George Barna has done extensive research on the faith of young America and the task of bringing children and youth to faith in Christ, which he has summarized in the book Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions.
A group of Christian leaders and ministries in the U.S. and Canada–called The 4-14 Forum-led by Barna and Awana Clubs International has been grappling with how to better deal with the task of child evangelism.
The research reinforces one simple but profound truth, over and over again: if you want to have a lasting influence upon the world you must invest in people’s lives; and if you want to maximize your investment, then you must invest in those lives while they are young. The research simply crystallizes lessons that we can observe through history and personal experience: if you connect with children today, effectively teaching them biblical principles and foundations from the start, then you will see the fruit of that effort blossom for decades to come. The more diligent we are in these efforts, the more prodigious a harvest we will reap. Alternately, the more lackadaisical we are in our efforts to raise up children as moral and spiritual champions, the less healthy will the Church and society of the future be.
The difficulty and complexity of the task has become more evident. Researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and have written up findings from a recent study in a new book: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press).
After interviewing over 3,000 teenagers, the social scientists summed up their beliefs:
(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.”
Even these secular researchers recognized that this creed is a far cry from Christianity, with no place for sin, judgment, salvation, or Christ. Instead, most teenagers believe in a combination of works righteousness, religion as psychological well-being, and a distant non-interfering god. Or, to use a technical term, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Ironically, many of these young deists are active in their churches. “Most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe,” conclude Mr. Smith and Ms. Denton, “or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it.”
Another possibility is that they have learned what their churches are teaching all too well. It is not just teenagers who are moralistic therapeutic deists. This describes the beliefs of many adults too, and even what is taught in many supposedly evangelical churches.
Clearly many churches are not teaching young people the deep truths of the Christian faith. I’m beginning to fear that even evangelical churches are striving so much to be relevant to the culture and to attract seekers that they are not digging deep into the marrow of Christianity—-leaving their parishioners young and old with a thin and ultimately inadequate set of beliefs.