Diagnosing the Illness

I recently started reading a new book by Michael Horton called Christless Christianity, in which he lays out the case that the church in America is in captivity, having given in to a secularizing trend that excludes Christ:

Over a century ago, Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield observed that according to the system of revivalism associated especially with Charles Finney, God was not even necessary. If conversion and revival are “simply the philosophical result of the right use of means” rather than a miracle of God’s grace, all you have to do is find the right techniques, procedures, and methods that work across the board: in business, politics, and religion. A lot of the church growth literature of the past few decades assumes the same outlook. Could evangelicalism grow and experience success even if God didn’t exist?

In his first chapter, which is also available as an article (“Are Churches Secularizing America?“) on the Modern Reformation website, there’s a good section titled, “Diagnosing the Illness,” he lays out the issue, particularly among younger generations in America:

As noted above, from 2001 to 2005, University of North Carolina (now Notre Dame) sociologist Christian Smith led a team in a remarkable study of teen spirituality in America today. From his extensive interviews Smith concluded that the dominant form of religion or spirituality of American young people today is “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” It is difficult to define this somewhat amorphous spirituality, especially since, ironically, “22 percent of teen ‘deists’ in our survey reported feeling very or extremely close to God (the God they believe is not involved in the world today).” Apparently, God’s involvement is restricted to the inner sphere of one’s private world.

Smith observed that most teens—including those reared in evangelical churches who said that their faith is “very important” and makes a big difference in their lives—are “stunningly inarticulate” concerning that actual content of that faith. “Interviewing teens,” he relates, “one finds little evidence that the agents of religious socialization in this country”—i.e., parents, pastors, and teachers—“are being highly effective and successful with the majority of their young people.” In contrast to previous generations that at least had some residual knowledge of the Bible and basic Christian teachings, it seems that there is very little serious ability to state, much less to reflect upon and examine their beliefs, much less to relate them to daily life. Many young people seem to be living on the hype and the familiar circle of friends in the youth group, both of which eventually lose their influence, especially in college.

Smith defines “moralistic, therapeutic deism” as expressing this sort of working theology:

  1. “God created the world.”
  2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.”
  3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
  4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
  5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

The sense one gets from reading Smith’s study jives with my own anecdotal experience of popular religion in America today. Basically, the message is that God is nice, we are nice, so we should all be nice.

What’s the problem? Read the full article, and buy the book. I highly recommend it.

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