Questions. Everyone from the smartest minds in the largest universities to the simplest minds in the smallest towns have them. But there may be no other group as predisposed to asking them than teenagers. It’s actually a great paradox how an age group generally regarded as self-conscious and peer-pressured can suddenly become animated askers of even the most embarrassing questions—if the answers they are getting and person they are asking seem to connect.
Particularly questions about God. Because while you may or may not believe it, they’re talking and thinking about God stuff an awful lot.
Perhaps one of the most thorough testaments to that truth is Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. It’s a couple of years old now, but it’s still full of insight into the youth of our nation, and in particular, the youth or our churches. Based on the most intensive study to date on the religious positions of American teenagers, Dean’s book highlights the simple truth about teens and belief: they’re not against it. In fact, most teenagers have nothing against religion at all, and seem to actively embrace it as something good for their life.
But, as Dean points out, it’s what they’re embracing that is so startling. She writes that religious kids embrace a something that could best be defined as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a faith that teaches God’s will for your life is to feel good about yourself and do good to others. Beyond that, God is not too concerned about who you are or what you do.
Here are the five basic tenets of MTD, as outlined by Dean:
- A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
This is bittersweet information. On the one hand, it shows that kids are not resistant to the idea of faith or religion. On the other, it shows that what they are being exposed to is a deviant mish-mash of concepts from Christianity, culture, psychology, and other religions. With so many contributing factors to their definitions of what is right/wrong/good/bad, it’s no wonder so many of them have questions.
Dean’s insight into the culture of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is particularly of interest to me: of the many questions the students at my church ask, I would guess that a full 80% are weighted towards issues that collide with MTD theology. Indeed, if God really wants us to be good and do good, then why does He allow evil? Why didn’t He just make us love him? Why doesn’t He just show Himself and get everyone to fall in line?
Or, in my particular case, if God is so good why did He allow your daughter to die?
These are questions that most Christians either can’t or won’t answer, and as I’ve interacted with people in my Sunday school class, my neighborhood, even my former seminary buddies, I’m starting to lean more towards can’t. Part of it has to do with the fact that these questions on evil and suffering, on death and dying, on the human condition and existence, are deeper than many people feel comfortable going. To meditate on those types of things would be depressing, if not outright hurtful.
It also has to do with the fact that many adults are afraid of admitting that what answers they do have aren’t satisfying to them, much less to anyone else. There’s a cycle of silent desperation within some of our churches, where the sins and insecurities of the fathers are being passed on to the sons. And that is actually the issue writ large: most Christian adults practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism themselves. The kids are, as Dean argues so convincingly in her book, just following the lead of their elders.
The answer to all of this seems easy enough: just get the adults trained and interested in the Christian answers to these questions and the kids will follow. The reality is that most adults seem resistant to changing their thinking habits, so getting them to consider a completely different (even if more historic) theology isn’t likely. Heck, if adults struggle to break destructive thought patterns for habits they know are deadly (smoking, drinking, drug use, gambling, sex) how in the world can we expect them to utterly revise the belief system that currently allows them to cope with said patterns?
I fully appreciate that there are adults who change their behaviors, beliefs, and ultimately their lives, on a regular basis. I’m not saying it can’t be done. What I am suggesting is that such changes are difficult. Are they worth pursuing? Without question. Will they necessarily bring about the kind of sea-change we’re looking for in the lives of students? Not so much.
Perhaps, then, the answer lies in taking apologetics and Christian training straight to the kids themselves. There are certainly several talented speakers and organizations out there that are aiming to meet this need—Alex McFarland, Sean McDowell, the folks at Stand To Reason—but the gap is so significant that more must be done. The question becomes: what?
Perhaps the question should become: who?
And if that is the question, then the answer is simple: you.
Apologetics is, at its heart, a discussion on why Christianity is true. It can be deep and philosophical; it can be academic and evidentiary; it can even be relational and experiential. But apologetics is always, at its core, a personal dialog between interested parties. Sometimes that communication is between the believer and God, sometimes between a believer and friends. Why not, as a believer, bring that conversation to the students at your church? Why not sit down and talk about who God is, why that matters and how it impacts a person’s life.
If we don’t have these conversations because we’re fearful—of giving wrong answers, of accidentally turning someone off to the Gospel, of being perceived as a religious fanatic—then perhaps we should re-examine our own faith. In all honesty a faith that can’t be discussed or even scrutinized, a faith that has all the virility and strength of a hot-house flower, isn’t much of a faith at all. It’s a weak philosophy.
My experience has taught me that I don’t have all of the answers—there are things in my theology and understanding of God that require more study, more prayer, more thought—but I do have something even more important: an integrity in answering questions that speaks as loudly to the students as my words do. Or, as one student said, “You don’t shout at us because we don’t think the way you do. You’re actually kind of respectful, and that means a lot. And it makes me curious about what you believe.”
I’m not a Norm Geisler or Ravi Zacharias or William Lane Craig or Lee Strobel, but that doesn’t matter to the kids I teach. They don’t necessarily want an authority figure teaching them; they just want someone real. It takes courage to stand in front of forty teenagers and say, “Let ‘er rip.” It’s as draining as running a marathon and feels like it takes twice as long. And sometimes, you can’t get the answers out the way you want; sometimes words fail or you don’t really understand what a kid is driving at with a particular question.
But for a generation that is rapidly dissolving into a lukewarm pseudo-faith, there is no more important mission than to stand with humility and conviction and discuss the faith that you have based your life upon. There will be bumps and bruises, like when a kid scowls at your response or a few completely ignore you, but they are worth it.
Because, as Jesus said in Scripture, the kids are worth it. Let’s not hold them back.