Faith-Lite: Why “Almost” Christian Still Isn’t Good Enough

almostchristianI first came across Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church  by Kenda Creasy Dean, professor at Princeton Theological seminary, when a professor off-handedly mentioned it in one of his lectures. I quickly scribbled down the title on a page margin and vowed to check up on it later. A few years passed until I discovered it again and finally read it.

I believe that this is a valuable read for anyone, church leader or not, and would exhort you to do so, but for our sake, the basic premise is that Dean analyzed data from a study that included over 3,000 American teens of various faith traditions. From this data, she determined that three out of four students who identified as Christian were, in fact, not necessarily Christian in the orthodox sense of the word but were, as she called them “moral therapeutic deists (MTD).”

The defining marks of MTD are the following (according to both Dean and an earlier study by Christian Smith with Melinda Denton found in Soul-Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers):

  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.

In this worldview, God is distant (which constitutes the classification as “deists”) and the basic undertones of a weak, mushy morality and self-promoting/self-soothing theology are what sets this ideology apart.

So, what is the big deal? We want our children to be nice, to love God, to know that God loves them, and to be happy. These all sound rather innocuous, right?

The problem with this worldview, or should I say “God-view,” is that “being nice” was never the point in the first place. When we distill the entirety of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition (and, if you are United Methodist, Experience) into a simple, diluted elixir of “being nice” and “being happy,” we get a fertile seedbed for all sorts of alternative theologies in which the human creature is the most important player in the story, and not “humans” as a whole, but rather the individualized human being.

I am suddenly the most vital perspective in the narrative, which is not at all what the narratives of the Old and New Testaments teach. Yes, we are agents of mercy, but this story isn’t about us. We are vessels, not the wine itself. The Christian life isn’t meant to be our autobiography; it is meant to be the collective biography of God’s salvation and grace.

The other perhaps more noticeable symptom of this viewpoint is that faith actually loses its vitality and importance. When the central premise of the Gospel becomes “be good” or “be nice,” why then do I need the church to tell me to do these things? And as a matter of fact, many of my fellow millennial journeymen have said just that and have walked away.

Darien Presbyterian Church, 1950

I do not believe that this theological conundrum is anything new; rather, we are just starting to see the withered fruit that it is producing. Looking back at my grandparents’ (and even my parents’) generation, while they were very devout Southern Baptists who thankfully never let go of their grasp on the necessity for salvation and grace, church was more than a moral and ethical storehouse. Church was the social center of their lives. When I was researching other views on this study, I came across an article written by a seminary friend of mine, Elisabeth Kincaid, in which she states, “Conversations with certain older parishioners at my church also prove the point. The church is both a social club and an etiquette enforcer, not much more.”

So when the church no longer serves as a place of deep, theological formation that is both challenging and nurturing, then how in the world do we even start to answer the question of “Why go to church? I don’t need the church to tell me how to treat people.” 

While I have probably 100+ ideas as to how we can go about this, one part of Dean’s study always has stuck in my mind. Dean noted that among these teens, the ones she noticed that seemed to be immune to the effects of MTD were those whose families acted on their faith. Meaning, those who were raised with the innate notion that their faith and theology mattered and that it should inform their actions were less likely to fall on the spectrum of MTD. Dean notes that Mormon students in particular fell into this category.

I am not suggesting that we all convert, but what I am suggesting is that we start a self-examen of our motives. Are we acting out of a morally therapeutic place in which our chief aim is to be “nice” and “happy?” Or are we acting out of a theologically centered place, grown from Scripture, Tradition, and Reason and nurtured by the church in which our chief aim is to glorify God through our actions of compassion, charity, and grace?

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