the grain of can-do American individualism.
You spend a significant portion of your book encouraging the church to reclaim its central identity as a missional community. How have we veered from that and why is it so critical to the future of the church that we rediscover a missional imagination?
As I understand the church, if you lack a missional imagination, then you're not really a church. I think we've lost track of this! I grew up this way, too; it's very common for people to sit around saying, "We're a church, now what's our mission going to be?" It should be the other way around: mission calls the church into being. If you don't have a mission, you're probably not a church, you're probably a club!
Part of the problem is just the natural inertia that happens with human organizations. But we also have redefined what the church is supposed to be about, especially youth ministry. What many parents really want most from youth ministers is to keep their children safe, keep them off drugs, out of trouble and out of bed with another person. As long as youth are not doing those things, then youth ministry has succeeded. Obviously what's missing from that is any sense of identity that has to do with the Christian story.
Somehow we've shrink-wrapped what Christian identity is; we tend to think about it in terms of having this cluster of beliefs. Even the NSYR errs in that direction; the way they define who is highly devoted among the teens has to do with what they believe. There is a philosopher named James Smith who critiques this study for being too cognitive, and I think he's right. The missional imagination implies that this is a way of being in the world, this is a way you relate to other people, this is a relational way of defining ourselves and yes, there are beliefs that are a part of that, but they take a back seat to the relational call of the Gospel. Identifying with Christ is identifying yourself with a community that relates to people in a distinctive way.