Why the Good News of the Death, Burial, and Resurrection Is More Relevant Than Ever
By Haydn Shaw
Malware can mess up your life by allowing hackers free access to your computer. That’s exactly what has happened to Christianity; it’s being replaced by something that looks similar to Christianity but without the power of Easter. It wasn’t until sociologist Christian Smith and his team talked to teenagers that it became obvious how badly Christianity had been hacked.
As detailed in his book Soul Searching (2005), Smith and his team interviewed more than 3,000 millennials, ages 13 to 18, to discover what they thought about religion, faith, and the church. Several years later, they reinterviewed many of these same people, then between the ages of 18 and 24, and discovered that their main beliefs had not changed substantially (as described in Smith’s book Souls in Transition from 2009). In the first book, the team categorized their interview results into five core beliefs that have almost nothing in common with Christianity:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human 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 of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in a person’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to Heaven when they die.
During the interviews, few millennials referenced even basic theological terms—such as sin, grace, and holiness—that appear throughout the New Testament. Even most teens who had grown up in Sunday school and youth groups didn’t recognize those terms. It didn’t matter whether the millennials were Catholics or Protestants, from conservative or liberal denominations. Smith described their dominant worldview as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” but I choose to call it “Be Good, Feel Good, Live Your Life (God Is Watching).”
With few exceptions, the teens spoke a language of happiness, niceness, and earned heavenly reward. This terrifies me: Our young people think these beliefs are the same thing as the beliefs of classical Christianity. And this is what scares me the most—the millennials said they learned this worldview from their parents.
Be Good, Feel Good, Live Your Life (God Is Watching)
Because this may be the biggest spiritual danger facing you, your family, and your church, I want you to understand all three parts of “Be Good, Feel Good, and Live Your Life (God Is Watching)” and why Christianity is so much better.
Be Good. Good 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,” according to Soul Searching. Millennials see the main benefit of religion as teaching people what it means to be good and encouraging them to avoid being mean or self-destructive.
Every hacker gets through some hole in your computer security. What spiritual hole allowed Christian teaching to be hacked into with the idea that we should just be nice and not judge other people? The spiritual vulnerability that most opened a hole for “be good” is the “true for you but not for me” attitude and the new standard that no one can tell anyone else what is right or wrong for them. So, being nice to other people (as long as they are not big jerks) and pursuing your dreams without hurting anybody else has become what “good” people do. Those are the kinds of people who deserve to get to Heaven.
I, too, prefer nice people over jerks. But Jesus didn’t come to make us nice; he knew nice doesn’t work in the real world. He came to transform us so we could live here in a way that anticipates how we will live in Heaven (see Matthew 6:10).
Feel Good. The major goal of religion, according to this ideology, is to make you be good, and the major benefit God provides is to make you feel good. Millennials told Smith that God wants you to feel good about yourself, and he is there to comfort you—like a cross between a loving uncle who is almost never angry no matter what you do and a therapist who helps you feel better about yourself.
The baby boomers latched on to psychology and its therapeutic techniques. This overconfidence in psychology and the therapeutic is the spiritual vulnerability that allowed Christianity to be hacked until it became about us rather than God. Boomers’ trust in psychology grew to dangerous levels until it redefined religion itself. This shift throws the created order into chaos: we regard ourselves with a level of honor to which only God is worthy, and so we love ourselves with the devotion only God deserves.
We keep messing up our lives, proving to ourselves that we are not worth loving supremely. So we are constantly looking for reassurance that we are worthy of love and adoration, even turning God into a source of reassurance, rather than worshipping him as the only absolute perfection worth loving.
In the “feel good” mentality, God serves us rather than us serving God. Ironically, it’s the worship of God that makes us feel good as we find our reassurance in his perfect reliability. It’s when we try to get him to reassure us that our lives are fine that our insecurity takes over.
The real God does want us to feel good, confident, joyful, and fully alive. But he knows the most we can do on our own is try some therapeutic life hack that will ultimately leave us unsatisfied and searching for the next one.
Live Your Life (God Is Watching). Christian Smith and his team discovered that millennials see God as distant, observant, and only involved when they have a problem they can’t handle themselves. In my opinion, this is the most debilitating of the three components of “Be Good, Feel Good, Live Your Life (God Is Watching).” For when God is watching us “from a distance” (thank you, Bette Midler), we are on our own. We see God as a teacher on the playground who steps in only when things get out of control.
Gone is the God who “never slumbers or sleeps” (Psalm 121:4), always working throughout history and in our individual lives to make right all that we have messed up. Gone is the God who through his death, burial, and resurrection conquered the principalities and powers that had enslaved us. Gone is the God who now pursues us, calling us by name to come and know him. Gone is the Holy Spirit, and the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). In this “live your life (God is watching)” mentality, we handle our lives on our own and hope for the best.
The Relevance and Power of Easter
Easter has been hacked and all the power has drained out. No wonder people do not prioritize their Christian faith.
Most ministers are not preaching the wrong gospel. Most teachers or small groups do not teach “Be Good, Feel Good, Live Your Life.” But, from the boomers on, that’s what many people hear because pop psychology has rewired our view of the world and filters everything we hear into its own categories and thought patterns.
The most important work we can do today is reintroduce the story of Easter to people who think they get it but aren’t good, don’t feel good, and do not experience God as good.
The good news of the death, burial, and resurrection is more relevant than ever.
Haydn Shaw is a minister who speaks to and consults with churches and religious organizations to help them grow. He is founder of People Driven Results and is a leading expert on helping different generations work together. For more about this topic, see chapter 7 of his book Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Are the Problem, and the Future Is Bright, from which this article is adapted. Learn more about generations in the church and find free resources at http://christianityisnotdying.com.