The Heresy All Christian Teens Believe (And How to Fix It)

October 5, 2015

Christian leaders often lament the rate at which young people are leaving the church, but few seem to have noticed that many of those who do stay have accepted a non-orthodox version of the Christian message.

Man Holding Sign That Says BlessedIn other words, many Christian teens aren’t really Christians. It’s time to face that, and do something about it.

A Heresy for Our Kids

The false belief system that many, if not most, Christian teens have swallowed is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a wimpy version of Christianity focused on building self-esteem.

MTD was identified in 2005 by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, based on a study of thousands of teenagers funded by the Lilly Endowment.

Kenda Creasy Dean deals with the implications of MTD in her excellent book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.

MTD is a folk religion, an informal set of beliefs that supplants or alters authentic faith. MTD comprises these tenets:

  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human 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 does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

  • Good people go to heaven when they die.1

Listen to What They Say

If you doubt the pervasiveness of these beliefs among Christian youth, listen to testimonies of young people in Evangelical churches. They tend to go something like this:

“I used to think Christians were weird, but then I discovered this church where everybody helps other people. That is so cool, and I just know this is where I’m supposed to be.”

Or, “I went through a really dark time in my life, but now I know God is always there for me. I talk to him whenever I have problems, and it really helps. It feels good to know that God will be there when I need him.”

Absent from MTD is any notion that human beings are deeply flawed by sin and therefore alienated from God and each other, that the human problem is so deep that it required the sacrifice of God’s own Son, or that salvation is necessary, much less that it should result in a complete life transformation—in other words, the gospel.

What Goes Around

MTD is nothing new. It’s an amalgam of age-old ideas that the Church has emphatically and repeatedly rejected but which keep popping up nonetheless.

To cook up a batch of MTD, combine—

[one_third]1 cup Deism
1/2 cup Marcionism
1 tbsp. Gnosticism
2 cups Prosperity Gospel
3/4 cup Subordinationism
Pelagianism to taste[/one_third][two_third_last padding=”0 0 0 10px”]There is a god, but he never bothers you.
Most of the Bible is too scary to be true.
All people are really good at heart.
God’s greatest desire is for you to be happy.
Jesus is like a big brother, showing us how to live.
You can be a better person if you try.[/two_third_last]

Bake for 15 years in a congregation fearful of losing its next generation, et viola!—a new religion, perfect for making kids feel better about themselves.

What about the Next, Next Generation?

If the goal of Christianity were to produce pleasant, tolerant people with incredibly high self-esteem, MTD would be more orthodox than Augustine.

But if Jesus came instead to initiate a new way of living based on total devotion to God and radical love of others that would transform human life, MTD looks more like a bad self-help booklet, packed with the trite advice of every radio shrink that ever lived.

All of which begs the question: If this is the “faith” we are passing on to the next generation, will the church be Christian in 25 years? In our eagerness to keep our kids excited about going to church, have we traded the eternal gospel for a shortcut to self-esteem?

The Best Antidote for Error

Truth is always the best response to error, so the corrective for MTD is to proclaim the true gospel, that is, the way of thinking about God, human beings, and salvation delivered by Jesus, received by the apostles, defended by the church fathers and reformers, and defined in the Scriptures, traditions, and creeds of the Church.

But reversing this error won’t be easy. Folk beliefs are persistent, if nothing else, and a train with as much steam as MTD won’t be easily derailed.

What will it take to restore authentic faith?

First, we’ll have to overcome our anxiety of losing people.

The reason MTD pervades the church is that we have been too fearful of rejection to declare and defend the whole gospel. It’s been easier to tell our children, “God thinks you’re awesome, just as you are!” than, “You feel bad because you’ve been bad, and you need to repent.”

Teaching children a false gospel is worse than teaching no gospel at all.

Second, we’ll have to tell the whole truth.

The devilishness of MTD (or any heresy) is that it’s partly true. God does love people, and he is there when you need him. But there’s more to it.

To identify orthodox faith in all of its complexity would go well beyond the scope of this (or any) blog post. Suffice it to say that there’s a concise statement of the gospel in Romans 1-3, as well as in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. For further reading, see the entire Bible.

Ironically, we are more likely to retain the next generation and convert nonbelievers by speaking undiluted truth. The gospel actually does save people.

Finally, we’ll need to re-conceive of the church as a shared faith, not a common culture.

In our eagerness to see people join us (or remain among us), we’ve defined our faith as a lifestyle. Christians are the people who look and act as we do. We have accepted diverse beliefs so long as we’ve had a common culture.

We need to reverse that.

Christianity is a common faith displayed in many cultures. We must become more tolerant of diverse lifestyles in the church, and more insistent on a common faith.

Reason to Hope

We have good reason to be optimistic about the faith despite the circumstances. The Gnostic and Arian controversies of the second and fourth centuries resulted in a better-defined, more robust church.

The same will be true for our next generations. The gospel is always appealing. Serve that and no one will go away hungry.

Lawrence W. Wilson


I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.