If I look back at my high school self as if I were watching the movie version of my life from the safety of a faraway sofa, I see things more clearly now than I did then. With the distance of years and experience, I see a five-foot-eight, brown-haired wonder. She’s an Alabama girl at a New England boarding school, one of just a few students from outside the region. Walking to class wearing sandals through the snow, she seems fairly confident, if not a bit of a pied piper. Look closer and this girl’s eyes are taking in every detail of her surroundings like a trapped cat or an army spy surveying the battlefield. Who’s at what table? Why is the boy she likes sitting next to that girl? Does her tummy look flat enough in this shirt? And for the love of all things, pretend not to care what anyone thinks.
As a teenager, hidden beneath my whimsical, extroverted exterior was a girl squirming in her skin from the awful discomfort of trying to earn her worth on the world’s terms. She hoped if she made all the right moves, did everything to the letter, then like a lovable genie, God would grant her wishes. But she suspected she was failing; she wasn’t all that nice. She was white-knuckling her way through, desperately in need of rest, and looking high and low for anyone or anything to prove her worst fears wrong: that she was in fact valuable—boyfriend-less, bare feet, and all.
This same struggle rages deep in the hearts of teenagers everywhere. Without God as our true north, most of us spend our entire high school years looking to athletics, popularity, a unique skillset, or an attractive boyfriend or girlfriend to confirm our worth or “righteousness.” But what if none of these ambitions is attainable to begin with? And even if they are attainable, what happens when the relationship ends, we get cut from the team, or don’t get accepted into the college of our dreams? When the ground beneath our feet comes loose, what in this world is going to be our firm and unshakable foundation?
Even as adults, we still struggle with this inclination to gather trophies. We cannot imagine that without one—or an entire case full—we’d be okay. But on the cross, Jesus says the unfathomable. He says I have made you okay, and it has nothing at all to do with your pitiful efforts. The message of the cross is not one of strength, but helplessness. In the cross, we must acknowledge once and for all that we cannot save ourselves; we cannot chisel and carve our own crooked hearts into anything like holy. On the cross, Jesus shouts with his last dying breath that everything that needs to be accomplished in this world has been done, by him: “It is finished” (John 19:30).
But this is not the heave-ho American way, is it? We have a historically strong discomfort in surrendering our lot to another. American teenagers are no exception.
The Problem of a Watered Down Jesus
In 2005, Christian Smith and fellow researchers at the National Study of Youth and Religion took a deep-dive into the faith-lives of a broad range of 3,000 American teenagers (summarized in their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers). Smith and his colleagues characterized the faith described by an overwhelming majority of teenagers they interviewed as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) consists of beliefs like these:
1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
My friend and colleague, Cameron Cole, says in simpler language that MTD is, “man-centered, performance-based Christianity.”
Cole says, “Whether describing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in youth ministry, the broader church, or individual lives, this theological bent clearly communicates that the Christian faith is all about man. It’s all about man’s effort. It’s all about man’s self-esteem and self-fulfillment. It’s all about man’s internal locus of control.”
In essence, American teenagers tend to believe they’ve pretty much got everything together and that they just need to toe the line socially and morally in order to be “okay.” Oh sure, God is there to tag-in during a crisis, but he’s largely on the outskirts. Otherwise, the main goal in life is to achieve happiness.
I wonder how this ethos has held up during a global pandemic. No wonder today’s teenagers are so very anxious, exhausted, and—it’s critical to point out—falling away from the church.
What we learn from Christian Smith and his colleagues is that many teenagers today, even ones who’ve been raised in the church, are not receiving a theologically robust, grace-centered, or biblically grounded discipleship at church or at home.
This should alarm you. If young people are growing up on a faith centered on being nice—one that reduces the God of the universe to an occasional back-up dancer—kids are missing out in an enormous way on the immense freedom and intimate love, joy, and forgiveness that is there for them in a personal, saving relationship with Jesus.
The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School
The opposite of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel says this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV). On Calvary, Jesus even showed tenderness and mercy to the criminal who hung by his side. And because of his atoning work on the cross, you too are counted as worthy as the King of Love himself.
As a teenager, I was perilously close to practicing the belief-system of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (because I’m a card-carrying sinner, I can still fall into this pattern of striving as an adult). I thought I could orchestrate my own story and happiness if I just followed the steps laid out for me by the world. I thought I could muscle my own worth. Had I known Jesus then like I know him now, I’d have collapsed on the sidelines and caught my breath; and I wouldn’t have been alone. Beside me would have been the one whose burden was easy, whose yoke was light (Matthew 11:30)—the one who called me his very own. I’d have realized that I could rack up every accolade the world has to offer, spew niceties out of my sin-ridden yin-yang, but without Jesus, I was as righteous as a thief.
If I’d known Jesus then like I know him now, I’d have wept and clung to the absolute reality that I was known since the beginning of time, created with purpose, and loved enough to die for.
My hope for teenagers today—my hope for all of us—is that they’d root the entirety of their lives in the abundant truths of Scripture and lean into the Big Story that God has written them into with the utmost of grace. That they’d grasp, like Paul says to the Ephesians, “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (3:18–19 NIV). When we walk side-by-side, in full knowledge of the love and grace we have in Jesus, he becomes the firm foundation beneath the shaky and uncertain grounds this side of heaven. No matter the circumstances that befall us, we can walk in certain hope and freedom that this Jesus who is surprised by nothing, who is with us in every sense of the world, is turning all things toward good – even our sin-stained hearts.
This article originally appeared here.