Young, Restless, Reformed
- Tuesday, May 20, 2008
"If you believe that ultimately it is your action, your choosing, your decision—that ultimately your salvation finally gets back to you— that's going to turn into a very moralistic kind of religion," Harris said. "That's why a lot of people I hear from who discover Reformed theology talk about it almost like they got saved for the first time."
A note of caution is in order. If we are to believe history's most thorough study of teenagers' religious attitudes, moralism is still winning. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, the sociologists who conducted that survey, argue that a new religion has supplanted Christianity in America. This religion teaches that "God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process," Smith and Denton argue in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.9 They call this religion Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Smith and Denton, sociologists with the National Study of Youth and Religion, offer a grim diagnosis. "It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized," they write. "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."10
Oddly enough, Smith and Denton found that most teenagers like church and appreciate their parents. But hundreds of phone surveys and more than two hundred and fifty face-to-face interviews revealed that astonishingly few teenagers can articulate even the basics about their religious beliefs. The students aren't dumb. According to Smith and Denton, they speak intelligently about drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, for example. Catechesis isn't dead after all. It's just that many churches and families have ceded this responsibility to public schools. As a result, teenagers can express a deep understanding of toleration but not of justification. They know the problems of teenage pregnancy but do not fear the God who commands holiness.
The raw statistics make you wonder what's going on in evangelical youth groups. Around one-third of the surveyed conservative Protestant teenagers affirmed belief in fortune-tellers, reincarnation, and astrology.11 More said many religions may be true (48 percent) than affirmed the exclusive truth of one religion (46 percent). Teenagers may like church, but they don't think it's important—64 percent of conservative Protestants responded that believers need not be involved in a religious congregation in order to be truly religious or spiritual.12
"What legitimates the religion of most youth today is not that it is the life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable," Smith and Denton write.13 They note that almost none of the teenagers talked about God's sovereignty.
If my investigation would find a resurgence of Calvinism, then something must happen to these students after high school. Smith and Denton offer some clues. They found that teenagers have the desire but not the opportunities to learn from adult role models. Rather unrebellious, these teenagers will respond to challenging guidance from caring adults—the kind of messages delivered by John Piper at Passion, for example. Piper struck a nerve in 2000 when he challenged his largest audience—about forty thousand students gathered outside Memphis, Tennessee, on a blustery May day—not to waste their lives pursuing the American dream. The resulting book, Don't Waste Your Life, has sold more than 250,000 copies.
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