Start A Community Group!!

Community Groups:

One of the goals of this transition season at Southside is to see multiple groups of individuals and families sharing life together and living life on mission – serving the city and each other. We are seeking to be theological, relational, and missional. This can occur in multiple ways.

Community Groups will be a venue in which believers and unbelievers alike can gather together to dialogue about what is being taught in our Sunday gatherings. There are at least four integral components of a community group: 1) Worship – to meet with God and to know Him is our highest priority. 2) Conversational Prayer and Mutual Ministry – having a conversation together with God is an essential way to build unity; first by praising God and then by praying in response to the needs expressed. 3) Application of the Bible – we will seek not just to talk about the Bible, or about each other. Rather, we want our groups to seek to be transformed by the truth of the Gospel. So we will do our best to apply the truths learned to our everyday lives. 4) Sharing a Life – there’s nothing like an honest testimony to illustrate what is being taught.  When a person shares with the group, s/he feels more a part of the group. The objective of the leader is not to be the authority or even the teacher, but the guide.

Also, Community Groups are missional communities that will act as missionary teams, seeking the good of their unchurched family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. They will be concerned with praying for and serving their sphere of relationships in such a way as to let them know that we are Christ’s disciples because we love one another.

Finally, and most simply stated, our community groups are networks of Christ-centered relationships. They are friends seeking to learn how to “speak the truth in love” to one another. They spend time together, meet one another’s needs, watch one another’s kids, bear one another’s burdens, encourage one another, challenge one another, hold one another accountable, rejoice with one another, weep with one another, correct one other, be corrected by one another.

This is gospel community. It is not natural. It is not easy. It is messy. It can be frustrating. But it is good, and it will change you.

Gathering for Worship:

This is perhaps what most people think of as “Going to Church.” Church, however, is not an event, or a ceremony – it is people. Those who have been saved by God’s grace have been saved into God’s family, into a community. So it is only natural for local pockets of this family to come together and celebrate what God has done in Jesus. We come together to celebrate the truth of the gospel and to rehearse the gospel by singing it, praying it, hearing it preached, and seeing it in communion and (God-willing) baptism. We come together to encourage and be equipped for lives on mission. Expect mostly expositional preaching (verse by verse through books of the bible), seeking to exalt Christ and unpack the gospel in every text. Expect communion often, if not every week, (we like remembering the gospel as many times in as many ways as possible.) Expect to be told the truth – no pulled punches. We won’t “Go to church.” The Church will gather.

Discipleship (Life-Long Learning)

We believe that gospel-centered (or Christ-centered) living will make us desperate for theology and that our worship gathering will whet your appetite for theology. However we see a huge need for an ever-increasing understanding of our faith. We live in an age of skepticism and relativity. In many places Christ and the church have been pushed to the margins of society instead of existing at the center. We believe that Christianity is a relational worldview that is complex, beautiful, and meaningful. We believe that if we are going to be effective missionaries we must understand our Bibles, love what it teaches, and proclaim its contents. We all have a lot to learn, and we envision venues within Southside that will take time to work through learning the central truths of our faith.

Texted Questions 8/21/11

We started something new at Southside last Sunday.  People will be able to text questions during the sermon and we will try and take some time at the end to respond.  Those questions we do not get to we will provide responses to here.  The goal is to ask questions related to the sermon, but it’s understandable that sometimes additional questions might come up while we gather to worship…

Q: RE: “gifts of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of mission:” Would Muslims having dream encounters with Christ before meeting Christian missionaries be of the [spiritual] gifts and miracles in present day times? 

A: Yes, I think so…There are, at least, a couple of passages that indicate God’s sovereignty in revealing Himself through dream encounters and other supernatural phenomenon: Acts 2:17 (quoted from Joel 2:28):

“It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.”

Rev 14:6 —And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people.”

A well-received book, first published in 1980, titled, I Dared to Call Him Father: The True Story of a Woman’s Encounter with God by Bilquis Sheikh, describes the process of a Pakistani noblewoman coming to a belief in Christ, through dreams and reading the Bible on her own.

Q: Growing up dispensational, now piecing things together between the three views (dispensational, covenant, and new covenant) I struggle with the lack of distinction.  If so I can’t choose Him first and ask for the Spirit without the Spirit within me.  Will you have more info on this on the blog?

A: It sounds like you are asking about the sovereignty of God related to salvation… There are two more distinctions within Protestantism that we didn’t speak to last Sunday: Calvinism and Arminianism.  These theological frameworks have both overlap as well as fundamental disagreements.  At the heart of the differences is the human will.  Calvinists believe that the human will is incapable of choosing Christ – that we are dead in our sins (Col 2:13) until God’s sovereign electing grace breaks in.  While the crux of Arminianism is the assertion that God has bestowed upon humanity an unimpaired freedom of the will and that those who choose to respond in obedience to Christ’s offer of grace will find eternal salvation (Heb 5:8-9).

Q: I am a Christian and I listen to some ungodly [music] – swearing, [graphic] language, etc. but I don’t let it influence me at all.  Is it a sin to listen to the music?

A:  Great question!  The word music comes from the word muse. Muse means to think of or meditate on. The ancient philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) noted that, “emotions of any kind can be evoked by melody and rhythm; therefore music has the power to form character.”  So, it seems that music is quite a powerful tool.  One way to think of it is that music opens the soul (our intellect, will, and emotions) and speaks its “truth” into us. I would encourage you to be careful and thoughtful regarding what you fill your soul with.  Paul, in Philippians 4:8 says,

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

Here’s an interesting quote by Confucius (551-479 BC): “A wise man seeks by music to strengthen his soul: the thoughtless one uses it to stifle his fears.”

Finally, let me say that Christian meditation[1] is a bit of a lost art in the Church today.  This last Sunday we spoke of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Often times it’s meditation that releases the warm presence and power of God into and through our lives.  Consider these words from J.I. Packer in the Christian classic, Knowing God:  How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God?  The rule for doing this is demanding, but simple.  It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into a matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God…Meditation is a lost art today, a Christian people suffer grievously from their ignorance of the practice.  Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.  It is the activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God.  Its purpose is to clear one’s mental and spiritual vision of God, and to let His truth make its full and proper impact on ones mind and heart.[2]


[1] Psalm 4:4 – “Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.”  Psalm 27:4 – “That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple.”

[2] J.I. Packer, Knowing God, InterVarsity Press 1973: 18-19.

The Person and Ministry of the Holy Spirit

I. INTRO

Today we are studying the Person and ministry of the Holy Spirit.  We want to establish an ongoing theological[1] dialogue (vs. discussion).

Picture a continuum:

  • On one end of the continuum is what John MacArthur has called, “Charismatic Chaos.”
  • On the other end of the continuum is 2 Tim 3:5 – holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.”

We don’t want to base our theology and practice solely on what we’re against, but what we are for – what we can embrace theologically.

My personal core values (unapologetically): As an active intentional follower of Christ, as a husband, as a father, as a grandfather, as a pastor, as a friend/mentor/coach:

  1. Theological – The study (and subsequent worship) of God is our highest calling.
  2. Relational – We are to love God, one another, and “seek the welfare of our city.”
  3. Missional – We serve a missionary God and we are called to be on mission with Him.

What will be our guidelines for theological engagement at SBF?

We want to work with what the Bible clearly and plainly teaches (today we will, eventually, consider the biblical phrase: baptism of the Holy Spirit).

First, I would like to define some terms:

Three primary (and overlapping) theological camps in U.S. Protestantism:[2] Fundamentalism (“orthodoxy in confrontation with modernity” -James Davison Hunter), Evangelicalism ( Biblicism, Christocentrism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, Activism),[3] and Liberalism (individualism, ecumenism, empericalism, skepticism, anthropological optimism, rationalism, ethicalism, social idealism, immanencism). Within Evangelicalism there is also three main camps (think of them as state boarders vs. national boarders…):

1.  Dispensationalism  –

Sees God as structuring His relationship with humankind through several stages of revelation. Each dispensation amounts to a “test” of humankind to be faithful to the particular revelation given at the time.

Dispe1nsationalism holds to a literal meaning behind all the figurative passages.

As a result of this literal interpretation of Scripture, dispensationalism holds to a distinction between Israel (even believing Israel) and the church. On this view, the promises made to Israel in the OT were not intended as prophecies about what God would do spiritually for the church, but will literally be fulfilled by Israel itself (largely in the millennium). For example, the promise of the land…

2.  Covenant Theology

Covenant theology believes that God has structured His relationship with humanity by covenants rather than dispensations. Old Covenants (OT) and the New Covenant (NT). These covenants are not new tests, but are rather differing administrations of the single, overarching covenant of grace.

Adam sinned and broke the initial, or old, covenant, and thereby subjected himself and all his descendants to the penalty for covenant-breaking — which is condemnation.

God in His mercy instituted the “covenant of grace,” through Jesus Christ, which is the promise of redemption and eternal life to those who would believe in the (coming) redeemer.

3.  New Covenant Theology

The essential difference between New Covenant Theology (NCT) and Covenant Theology (CT) concerns the Mosaic Law. CT holds that the Mosaic Law can be divided into three groups of laws: a) civil law, b) ceremonial law, and c) moral law. According to CT the ceremonial law and civil law are no longer in force because they were fulfilled in Jesus, but the moral law continues.

NCT argues that we cannot divide the law up in that way – so, the whole Mosaic Law is canceled by the coming of Christ (Christ Event) and is no longer binding on the believer.  The Mosaic Law has been replaced by the law of Christ.  Love God and love your neighbor as your self.  Proponents of NCT might say something like, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul – and do whatever you want…”  They may also quote 1 Cor 6:12: All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable.”

Do we have to choose one — Dispensational, Covenant, or New Covenant?? No, it’s just good to be aware of these distinctions as we build a theological framework.  Can we achieve doctrinal certainty?  Not completely on this side of eternity.  God and theology are much deeper and more mysterious that we could ever hope to grasp.

Having said that, the Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged from the Protestant Reformation that are intended to summarize the Reformers’ basic theological principles in contrast to certain teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of the day. “Sola” is Latin meaning “alone” or “only” and the corresponding phrases are:

  • Sola Fide, by faith alone.
  • Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone.
  • Solus Christus, through Christ alone.
  • Sola Gratia, by grace alone.
  • Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone.

These solas will hold us in good stead as we refurbish our theological base during this transition season.  Can we move toward doctrinal clarity?  Yes!

4.  Eschatology — Greek éschato: last + -logy. 

We do not need to get caught-up in the rapture debate.

Mat 24:44 – “For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.”

As a church we will teach people to endure tribulation – and if Jesus come early, it won’t matter.

We will encourage our congregation to read Revelation devotionally.  Encounter the risen Christ in Rev 1…

5.  Holy Spirit Empowered Gifts

Cessationism – The spiritual gifts, primarily those listed in 1 Cor 12:4-11, have ceased.  The key verse is 1 Cor 13:10 —  but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.”

1 Cor 14:1: “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.”

James 5:14-15: “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.”

While fear of a loss of control or emotionalism my drive some cessationists, their overwhelming desire is to protect the unique authority of the Bible and to protect the closed canon and not to have anything compete with Scripture in authority in our lives.

Continuationism – All the gifts are for today.  Consider  the context: 1 Cor 11, 12, 13, & 14…

II.  BODY

The Person of the Holy Spirit

“The Trinity: God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.  -Wayne Grudem

“In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.”  –Augustine, On The Trinity[4]

C.S. Lewis described the Trinity as a “dance” saying, “God is not a static thing…but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost…a kind of dance.”[5]

Tim Keller elaborates on this concept in the Reason for God in Chapter 14 – The Dance of God.[6]

The early leaders of the Greek NT church had a word for this – perichoresis.  Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

The Father…Son…and Holy Spirit glorify each other…At the center of the universe, self-giving love, joy, delight – perfect fellowship is the dynamic currency of the Trinitarian life of God. The persons (not personalities) within the God-Head exalt, commune with, and defer to one another…

When early Greek Christians spoke of perichoresis in God they meant that each divine person harbors the others at the center of His being. In constant movement of overture and acceptance each person envelops and encircles the others.

When Jesus died for you He was, and is, inviting you into the dance…when we discern Jesus moving toward us and encircling us with infinite, self-giving love, we are invited to put our lives on a whole new foundation…

Since the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and is true and eternal God, then we must invoke, worship, and serve the blessed Holy Spirit, even as we do God the Father and God the Son.

Jesus taught us to do this in Mat 28:19 (The Great Commission): Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Now let’s consider the phrase “baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is to be more than a doctrine.  The Holy Spirit is to be experienced.

Gordon Fee wrote, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul.  It’s 992 pages; Fee highlights, analyzes, exegetes, and summarizes every mention of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writings. Pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit).

His findings can be reduced to three words:  “God’s empowering presence.”

Fee concludes that, for Paul, the Holy Spirit was more real and evident than we can possibly imagine in our day and age, the vital and experienced presence of the Holy Spirit was an assumed reality.

How do we experience the Holy Spirit?  Gal 5 is about “walking in the Holy Spirit.”  Paul says in the first 12 verses that they have opted for legalism (or moralism).

Then in verses 13-14 Paul lays it out: “…but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”  Paul takes them back to the Great Commandment: Love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind – and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And then here is the evidence of the Holy Spirit…Paul calls it “fruit.”  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

The baptism of the Holy Spirit means to be immersed in the Holy Spirit.  No power, no Spirit.  (Holy Spirit power is different than will-power.)

Four Reasons Why It Is Appropriate To Expect To Experience the Holy Spirit Baptism:[7]

1.  Terminology — The very term “baptized in the Holy Spirit” implies an immersion in the life of the Spirit. (Refer to hand out…)

2.  Power, Boldness, and Confidence

Jesus says in Acts 1:5 and 8 that baptism in the Holy Spirit means, “You shall receive power…and you shall be my witnesses.”

This is an experience of holy boldness, confidence, and victory over sin.

A Christian without power is a Christian who needs a baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Eph 5:18 – we are to be continually and regularly “filled with the Holy Spirit.”  The verb filled has an imperative mood meaning it is a command and addresses the volition and the will.  Why?  Because we leak…

There is no reason to think that for Paul the baptism in the Holy Spirit was limited to the initial moment of conversion. And for sure in the book of Acts the baptism in the Holy Spirit is more than a subconscious divine act of regeneration—it certainly seems to be a conscious experience of power (Acts 1:8).

3.  The Testimony of Acts — In Acts the Holy Spirit is not a silent influence but an experienced power. Believers experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit. They didn’t just believe it happened because an apostle said so.

4.  It Is The Result of Faith

The fourth reason we should stress the experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit is that in Acts the apostles teach that it is a result of faith.

In Acts 11:15–17 Peter reports how the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius just as on the disciples at Pentecost. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized in water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I should withstand God?” 

Notice that the gift of the Spirit, or baptism in the Holy Spirit, is preceded by faith. The NASB correctly says in v. 17 that God gave the Holy Spirit after they believed.

How to Receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit.[8]  Peter’s instructions for how to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38–41…

1.  The Word of God Must Be Heard.  Peter has preached that in God’s plan Jesus was crucified, raised, and exalted as Lord over all the universe and that forgiveness of sin and spiritual renewal can be had from Him. God’s Word has been heard.

2.  God Must Call People To Himself.

The sovereign God must call men and women to himself, or we will never come. Verse 39: “The promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, everyone to whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

No one comes to faith in Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44, 65). The proclaimed gospel is heard with conviction and power only when the effectual call of God lays hold on the hearers.

3.  We Must Receive the Word.

Third, we must “receive the word.” Verse 41: “So those who received his word were baptized.”

Receiving the Word means that it becomes part of us so that we trust the Christ it presents.

  • We trust His provision for your forgiveness.
  • We trust His path for your life.
  • We trust His power to help you obey.
  • And we trust His promises for your future.

Radical commitment to Christ always involves repentance—a turning away from your own self-wrought provisions, paths, powers, and promises. And when we really turn to Christ for new paths, power, we open yourself to the Holy Spirit, because it is by His Spirit that Christ guides and empowers.

4.  We Express Our Faith Through Water Baptism.

Finally, we give an open confession and expression of faith in the act of water baptism (full immersion – like with the Holy Spirit, do you want to be sprinkled or immersed?) in obedience to Jesus Christ.

Baptism was the universal experience of all Christians in the New Testament. There were no unbaptized Christians after Pentecost. Christ had commanded it (Matthew 28:18f.) and the church practiced it. So we do today.

III. CONCLUSION

Finally, let’s affirm and critique the Charismatic and Pentecostal Movements:

Affirmation:

The most positive thing about the moderate Charismatic/Pentecostal teaching is that it is theologically appropriate to stress the experiential reality of receiving the Holy Spirit.

When we read the NT honestly, we can’t help but notice a BIG difference from a lot of our contemporary Christian experience.

For them the Holy Spirit was a fact and reality of experience.  For many Christians today it is only a fact of doctrine.  The Charismatic renewal has something to teach us here.

Critique:

That the unity of their fellowship is too often based around their experience – not theology.

Whether Paul sought to bring encouragement or correction to the churches in the NT, he wrote theological essays… Paul generally spends the first half of his letters laying out theology and the second half he describes how to implement, or engage, the theology.

When Paul wanted to go to the church in Rome and develop them into a missional sending church (for his intention to travel to Spain), what did he write?  Theology.  Experience is the fruit of biblical theology, not the goal.  Our impatience tends to confuse fruit for goals (e.g., love, joy, peace, etc. cannot be pursued on their own accord, they are the “fruit” of the settled presence of Christ in our hearts/lives).

This brings me to my second critique:  The gifts of the Holy Spirit were given for the purpose of mission and not personal gratification.  One good description of the kingdom of God is:  speaking the words of Jesus and doing the works of Jesus.  Words and works help to make the invisible kingdom visible.

We serve a missionary God:

The Father sent the Son, the Son sent the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit sends you.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit is, basically, 4-fold: He 1) Saves, 2) Seals, 3) Sanctifies, and 4) Sends.

My prayer for us as a community of believers: “That we would experience Jesus Christ, the sovereign, risen, living, Lord of the universe; and that He would continue to become THE source and content of our real hope and joy.”

This coming Sunday:  Beatitudes.  Read Matthew 5:1-12.  See you then!!


[1] Theology means the study of God.

[2] Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther is regarded as the primary catalyst when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg for the in 1517.  (While Pope Leo was corrupt, the upshot of Luther’s theses was that followers of Christ are saved by grace alone, through faith alone.)

[3] Triperspectivalism (cut-and-paste this word and search for it on this blog and you will find an article).

[4] Book 1.3.5.

[5] Mere Christianity: 136.

[6] Pgs 214-221.

[7] Adapted from John Piper.

[8] Also adapted from John Piper.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – Pt 2 (Teens Are Listening To Us)

It is easy to get caught in the trap of moralism.  You might be asking, “What is moralism?”  Moralism seeks to achieve growth or “Christian maturity” through behavior modificationConsider the following descriptions:

  1. One of the most seductive false gospels is moralism, which can take many forms and can emerge from any number of political and cultural impulses. Nevertheless, the basic structure of moralism comes down to this — the belief that the Gospel can be reduced to improvements in behavior.
  2. Moralism is a religious attitude that tends to look down on unbelievers from a self-righteous position by comparing our supposed moral superiority to theirs. It is as if we believe our entrance into Christianity is by grace but that our growth in Christ is due to maintaining a (NT) moral code.
  3. Those who believe this fall into the trap (perhaps subconsciously) of believing that grace alone (Sola gratia) is insufficient for sanctification. The New Testament authors invite us to bear in mind that God’s commands for us to be holy and love our neighbor etc. are not there to show our ability, but to reveal our inability (e.g., Rom 3:19-20) and to remind us of our continual dependence on the grace of God to do in us and through us what we cannot do (accomplish) on our own.

The pursuit of all things Christian must be anchored in the grace of God or it will be doomed to failure.  Grace is at the heart of the gospel, and without a clear understanding of the gospel and grace we can easily slip into moralism, which bears little resemblance to what the gospel offers us.

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, writes the following about a disturbing and discouraging trend in American Christianity, which adds to the false gospel of moralism

The “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”[1] that these researchers [sadly] identify as the most fundamental faith posture and belief system of American teenagers appears, in a larger sense, to reflect the culture as a whole. Clearly, this generalized conception of a belief system is what appears to characterize the beliefs of vast millions of Americans, both young and old.

This is an important missiological observation–a point of analysis that goes far beyond sociology. As Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton explained, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful.” In a very real sense, that appears to be true of the faith commitment, insofar as this can be described as a faith commitment, held by a large percentage of Americans. These individuals, whatever their age, believe that religion should be centered in being “nice”– a posture that many believe is directly violated by assertions of strong theological conviction.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents.” As the researchers explained, “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers [according to the study] is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. [Good insight!] It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”

In addition, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism presents a unique understanding of God. As Smith explains, this amorphous faith “is about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”

Smith and his colleagues recognize that the deity behind Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is very much like the deistic God of the 18th-century philosophers. This is not the God who thunders from the mountain, nor a God who will serve as judge. This undemanding deity is more interested in solving our problems and in making people happy. “In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

Obviously, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not an organized faith. This belief system has no denominational headquarters and no mailing address. Nevertheless, it has millions and millions of devotees across the United States and other advanced cultures, where subtle cultural shifts have produced a context in which belief in such an undemanding deity makes sense. Furthermore, this deity does not challenge the most basic self-centered assumptions of our postmodern age. Particularly when it comes to so-called “lifestyle” issues, this God is exceedingly tolerant and this religion is radically undemanding.

As sociologists, Smith and his team suggest that this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may now constitute something like a dominant civil religion that constitutes the belief system for the culture at large. Thus, this basic conception may be analogous to what other researchers have identified as “lived religion” as experienced by the mainstream culture.

Moving to even deeper issues, these researches claim that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “colonizing” Christianity itself, as this new civil religion seduces converts who never have to leave their congregations and Christian identification as they embrace this new faith and all of its undemanding dimensions.

Consider this remarkable assessment: “Other more accomplished scholars in these areas will have to examine and evaluate these possibilities in greater depth. But we can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually [only] tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but is rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

They argue that this distortion of Christianity has taken root not only in the minds of individuals, but also “within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions.”

How can you tell? “The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, . . . and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.”

This radical transformation of Christian theology and Christian belief replaces the sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of the self. In this therapeutic age, human problems are reduced to pathologies in need of a treatment plan. Sin is simply excluded from the picture, and doctrines as central as the wrath and justice of God are discarded as out of step with the times and unhelpful to the project of self-actualization.

All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life. 

This research project demands the attention of every thinking Christian. Those who are prone to dismiss sociological analysis as irrelevant will miss the point. We must now look at the United States of America as missiologists once viewed nations that had never heard the gospel. Indeed, our missiological challenge may be even greater than the confrontation with paganism, for we face a succession of generations who have transformed Christianity into something that bears no resemblance to the faith revealed in the Bible. The faith “once delivered to the saints” is no longer even known, not only by American teenagers, but by most of their parents. Millions of Americans believe they are Christians, simply because they have some historic tie to a Christian denomination or identity.

We now face the challenge of evangelizing a nation that largely considers itself Christian, overwhelmingly believes in some deity, considers itself fervently religious, but has virtually no connection to historic Christianity. Christian Smith and his colleagues have performed an enormous service for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in identifying Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the dominant religion of this American age. Our responsibility is to prepare the church to respond to this new religion, understanding that it represents the greatest competitor to biblical Christianity.


[1] This quote is from the book: Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell, Oxford University Press, Sept 2009.