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A Spiritual Continental Divide
Posted by Clare
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Even if they say they are Christians, your children or grandchildren, may believe in a different God than you do!

For the last two weeks I’ve explored some of the practical applications of the two predominate protestant, biblical worldviews, covenantal and dispensational theology.  This blog features another “Christian” worldview.  It’s one of the most ill-defined, fastest growing and potentially, most deadly theology of any I’ve encountered.  And your children or grandchildren may actually believe it!

A few years ago, I served on Spiritual Formation Task Force for a local Christian high school and I was given a book by Christian Smith, entitled, Soul Searching. Under a major grant from the E.I. Lilly Foundation, Dr. Smith, a Christian sociologist, at the University of North Carolina and his team conducted hundreds of face-to-face and phone interviews to find out what American teens really believed about God.

His findings were startling to me, but the more time I spend with high school students, even in conservative churches, the more convinced I am that his research is right on. And, his findings explain why the faith of our fathers is not the faith of our children. Here’s a summary of what he found.

A Spiritual Continental Divide

The Continental Divide is an imaginary, geographic line running north to south, along the peaks of the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. All water or snow landing on the east side of that line flows to the east and just the opposite for moisture landing on the west side of that line. The Continental Divide is not just an interesting geographic observation. It determines the quality of life and the livelihood of millions of people, who either receive, or fail to receive its life giving water.

There is a spiritual “continental divide” in Christianity also. Either:

My life belongs to God. Because God is my creator and I’ve been rescued and redeemed by Christ, I now belong to him and the primary purpose of my life in the family of God is to love him and make life better for others. God is my life. Speak Lord your servant is listening.

My life is my own. “I believe in God and am grateful for Jesus’ love for me. I go to church to stay connected with him and learn more about how to live a better life. God’s primary job is to help guide me through life.”

For this group God is more like an “app” for their I-life. They press “God” with prayer when they need help. He’s always there to rescue them when life hands them something they can’t handle. Other than that and their church life, they’d prefer a God who wasn’t terribly inconvenient particularly when it comes to moral or lifestyle choices – this god is user friendly.

Either your life belongs to you, or your life belongs to God.

The second worldview is what Dr. Smith calls, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). It’s a counterfeit-spiritual adaptation and really isn’t Christian at all. The tragedy is that this counterfeit appears to the pre-dominate “Christian” worldview held by the majority of teenagers and young adults in the U.S. today. To understand how this has come about, Dr. Smith in his book briefly outlines two completely opposite worldviews, the first is a “Morally significant worldview and the second, a morally insignificant worldview.”

A Morally Significant Worldview

To live in a morally significant universe, means that we recognize there is a some larger purpose for our life, beyond our own existence, which has moral laws and a framework for making decisions, which are far more important than our personal happiness. We willingly agree to subordinate our personal rights for the common good of the community which holds to those views, or the deity which demands them, or both.

A Christian, morally significant worldview is the rock-solid belief that God is working in history and in the lives of men and women, whose daily choices and habits, either resist, or respond, to God’s redemptive purposes.  In all cases, his will supersedes ours.

A Morally Insignificant Worldview

By contrast, when a person lives in a morally insignificant universe, there is no creator, no God and; therefore, no moral absolutes, no cosmic purposes, no angels or demons – just life now. There are causes to support, like environmentalism, world peace, and justice, which gives some meaning to life, but even these are optional.

There are also obvious consequences for good and bad choices for us and others, but the framework for making those choices is ours to determine, based on what we believe is right or wrong. We have no moral right to force our ideas on others, unless they are in opposition to the humanitarian or environmental causes we champion or they impinge in my personal freedom.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)

The dominate religion among contemporary U.S. Christian teenagers is what we might well call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. For all practical purposes, it’s a combination of these morally significant and insignificant worldviews. The creed of this religion, as it emerged from our hundreds of interviews with Christian teenagers, sounds something like this:

1. God either created the world or at the very least is working through evolution and people to give it some order, but obviously God can’t fix everything, or he would if he was a loving God.

2. Jesus was the Son of God, died on the cross and rose from the dead for the sins of the world and his primary teaching was that we ought to love everyone.

3. Jesus was more about love than rules.  God wants us to be happy and to feel good about ourselves.

4. We’re hopeful that the Bible has been translated with accuracy, but no one can be sure. Still it’s very helpful for teaching how we ought to live, but some of the moral rules that were true and worked thousands of years ago, may not be true today.

5. Good people who believe in God go to heaven when they die. However, the notion of hell for good people of other religions or those who’ve never heard is inconsistent with the idea of a loving God.

6. While I personally believe Christianity is true, it’s arrogant to believe we have all the answers or Christ is the only way to God.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is primarily about providing “therapeutic” benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of living as a servant of a sovereign, divine God, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, or self-denial and self-expenditure on behalf of others.

Rather, it’s centrally about feeling good, happy, secure and at peace. One 15 year old Hispanic, and conservative Protestant girl from Florida expressed the therapeutic benefits of her faith in these terms: “God is like someone who is always there for you, I don’t know, it’s like God is God. He’s just like somebody that’ll always help you go through whatever you’re going through.”  Another 17 year old evangelical says, “He just kind of stays back and watches, like he’s watching a play, like he’s a producer. He makes the play all possible and then he watches it, and if there’s something he doesn’t like he changes it.”

Is this a new religion?

This isn’t a new religion!  It appears to operate as a parasitic faith. It can’t sustain itself, on its own; rather it must attach itself to established religious traditions, like Christianity, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities. Their parents are happy that their kids are going to church and while they suspect the devotion of their children isn’t quite what they would like, at least they haven’t abandoned the faith. However, for all interests and purposes, most have.

So, if you’ve been wondering why you and your children are using the same words, perhaps even attending the same church, but there’s no passion for God, perhaps this is why.  It’s not that they’ve thought all this out and have come to a logical decision to adopt these worldviews, but many have, unwittingly morphed into this counterfeit Christianity, or their friends have and it’s scary. As Paul said in II Timothy, this religion “has a form of godliness, but denies its power”.

Some questions for you to ask your children:

1. What questions about traditional Christianity do you or your friends find most confusing?

2. Please describe for me the God you believe in – what is he like? (When they give you answers, take a little time to probe a little deeper to find out what they really mean. Also, ask what their friends think.)

3. Do you believe there may be other ways to God except through faith in Jesus?

4. How do you think this world was created?

5. What do you believe about the Bible? Do you think it’s accurate, relevant, etc.? Do you know how we got it?

6. Do you think there are moral absolutes that have been and always will be true? Which ones? Which ones may no longer be true?

My question for you:  What evidence do you see of MTD in your family or church?

Following Jesus in Real Life


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Comments (3)
  1. Pete Deutsch said...

    Hi Mr DeGraaf,

    In answer to your question, I see none of this in my family or in my church, Vineyard North. While I most always respect your thinking and investigation into Christian subjects, I believe this subject is way off base here.
    14 to 19 year olds hardly can be expected to be these fully formed Christian believers. If someone honestly tells me that the majority of kids didn’t have crazy thoughts or ideas of your faith at those ages, I’m sorry, I wouldn’t believe you.

    If you have your children participating in any church activities, God Bless you. Give these children time to mature before anyone throws around ideas that these kids are suffering from MTD, or other wacky legalistic names some may call them.

    Blessing to you sir!

  2. Craig Finkel said...

    This guy ought to talk to teenagers in other countries that have accepted Christ as their personal saviour and who have been discipled. I have talked with kids like this that are very specific about what they believe and are 100% totally sold out for Christ – they are living for Him versus God being available for their needs.

    This gentleman’s response appears to support your thesis. The Evangelical Church today is loosing ground, not only with kids but with adults also. We have attended a Church that has no education for even adults as it relates to basic doctrines. Like you said Clare, people attending church want it to be easy to fit into their life style, oh, and don’t expect me to serve, teach, or attend anything other than 1 worship service a week, if I have time.

    Anyway, I believe that your article is spot on and should concern all of us parents that want to see our kids live a Christ centered life. Thanks for your articles. Craig

  3. Pete Deutsch said...

    To Craig,

    Please forgive me if you didn’t mean me, Pete, as “This guy”, but in fact I have talked to many kids, 13-19 from around the world and yes, some are fully blessed with the knowledge of Christ and are 100% committed. I do believe that your probably correct about the kids from other countries, but here in the USA our children have many, many choices and our faith is one of them. Coming into and out of puberty these children are faced with much, much more peer pressure than any other lands. I believe our American Freedoms have produced these special problems for our children. Ultimately they will find Christ with the right Parental leadership.

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