Reading Joel Boot's recent letter to churches (also posted in this blog) made me think about what happens when church education isn’t done well. In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton interviewed a large number of teens about how they viewed God. The God most teens think about is concerned with their happiness and with living a good moral life. The term they use to describe it is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The authors write:
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a belief in a particular kind of god: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in my daily affairs – especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.
In a speech at Calvin College, Smith described a teen's view of faith as being similar to getting a driver's license. Teens wanting a driver’s license study the rules of driving and practices driving with their parents. Then, at the appropriate age, they pass the written and driving test and they are good to go for the rest of their life. This is much like the way teens (and, in fact, many adults) view the Christian life. People go to church and learn the rules of church. Then they profess their faith and they are good to go for the rest of their life.
How did we get to the point where this is the prevailing view of young people? There are lots of factors that probably got us to this point but I would like to suggest that one possibility is that this is a direct result of the way we teach Bible to children and teens. Many lessons and curriculums are available that view the Bible as a handbook for behavior and that each passage has a specific identifiable lesson for how we should live. Along with this comes the idea that teaching children good morals is one of our primary goals. When we take the story of Zacchaeus, for example, and use it to teach good manners, we send a message that God is mostly concerned with how we behave, not with forming a relationship with us.
When Sunday School curriculum focuses on morals and good behavior we are missing an opportunity to teach children about God. Should we be surprised then when teens are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists?