Courtesy of Ben Gosden
The book cover of "Almost Christian."
“A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save.” – C.S. Lewis [quoted on p. 25]
Trying to Be Relevant in a Culture of “Whatever-ism”
Almost Christian author Kenda Creasy Dean reports an interesting indictment of the Church when she quotes the NSYR study where it says, “Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers’ benign ‘whatever-ism’” (p.28). It seems as though a good number of American teenagers will attend church, participate in youth ministries, and maybe even go to Sunday School. What teenagers lack, this report shows, is a depth of knowledge of orthodox Christian doctrine and how that doctrine translates into religious practices. Further, teenagers by and large lack a basic working Christian language. It seems as though we’re doing a decent job of putting our kids into formative classes and activities but we’re not teaching them the faith language that would form them into new people.
Maybe problem comes from a compulsion the Church seems to have in striving to be relevant? We spend so much time wanting to relate to others in terms of the language of the larger culture (a good thing at times) that we forget our own unique language in the process. Transformation cannot happen unless new language is taught and learned. Otherwise the church remains little more than just another extension of the larger culture.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a specific divine mission in the world. This false Christianity seeks to give us good self-esteem and solve all of our temporal problems. As Dean notes,
“It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is personal happiness and helping people treat each other nicely.” [p. 29]
Why is it that many teenagers practice such a watered-down form of spirituality? Frankly, they do it because this is what we’ve taught them in church. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no claim to change lives. It’s built on a low commitment system where the highest ideals are to “make me happy” or “meet my needs.” This is very different from a faith that seeks to bend people’s lives into patterns of love and obedience to God through formative teaching and practice.
Relevance is an unattainable goal. It’s a goal concerned with the church accommodating society in order to keep a foothold in the culture. We should always be skeptical and question those who would push us to “be more relevant.” More times than not, it’s a quest that’s more misguided than we might think. As Dean observes,
“The church’s accommodating impulse does not stem from God’s call to us to share our lives with the stranger or to share God’s love with others. Instead, it grows our of our need as a church to be liked and approved.” [p. 34]
The Difference Between Nice and Holy
I’m not here to say that we shouldn’t teach our kids to be nice. In fact, we adults could use refresher courses on being nice. But I am saying as strongly as I can that “being nice” is not the ultimate purpose of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Religion has become the great umbrella we go to hide from the world under. Religion in America is built much more on a sense of loyalty and allegiance through personal choice than it is on identity and relationship. If our culture is built on a consumer mindset that we can get what we want through personal choice in the marketplace, then it’s no wonder that a growing number of people are finding religion to be unimportant. Religion built on a sense of identity doesn’t care much for personal choice — mainly because God chose us before we choose God. My favorite brand cannot claim my life at this level because I can always shop for a new brand. But a faith built on the idea that we know ourselves to belong to the One who made us and who loves us too much to lose us claims our lives in ways Apple or Nike never will.
Let’s consult our author one more time:
“Perhaps young people lack robust Christian identities because churches offer such a stripped-down version of Christianity that it no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualities like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation. Maybe teenagers’ inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary.” [p. 36]
I believe the great sin we need to identify and confess is that we as a Church have lost a sense of missional imagination. We’ve grown accustomed to believing that we’re here for ourselves. This in turn causes self-centered spirituality to grow and spread like a weed in a garden. We confuse Christianity with self-preservation — a sense of building ourselves and our buildings and our institutions up. And we forget that the witness of Jesus was one of self-giving — the call of disciples to lay down their lives, take up a cross, and follow the self-giving One wherever he may go.
Holiness is a word that implies justice, kindness, and humility before God (Micah 6:8). Dean reminds us this is what we mean when we say sanctification – a life conformed to the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who came into the world to save (and not condemn) it. A call to holiness is much deeper than a call to just be nice. Holiness requires everything we are and it forces us to live in a community where the common pursuit is how to be holy in such a complex world.
The good news is not all teenagers belong to this cult of benign niceness. Many are committed Christians actively living our their faith daily. But these are set apart from their contemporaries by 4 main religious characteristics: a creed to believe, a community to belong to, a call to live out, and a hope to hold onto.
So ask yourself this simple question: When was the last time you heard these four things together at church?
When was the last time you heard of a real hope — one that’s more concerned with transformative faith than trying to simply put “biblical principles” on life’s problems? When was the last time you were invited into a community that breaks line of family, gender, or maybe even race in order to form the Body of Christ? When was the last time you were told you had a specific call on your life from the very One who created you? And when was the last time you heard words of hope that defies the logic of our self-centered worldviews?