No Christian parent wants to hear the words "apostasy" and "my child" uttered in the same sentence, for the very thought that our children may be falling away from Christianity is -- or should be -- terrifying.

But with the stakes so high, Christian parents and church leaders must be willing to ask difficult questions. What is it that young people, who have been raised in church and self-identify as Christians, actually believe? Is it connected at all with the historic Christian faith?

Some individuals who work in the social sciences have begun asking such questions. For example, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, sociologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, began with data gleaned from the largest and most detailed study of teenagers and religion ever undertaken, the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Smith and Denton added the results of follow-up, face-to-face interviews with more than 250 of the youth who participated in the NSYR study. The authors then distilled the results in their riveting book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

What Soul Searching reveals is a generation of kids who claim to be Christian, but many of whose beliefs are not even remotely orthodox.  Smith and Denton said, "Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith."

In Real Teens: A Contemporary Snapshot of Youth Culture, pollster and researcher George Barna, whose Barna Research Group follows religious and spiritual trends in America, summed up that "different religious faith" in a single word: "Whatever." That word, which is nothing more than a verbal shrug of the shoulders at the thought of absolute truth, "has become the mantra of the emerging generation."

What is ironic about this is that the majority of teens in the U.S. actually hold a very positive view of religion, and churchgoing youth consistently answered surveys like Barna's and the NSYR by stating that God and religion were very important in their lives.

According to Soul Searching, in interviews many teens "said things like, 'Oh, [religion is] really important, yeah,' 'It's the center of how I live my life,' and 'Faith influences many of my decisions.'"

But what did they mean when they made such statements?

Moralism Run Amok
In trying to characterize what churchgoing kids actually believe, Smith and Denton coined the phrase "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Each word presents a core facet of what is becoming the dominant religious view among the nation's youth.

First, they explained, the religious beliefs of many teens are moralistic because they see faith as being essentially related to mere human goodness. In other words, kids believe "that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one's health, and doing one's best to be successful."

And that's where religion fits in. "Most U.S. teens think that one of religion's primary functions is to help people be good," said Soul Searching.

Orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that goodness is neither an inherent human trait nor, even if it were, is it sufficient for a saving relationship with God.