Here's a challenging article directed not only at youth pastors and youth culture but at the whole way we go about discipling new believers of all ages.
Source: Kairos Journal
Teenagers Losing the Gospel
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently instituted a new minor for its students: “Christianity and Culture.” Sociologist Christian Smith,1 the faculty member who spearheaded the change, indicated that the “program is neither ‘devotional nor antagonistic’ toward Christianity.” It operates under the assumption that students who fail to understand Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular will fail to fully understand the West. Smith, an Anglican, admits there are dangers to learning about evangelicalism in an academic environment. However he explained that the genesis of his campaign for the new courses was rooted in his discovery that incoming evangelical students often know little about Christianity. Hypocrisy is more than the pretense of righteousness—it can be the pretense of knowledge as well. Though Christian teenagers identify themselves as believers, in too many instances they actually believevery little about God and His work in history.2
Some well-intentioned youth ministers have encouraged this hypocrisy by coating Christian discipleship in a varnish of entertainment. One expert explains, “Young people are drawn to excitement. They enjoy being involved in activities that are fun.”3 This may explain why another expert was led to announce at a conference, “Young people today will not listen to a message longer than seventeen minutes.”4 Their attention spans have been amused into submission. This has produced a teenage culture that is heavy on flair but light on substance.
Smith described the problem facing so many teenagers who profess to be Christians today. They have adopted a new religion: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Their beliefs are worldly, not biblical. According to Smith this faith consists of five basic tenets: First, God created and watches over human life. Second, God wants people to be nice and fair. Third, life’s ultimate goal is for each person to be happy and to feel good about himself. Fourth, God does not need to be intimately involved in anyone’s life—He is just there for emergencies. Fifth, good people go to heaven. Who is this God? Smith asks. He is the God of “Leo Buscaglia, Oprah Winfrey, and Self magazine. Times change. So must God, it seems.”5
Instead of Christ being the sovereign Lord to whom everyone, including teenagers, is called to submit, He becomes an instrument of personal growth. Teenagers may still profess Christ is Lord, but their lives and the ministries to which they belong betray a different perception altogether. Religious hypocrisy is encouraged when Christianity is seen as a panacea instead of a cross:
Given such instrumentalist assumptions about religious faith, youth ministers are ever obliged to be entertaining, religious youth activities always need to be great fun, Sunday-school teachers must be interesting and ‘relevant’ in ways that do not always comport well with the actual interests and priorities of religious traditions, etc. . . . It is difficult to have it both ways.6
To the extent that churches are encouraging this “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” they are their own worst enemies. They are promoting hypocrisy, for this is not simply a watered-down version of the Christian faith. It is no faith at all. “It is not-Christianity.”7
The Church has its own, sacred calling: to teach its children God’s commandments and to remind them of His covenant faithfulness (Deut. 6). Jesus said those who love Him have and keep His commandments (John 14:21). Not to be lost in the din of youth group concerts and ski trips is the majesty of Christ and the substance of the gospel. The church can too easily produce religious-knowledge hypocrites at a very young age, individuals who are able to say just enough to profess faith but know in fact very little about the faith they profess. Even worse, if the Church is not careful, it can produce a generation with a Christian veneer that is actually devoted to the church of Oprah.
Now at Notre Dame.
Jamie Dean, “Classroom Christianity,” World Magazine, January 27, 2008, http://www.worldmag.com/articles/12617 (accessed March 24, 2008).
Nido Qubein, What Works and What Doesn’t in Youth Ministry (Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishing, 1996), 121.
Quoted by Alvin L. Reid, Raising the Bar: Ministry to Youth in the New Millennium (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 2004), 57. Reid’s argument counters the entertainment-driven youth ministry that is so popular.
Christian Smith, “Is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism the New Religion of American Youth? Implications for the Challenge of Religious Socialization and Reproduction,” in Passing on the Faith: Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, ed. James L. Heft (New York: Fordham University, 2006), 65. Buscaglia was a professor at the University of Southern California and a bestselling author of books about love.