I’ve become so numb I can’t feel you there
Become so tired so much more aware
I’m becoming this all I want to do
Is be more like me and be less like you
While likely sung about the desires of an aspiring artist chafing against the aspirations of traditional parental expectations, Linkin Park’s 2003 hit Numb touched the nerve of teenage angst that spread beyond artistic suppression into a virtual generational posture. And it is occurring in the church too. Why are so many “Christian” teens numb and abandoning the faith (some studies report 90% attrition rates)?
The kind of Christianity many teens are exposed to (and abandoning) simply does not have the depth, the power, or the freedom to transform them. The landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, and the subsequent commentary that has flowed from it, tell us that the typical American teenager’s religion is “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” The five points of MTD are as follows:
- A God exists who created and orders 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 one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
In an interview with CNN, Princeton Professor and author of Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, labels the Christianity teens are exposed to today as an “imposter” Christian faith, going on to say, “If this is the God they’re seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust . . . Churches don’t give them enough to be passionate about.”
Christian teens are feeling numb because the power of the gospel is absent in such a theology. A theology of “avoid the big sins and cover up the little ones”, and “be nice” cannot transform. It can, however, confuse and numb. What is missing is an awesomely holy God and an honest evaluation of the wreckage our lives are because of our sin and estrangement from Him. What is missing is the message that we are so sinful and wrecked that the Son of God had to die for us but we are so prized by God that he was glad to die for us. What is missing is the gospel and its liberating transforming message of justification by faith in the finished work of Christ.
In Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace argues that the primary element of continuous renewal in the life of a Christian and a Christian body is the perpetual unfurling of the gospel of justification by faith in the complete and completed work of Christ. But this message, which Paul says, “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes . . .” can and has been adulterated by sinful people. He continues, “three aberrations from the biblical teaching on justification – cheap grace, legalism, and moralism – still dominate the church today.” (p.100)
Cheap grace removes sanctification as a necessary outflow of a regenerated heart. Here Jesus saves me from the penalty of sin but isn’t powerful enough or interested enough to deliver me from its power. Legalism is an overcorrection of cheap grace but throws the believer onto “auxiliary methods of assurance” such as close inspection of one’s works or obsessive introspection for evidence of the Spirit’s work rather than trusting in the finished work of Christ. The legalist may trust in Jesus’ work but is resting in their own. Moralism is the virtual (or actual) abandonment of the necessity or usefulness of the justifying work of Christ. For the moralist, Jesus is example, teacher, and maybe even “lord,” but not Savior.
Imagine a “christian” teen singing the opening lines of Numb (curiously, the music video is filmed inside a church.) Tired of being what you want me to be, feeling so faithless, lost under the surface . . . I don’t know what you’re expecting of me . . . Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes.” None of the three aberrations of the gospel message help a heart like this. Cheap grace trains them to ignore a life that is unchanged and so deadens the conscience. Legalism confuses the heart because it can never know how much or how sincere a work is suffient. Moralism fatigues the heart because there is no internal motivation to carry on, plus it is a lot more fun to sin.
What do Christian teens need? In short, they need the gospel. They need leaders and teachers whose lives have been transformed from the inside out and demonstrate a life of New Covenant obedience. They need to hear the gospel “sung” from the pulpit or lectern with the same beauty and energy that the most recent wave of praise and worship songs do. They need the gem of the gospel to be held up and turned so that every facet of Christ’s life and work shines as sufficient and satisfying to their deepest soul.
Like all of us, they need a bloodied Savior, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame.” They need to see their own wreckage but also the One who was wrecked for them because they needed Him to be and who was glad to do it because He loves them.