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Mutant Christianity

October 12, 2014     Time: 20:33
Mutant Christianity


Dr. Craig looks at trends indicating a distortion of biblical Christianity among young people and offers some solutions.

Transcript Mutant Christianity


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, we have a heart for young people. Your reworking of On Guard into a student edition is one of the reasons we can be confident of that. We've done several podcasts on trends among young people today. Talk about that student edition. You are going to make this a little broader, even for those who are seeking?

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. The original On Guard is geared toward the Christian believer. It is a kind of manual to help him defend his faith – to equip him, to be able to give an answer to those who ask him a reason for the hope within. But in the student edition I want to make this geared toward the unbelieving person who is seeking to find answers about God and Jesus. I found that many people are giving On Guard to their non-believing friends as a sort of evangelistic tool, but it is not really appropriate for the unbeliever. It is written to the Christian. But in this student edition I would like to have it be suitable for handing to a high school friend or college classmate who is not yet a believer but who is looking for the truth and would find this to be a kind of open-minded inquiring exploration of grounds for the existence of God and belief in Christ.

Kevin Harris: Here is an article from CNN.[1] It says,

If you're the parent of a Christian teenager, Kenda Creasy Dean has this warning: Your child is following a "mutant" form of Christianity, and you may be responsible.

That’ll make parents feel really good. Right off the bat, Bill, we have an issue for you to address, and that is we are often accused of saying “You are not a true Christian, and here is the real Christianity. You don't hold to the tenets of 1872 so you are not a real Christian.” How do you determine the real thing?

Dr. Craig: There are certain core beliefs that a person has to have in order to be a Christian. What she points out in this article is that a lot of teenagers are adopting what she calls, or has been called by others, moralistic therapeutic deism. You believe in a kind of God who is up there and provides a basis for moral code and then it is psychologically helpful – it is therapeutic – to help you to deal with your struggles and emotional problems and to sort of cope and get through life. This moralistic therapeutic deism is very different from orthodox Christianity. She is concerned that the millennial generation are not really orthodox Christians, but are these moralistic therapeutic deists.

Kevin Harris: God is a divine therapist whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem. That is pretty common these days.

Dr. Craig: It really fits in with this sort of health and wealth gospel. We watched one of these preachers the other day on television, and it was all about how God will help you to succeed. If you feel discouraged or you feel down, well, perk up! God is on your side! He is going to help you to meet your challenges and to become a success. That is exactly this sort of moralistic therapeutic deism that she thinks a lot of teenagers are adopting.

Kevin Harris: How does that go too far, Bill? Certainly we call out to God for help, we look to the hills from whence cometh my help. But I guess prosperity teachers take it too far and say God will make you happy, successful, and be your therapeutic self-esteem guru.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. In one sense it doesn't go far enough. Because what it doesn't include is the willingness to stand for Christ despite persecution and to suffer for him and to become a better person precisely through suffering and through embracing the trials that God has for you, as well as belief in things like Jesus' death on the cross, the necessity of faith in him for salvation, his historical resurrection from the dead. These are all essentials of historic Christian faith. It isn't enough to have this sort of “God-therapist” to guide you to be an authentic Christian.[2]

Kevin Harris:

Dean is a minister, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of "Almost Christian," a new book that argues that many parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity.

She says this "imposter'' faith is one reason teenagers abandon churches.

"If this is the God they're seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust," Dean says. "Churches don't give them enough to be passionate about."

Dr. Craig: This is the paradox of the article. On the one hand there is the claim that increasing numbers of teenagers are becoming these sort of moral therapeutic deists, but then on the other hand she is saying that for others they just abandon Christianity all together because they are not challenged by this sort of milquetoast version of Christianity. I am not exactly sure how those are to be played out or reconciled. The headline is misleading for this article. The headline is “More teens becoming 'fake' Christians.” It isn't the idea that teenagers in general are turning to this type of Christianity. I think what she is saying is that teenagers who are in Christian churches already are increasingly becoming this type of pseudo-Christian. Others are just leaving altogether. So it is not as though this is a groundswell in the generation as a whole that is proving attractive to non-believers. Rather, she, I think, is identifying a problem among Christian believers within Christian churches where we are losing the younger generation to this pseudo-Christianity, or perhaps just losing them altogether. That is the way I interpret her.

Kevin Harris: I am a little disturbed, too, Bill, because cult experts will tell you that young people are often drawn to a cult that they encounter on college campuses and so forth – not because of the content of what they are teaching but because of the passion of those who are trying to draw them into the cult, and they want to be passionate about something. But there is plenty in true biblical Christianity to be passionate about.

Dr. Craig: It changed my life – or he changed my life. I was a teenager when I became a Christian at age 16. For me, this was absolutely revolutionary. It lifted me from a sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness to being passionate about living for Christ and making my life count for him and for his Kingdom. That has never left me, but has inspired my life. I do think we want to give our kids a vision of a high calling lived for Christ that is the greatest calling that you can have and so much more than this milquetoast moralistic therapeutic deism.

Kevin Harris: She interviewed 3,300 American teenagers between 13 and 17 from all denominations. She “found that most American teens who called themselves Christian were indifferent and inarticulate about their faith.” She said, “Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good -- what the study's researchers called 'moralistic therapeutic deism.'”

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that is really, really discouraging when you read that, isn't it, Kevin? That these kids can't articulate or even talk coherently about their beliefs. The only encouragement that I find in this is that this study included all kinds of confessing Christians – Catholics, Protestants of both liberal and conservative denominations. She reports that of those who are in the evangelical churches, as well as Mormons who were apparently interviewed as well, do a better job of articulating what they believe and of being passionate about their faith. That gives at least a little bit of hope. The results of the study include a lot of students from non-evangelical churches that may present a somewhat different picture, I hope, than our evangelical churches.

Kevin Harris: She said do not talk down to teenagers about matters of faith. Don't assume that they are inarticulate. She says far from that, “They can talk about money, sex and their family relationships with nuance. Most people who work with teenagers know that they are not naturally inarticulate.” They can get deep, Bill.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that is what she claims. So I think this is why in Reasonable Faith we challenge these kids to think hard about questions like the existence of God and who Jesus was.[3] We don't present pat answers or simplistic apologetic arguments, but arguments that have a great deal of depth and that can be studied for a lifetime because of the inexhaustible depth that lies behind them.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, I want everyone to put on some steel-toed shoes at this point because this is about to step on some toes of parents. This book Almost Christian is really saying the parents are to blame. She “places the ultimate blame for teens' religious apathy on adults. Some adults don't expect much from youth pastors. They simply want them to keep their children off drugs and away from premarital sex.”

Dr. Craig: Then everything will be fine! [laughter]

Kevin Harris: Bill, I cannot tell you how true that is in faith communities across the country. Explaining to them the doctrine of the Trinity or the depth of God's love or his eternity – bah! So it produces a gospel of niceness that is very shallow.

Dr. Craig: Very shallow! And not worth living and dying for. We want to help give these kids a faith that is worth dying for, which is what Christians around the world in other places like North Korea, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt are facing. That is the kind of faith that we want to instill in our kids.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, it is their depth and their walk with God that is going to help them resist temptation.

Dr. Craig: You've got to start with this very young. This has to be something that is modeled for the kids and taught for the kids from the earliest age. I've been told, though I can't cite scientific surveys to this effect, that it is the father in the home that is really critical, not the mom. So if the blame goes to parents as she says, it can go even further to the dad. If the children are raised in a home where the father is sold out for Christ and passionate about living for Christ, that is going to make it far more likely that those children will also have a deep personal faith and will continue on in the faith rather than fall away. So this is really a call for those of us who are fathers to model and to teach our children the truth of the Gospel and to disciple them.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, there is an interesting trend that this article points out.

Barbara A. Lewis, author of "The Teen Guide to Global Action," says Dean is right -- more teens are embracing a nebulous belief in God.

But there seems to be among millennials in particular this desire to help, to be globally active, to recycle, and to do good. You even find this in secular youth. There is actually solidarity between the two – that we need to help and make the world a better place. But they don't need what they are learning in church to do that.

Dr. Craig: That is sort of the idea of moralistic therapeutic deism. Not on the therapy part now, but on the part of moralistic deism. God is not really involved in your life in a serious way, but you are involved in these moral activities like helping to fight AIDS in Africa or other societal problems. While this kind of action is a wonderful byproduct, I think, of sincere Christian belief, I think it becomes a really serious problem when it becomes a substitute for being engaged in evangelism and discipleship. I get the impression that some of these students are more concerned about bettering the world socially than they are in evangelism and building disciples. That is putting the cart before the horse.

Kevin Harris: It says,

Yet there's been an "explosion" in youth service since 1995 that Lewis attributes to more schools emphasizing community service.

Teens that are less religious aren't automatically less compassionate, she says.

Secularists would jump all over that and say, see, you don't need God to serve your fellow man. As you've pointed out, no, you don't. There is perhaps that innate image of God that is going on with you there. Bono, of the band U2, has been real central to this and been a real rallying cry for community service – to do something. When it comes to community service, these students aren't apathetic but they seem to be apathetic about what they are hearing in churches, according to this book.[4]

Dr. Craig: If your life really hasn't been changed by Christ, I don't think you would be very burdened to share him with others and to be involved in evangelism and discipleship. Yet the Great Commission that Jesus gave to the disciples and to the church was to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to “obey all that I have commanded you.” That is the command that we are to be principally involved in. To substitute social service for fulfillment of Christ's Great Commission is an enormous misallocation of priorities.

Kevin Harris: We don't want to downplay community service.

Dr. Craig: Right. Yes. That is why I said it was putting the cart before the horse. I am not denying that there is the cart of social service and involvement. But it follows from a commitment to evangelism and discipleship that then will overflow. A great example would be these Christian missionary doctors who have recently come back to the United States infected with the Ebola virus. They were risking their lives because of their love for the African people in treating people with these horrible diseases. Yet they did it out of service to Christ. Their primary mission is to live out the Gospel, to serve Christ. They did so as medical doctors. That would be a wonderful example of how these can be combined.

Kevin Harris: I know we are trying to get the gist of this article here. There are areas where today's teens – millennials in particular – don't seem to be apathetic but are very aggressive in community service, and are getting that. But then becoming very apathetic in their faith. She says of these sophisticated young people, "We think that they want cake, but they actually want steak and potatoes, and we keep giving them cake.” “She says pastors often preach a safe message” and parents teach this nice gospel that “can't teach teens how to confront tragedy.”

Dr. Craig: That's a good point. Suffering is difficult to explain if your view of God is of a sort of Santa Claus in the sky who is supposed to give you a nice, happy, and comfortable life here on Earth. That sort of God is seriously challenged by tragedy and suffering. So I think you are quite right in saying that often these folks may not be discipled in such a way as to confront tragedy when it hits their lives.

Kevin Harris: As we wrap up today, we don't want to leave the parents hanging. This article and these authors actually give some practical advice to parents.

She says parents who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.

A parent's radical act of faith could involve something as simple as spending a summer in Bolivia working on an agricultural renewal project or turning down a more lucrative job offer to stay at a struggling church, Dean says.

But it's not enough to be radical -- parents must explain "this is how Christians live," she says.

"If you don't say you're doing it because of your faith, kids are going to say my parents are really nice people," Dean says. "It doesn't register that faith is supposed to make you live differently unless parents help their kids connect the dots."

I am doing this in the name of Christ.

Dr. Craig: Right. They need to see that it is discipleship to Christ that leads you to make these sacrifices or make these decisions that might seem radical.

Kevin, that makes a nice segue to another article that we have here called “What Makes Young Evangelicals Less Conservative? Results of New Study May Surprise You” which was in the Christian Post.[5] What it says here is,

Young white Evangelicals whose social networks mostly included people like them [in other words, who are in the evangelical subculture exclusively] were the most likely to depart from older Evangelicals on cultural issues while young Evangelicals with more diverse social networks were more likely to hold views similar to older Evangelicals.

Oddly enough, the attempt to insulate these kids from these other influences, according to this study, is actually more apt to harm them. It is the kid who has broader networks, lots of non-Christian friends and other contacts, who is more likely to stay in the evangelical subculture. If this is right, that has enormous implications about the decision, say, to send your kid to public school rather than homeschool him or send him to a Christian school. The implication of this seems to be that exposure to wider points of view and networks is actually going to be more conducive to keeping your son or daughter in the evangelical faith than trying to put that child inside of a bubble.[6]