In her book Almost Christian Kenda Creasy Dean draws on the National Study of Youth and Religion to present a disturbing portrait of American teenagers in mainline Protestant denominations like the United Methodist Church. She argues that a large majority are unable to say what they believe nor do they engage regularly in practices like Bible reading and prayer. What they do believe, according to the study, is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Its basic beliefs are these:
- 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 in 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.
(Almost Christian, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 14)
This is so radically different from historic Christianity that Dean calls it an entirely different religion. Where would American teens raised in churches find such a bland faith? The evidence in the study is overwhelming: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is their faith because it is what is taught and practiced in their churches and families.
Dean drew the title of her book from sermons preached by John Wesley and George Whitefield, called “The Almost Christian.” Although Whitefield and Wesley had theological differences, they were united in opposing the watered-down Christianity
of the churches of their day. More than “nice;” Wesley believed God wants to restore us to the image of God, which is the passionate, sacrificial love revealed in Jesus Christ. To receive this new life is our purpose in life, and salvation is for this life as well as the life to come. God is not far away but near, and our joy comes from being in the presence of God. I want to elaborate on some of these themes in contrast to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the months ahead.
But for now, let me close with these words from John Wesley concerning the purpose of his Methodists, from his “Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” Grieved at churches filled with persons “of no religion at all” or with “a lifeless, formal religion,” they would “greatly rejoice” in convincing them that there is a better religion to be attained, a religion worthy of God that gave it. And this we conceived to be no other than love: the love of God and all mankind; the loving God with all our heart and soul and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made…as our own soul.
This religion is rooted in the heart, and produces genuine peace and joy. It extends itself by its fruits as loving service to others. It is the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ.