Are We Becoming a Nation of "Fake" Christians?

by Dr. Michael Farris
September 13, 2010

A recent article on the CNN website entitled, “More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians,” drew my attention to a book written by Kenda Creasy Dean, a United Methodist minister and Princeton seminary professor. The author’s credentials, I have to admit, initially set off my alarm bells, signaling “liberalism alert.”  Yet I am very, very glad I kept reading. 

Dean’s book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, is of profound importance to any who care about the effectiveness of American Christian churches—especially in connection with young people. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the author doesn’t question the “effectiveness” of churches. Dean reports that the vast majority of teens have been convincingly inculcated in a clearly identifiable set of religious beliefs by American churches.  The problem is that, in a vast majority of the 3,300 American teenagers, aged 13 to 17, she interviewed, their religious beliefs have almost nothing to do with orthodox Christianity. 

Quoting her fellow researchers, Dean observes that this “feel good and do good” brand of Christianity “is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by quite a different religious faith.” 

The study, stemming from research Dean conducted for the National Study of Youth and Religion, included Christians of all stripes – from Catholics to Protestants of both conservative and liberal denominations. And while it confirmed that three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, the study revealed that fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can’t talk coherently about their beliefs. Dean describes the belief system held by the vast majority of “Christian” teens:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over 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 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.

Dean calls this belief system “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist.” She observed that if an adherent of this belief system was challenged on any aspect of religious faith, the predictable response would likely be, “Whatever.”  Apparently, while many teens actually hold these beliefs, they rarely regard even these milquetoast concepts with much conviction. The unavoidable conclusion of all this is that most of Dean’s teenagers simply do not care.

What has happened that teens have reduced Christianity to such an insipid view of God?  She convincingly demonstrates that teens are a precise reflection of the belief system taught by most churches and, more importantly, the brand of faith modeled by most parents.  Teens are not religious rebels, she noted; they arrive at their self-centered, happiness-oriented, God-indifferent views quite honestly. 

There are some notable exceptions.  A few teens hold sincere, well-taught, deep convictions that rise out of a personal encounter with God.  Dean argues that parents are by far the most important influence for the teens possessing a vital, personal faith in Jesus, and that parents who make “radical” choices flowing from their faith demonstrate with their lives that Christianity really matters. These parents inspire their children to do likewise.  Clear teaching is important. Clear living even more so. 

While Dean’s book tends to be quite repetitive in spots, I would nonetheless urge every parent and every pastor in America to read it. At a minimum, every church in this country should make sure that someone in leadership reads this book and soberly reflects on Dean’s findings.

In my long-term roles with HSLDA and Patrick Henry College, I’ve had the privilege of knowing thousands and thousands of Christian parents who have made one very radical choice flowing from their faith—they homeschool their children. And reading Dean’s book, I’m reminded that it’s important that our children know that we do this because of God’s direction in our lives and not merely because we like high test scores and well-mannered children. And it’s important that we demonstrate “being sold out for Christ” in all we do, so that our children can see that this is how Christians live. 

I see this happening on many levels at Patrick Henry College. Last spring, graduating seniors held a “faculty appreciation night” that truly touched my heart. In personally thanking the faculty members who had taught them for the last four years, almost all of the graduates, in one form or another, credited their professors with modeling a life that was clearly sold out for God, resulting in genuine care for the spirit and mind of each student. 

At secular colleges (and at those religious colleges who actually practice a form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism despite the label of ‘Christian’), the results are strikingly different.

Let’s face it, a teen who believes in “whatever” is putty in the hands of a college professor who believes in nothing.

Michael P. Farris served as founding president of Patrick Henry College (2000-2006) and is now Chancellor. In addition to teaching Constitutional Law and coaching the Moot Court team, he organizes a mentorship program for PHC students called Tyndale's Ploughmen. He serves as Chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association.