What a student believes really matters, particularly about God. Whether you’re a parent or a Student Minister, this article by Paul Turner from Parenting Teens magazine can help us all in our relationships with students.
—Ben Trueblood, Director of Student Ministry at Lifeway
What does your teen really believe about God? The short answer I have is, “I don’t know, why don’t you listen and talk to your teen?” I know that sounds harsh, but I think that is the best answer.
The short answer doesn’t sell many books and doesn’t help ease the angst that most of us parents feel about broaching the subject of God (second only to sex on the list of topic parents hate to bring up with their teens). So, to ease your angst (hopefully) and to give you a possible starting point for discussion, let me offer some handles to grab onto as you begin to discover what your teen really believes about God.
In her book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean conducted follow-up research and analysis of research that a guy named Christian Smith did a few years ago. In his research, Christian Smith and his cohorts asked students what they thought about a number of things God-related. Based on the result, various people wrote books, went on the speaking circuit, and tried to convince parents and adults who work with students that teens are all over the place in their beliefs about God, religion, and faith.
Dean pointed out a number of factors that students said influenced their view of God. In analyzing and writing about those findings, she (along with Christian Smith) coined a phrase: “moralistic therapeutic deism.” (Use that phrase four times in a conversation and you will really impress someone.) Broken down, that phrase basically means “I want to do good, feel good about myself, and that is pretty much why God exists.”
Granted, that is sort of my spin on the textbook definition, but I don’t think either Dean or Smith would argue too much with my paraphrase. Basically, teens see God as someone/something they can call on when they get into a really tough spot, but I am going to work really hard to be good, do good, and feel good about myself.
In Almost Christian, the following guiding belief statements make up a moralistic therapeutic deism:
1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth. Most believing
teenagers would say this is the God of the Bible.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
If you think about it, moralistic therapeutic deism is nothing more than cultural Christianity in America. We love God, baseball, and apple pie. God watches over our world (and, most importantly, the USA) and intervenes in my life when everything goes wrong. And He will let me into heaven when I die because I’m a good person.
Think that the research from Almost Christian is faulty? Think again. In the National Study of
Youth and Religion, Christian Smith reported similar findings, although the findings are couched in different terms:
1. Most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise don’t give it much thought.
2. Most U.S. teenagers mirror their parents’ religious faith.
3. Teenagers lack a theological language with which to express their faith or interpret their experience of the world.
4. A minority of teenagers—but a significant minority—say religious faith is important, and that it makes a difference in their lives. These teenagers are doing better in life on a number of scales, compared to their less religious peers.
5. Many teenagers enact and espouse a religious outlook that is distinct from traditional teachings of most world religions – an outlook called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
(I did not go into all the statistical data, but you can find it if you search online for the National Study of Youth and Religion.)
I know this research can seem like useless jargon, but there really is a point to all of this statistical stuff, especially as it relates to parenting teenagers.
Look back at finding No. 2 of Smith’s research. To quote: “teenagers mirror their parents’ religious faith.” That can be both a call to repentance and a call to action.
My wife and I are parents of two young adult daughters. We as parents endured all the normal/abnormal child rearing phases. We “launched” them off to college into adulthood. And we found out through it all that we still love one another and our daughters. My wife and I have read a few books, taught some parenting seminars, and made numerous mistakes along the way.
Even so, the idea that teens copy their parents’ faith is really scary to consider. It puts me on the hot seat. I know there are exceptions— parents do a good job of rearing their children and those children run as fast and as far away from God and their parents as they can. However, in most cases, teenagers mirror their parents’ religious faith.
Pow! Right between the eyes!
If you are honest with yourself, you know that to be true. Children mimic their parents’ behavior in other areas (which is why your son honks at drivers just like you do), so it makes sense that the same holds true for spiritual development. Such findings place responsibility squarely on the shoulder of parents (which is what Deuteronomy 6 says, by the way).
So, this finding begs the question: What do you (as the parent) really believe about God?
Moralism vs. Discipleship
Yes, it can be a slippery slope when we as believers focus our lives on trying to live out the teachings of Christ rather than focusing on falling in love with the person of Christ. But for many well-meaning parents, we want to make sure that we teach our kids the things that they should do when they are younger and then make the shift to telling them what they shouldn’t do when they are teenagers – both of which negate relationship with Jesus outright.
Here is what I mean: Parents tell little Johnny and Susie that it is important for them to share their toys and play nice with others. Be kind. Wash your face. Be friendly.
Then, when they become teens, those same parents tell Johnny and Susie all the things not to do: do not smoke, do not drink and don’t have sex or even sexual thoughts. We have a tendency to go from helping them to live a life that is all about doing the right things to making sure they don’t do the wrong things. Some people call it moralism, others call it behavior modification. But at its core, does teaching do’s and don’ts help students develop a passion and love for God? Merely teaching facts about God and His commands does nothing to help them understand God’s character or instill a desire to know Him. By and large, we as parents have set up rules and regulations because we want to protect our children, but we are not modeling for them a love relationship with Christ.
A Starting Place
Colossians 1:15-20 is a good place to start thinking about a discipleship model for parents. In those verses, Paul set forth the nature and character of Jesus Christ. In it, we read not who we are but to find out who He is and in doing so, we discover who we are in Him. These verses – as well as all of Scripture – are a love letter to us about Him.
We have a tendency to read Scripture to find a formula that will help us live better lives. But that’s not the point. God is in the business of transforming lives, not making lives smoother. We will never find the right formula because God wants relationship, not rules-based works. Remember the Pharisees? That’s what they were guilty of doing.
Want to know what your teen believes about God? Look in the mirror and you will likely find the
If you’re still not sure, take a chance and talk to your teen. Most teens want to have deep and meaningful faith conversations with their parents.
Listen to their answers. And model for them what it looks like to fall in love with Christ, not just His teachings. There’s a big difference between the two.
Paul Turner is the Student Ministry Specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources. He and his wife Sondra are the parents of two young adult daughters.