By Roy S. Askins
America’s children have left the church in droves, yet many do not deny the existence of God. In 2021, 29% of Americans were unaffiliated; that is, they marked “nothing in particular” when asked what religion they preferred or belonged to, an increase of 13% since 2007. Christian church membership has declined 15% (down to 63%) over the same time span.
But these Americans still believe in something. For example, 66% of Americans report that religion is very or somewhat important in their lives. Many of the unaffiliated still believe in the God of the Bible. Many pray and believe God has influenced their lives. They have not rejected spirituality; rather, they have rejected the Bible as the sole authority on spiritual matters and the church as the arbiter of this truth.
These unaffiliated, also called the “Nones,” do not form a single, monolithic group of people who believe and act in largely the same way. Their primary commonality is that they mark the same oval in religious preference surveys. The 31% of Americans without a religious affiliation is comprised of 6% who claim to be atheists and another 6% who claim to be agnostic and 20% who belong to “nothing in particular.” People in the Millennial and Gen Z generations are more likely to identify as “nothing in particular.” While atheists and agnostics generally attain higher levels of education and economic status, “nothing in particulars” tend to be relatively less educated and poor. 
But the statistics hardly tell the real story. They do not reveal the pain of watching a child abandon the Christian faith, the nights parents spend in earnest prayer, imploring God to return their children to the fold. Cold statistics do not offer advice on how to speak to a beloved friend who has not necessarily rejected God but has sloughed off the church with an anemic shrug. Stats cannot reveal the pain of parents and friends who fear that the None they know will be excluded from God’s kingdom.
Moralistic therapeutic deism
The difficulty we often experience in speaking about our faith with friends, family and others may stem from how we view the world differently, which becomes evident in how we use words differently. For example, Lutherans see “grace” as God’s gracious attitude toward the world because of Christ’s life, suffering and death; for others, Grace is a character on an early 21st-century sitcom. Justification, for Lutherans, is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous on account of Christ’s work; for others, justification may be simply feeling vindicated for a choice you made.
The loss of the church’s language and the rejection of the church’s authority to exclusively speak truth results from the rise of a new source of authority: the self. The rise of one’s own mind and personal intuitions and feelings as the source of truth has roots in the Enlightenment, roots which we cannot explore here. What we do need is to understand how people think today, and the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), conducted 2001–2005, gives us a window, even if a bit dated, into these thoughts.
The results of this study, published in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), found that, regardless of religious belief system, Americans of all ages tended to conceive of religion in terms of what the authors called moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD). Here is a brief breakdown:
MORALISTIC: Religion primarily provides adherents with a moral grounding, a moral framework. For Christians, this would mean viewing Christianity predominantly as obedience to the Ten Commandments or other ethical norms reflecting societal rules. Religion of any type mostly helps people be “nice” to each other.
THERAPEUTIC: The primary purpose in life is to be happy. In fact, in the survey, subjects could not use — in fact, did not have — biblical or theological language (such as justification or grace). Rather, they overwhelmingly used psychological and psychiatric terms to describe religion. They believed that religion existed to help you live a happy and fulfilled life, that the primary goal and intention in life is to “feel good about oneself.” Religion serves primarily a therapeutic role.
DEISM: Deism is an 18th-century theory about the existence of God. In this view, God is like a cosmic watchmaker. He created the universe, wound it up and then stepped back to let it work. He no longer interacts with the world, but lets humans figure it out themselves. The modern version acknowledges that God still interacts with the world, but in a limited sense, like a “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.”
MTD is not a fringe theory of some unchurched folks. Rather, it is the predominant lens through which almost everyone in modern America — perhaps even the West as a whole — tends to understand God and the world. Spend just a few moments in honest reflection, and you will find that you also likely have some affinities with MTD. Perhaps it is the moralistic side of the equation: Religion exists primarily to keep people in line. Perhaps you tend to focus on the therapeutic side: Our primary goal in life is to be happy, and religion (or God) exists to help us achieve our sense of self-fulfillment.
MTD describes a fundamental framework from which we view the world. We all — from Boomers to Millennials to Gen Z — view the world according to how it makes us as individuals feel and how it helps us live fulfilled lives.
In other words, we became our own idols.
Rise of the Nones
When I become my own idol, when my personal sentiments and intuitions become the ground for determining truth, when attending church becomes about personal fulfillment, I have started down the road to becoming “nothing in particular.”
Consider one aspect of our life as Christians: church selection and attendance. Perhaps I begin to think that church — the church I attend, the doctrine to which I assent (even the language here bears this out; I “assent” to this truth rather than “confess” it because it is truth) — should be a matter of personal choice, personal preference. And so I select my church based on my preference for worship style or how the members of the congregation make me feel.
If I have chosen my church based on how it makes me feel and how it helps me fulfill my life goals, then why would I not abandon it when it no longer assists in those things? Most of the time, I feel better sleeping in on Sunday, especially since I spent the last six days working 12-hour shifts to get ahead of the competition. Surely God wants me to take a day of rest. And then, week after week, month after month, I finally realize I feel just as well not going to church — maybe even better! — and I’m getting along just fine without it. Suddenly, the church has become a proposition I no longer need. I still like the idea of God. I’m certain He’s still up there and out there and will answer if I decide I need Him. Thus, while I believe in Him, I do not claim adherence to any particular church body or body of doctrine and teaching. I have, therefore, become a None.
At the heart of this movement away from God and His church, then, is the failure of parents and pastors, school teachers and grandparents, to inculcate a fundamental teaching into the hearts and minds of our littlest neighbors: Jesus is truth. God’s Word is truth. Truth is not determined by your feelings or intuitions. Christ incarnated Himself into the flesh of mankind, He lived a perfect life, died a horrid and painful death, suffered the full wrath of God. He did all of this not merely to help you live a well-adjusted life, but to give you eternal life.
He calls you to sacrifice your idols, to a life of suffering and the cross. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). The fundamental orientation of the Christian is self-denial, self-rejection. The Christian does not enter into self-affirmation, for indeed, “what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world” — even and especially his own self-fulfillment — “and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). A Lutheran life What does this mean for our daily lives? At least three things come to mind: Watch how you speak, take a stance on the truth and hand over the good deposit to the next generation.
A Lutheran life
What does this mean for our daily lives? At least three things come to mind: Watch how you speak, take a stance on the truth and hand over the good deposit to the next generation.
WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE: This does not mean pandering. Rather, it means acknowledging that when you speak the church’s language to those who have stewed in MTD for their entire lives, they will simply not understand the words you are using.
Ensure that you use words correctly, whether this is the language of the church or the language of the culture. When you use “grace,” what do you mean? Do you use “woke” for everyone to the political left of you? Be careful with your words. Explain words that have spiritual meaning.
And then use the language of the church; confess it boldly. Learn what justification and sanctification mean. Define your terms in your conversation. Ask questions about the words you hear. Make sure you are speaking the same words in the same way as the person you are speaking with; otherwise, you will speak past each other to no avail.
STAND ON THE TRUTH: Truth is not self-determined or self-verified. We receive truth from outside our own ideas and intuitions, feelings and thoughts. We cannot trust our own minds to find truth, for we could be mistaken, suffering with mental illness or deceived in some way. Truth must come from the outside.
And Truth has indeed come. In fact, Truth “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus spoke truth while here and, by the Holy Spirit working through the apostles, gave us this truth recorded in the New Testament. He affirmed the truth of the Old Testament, that not one jot or tittle shall perish from it until all is accomplished in Christ. To this truth we cling; this truth we confess; this truth brings life.
HAND ON THE GOOD DEPOSIT: St. Paul tells Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13–14). The “pattern of sound words” and the “good deposit” are the teachings St. Paul handed over or “entrusted” to him. St. Timothy then handed them over to those people he preached to and cared for.
Pastors today do the same. They preach and teach, not their own sentiments or feelings, not their own intuitions, but what they received: the good deposit. Parents pass on this received faith to their children. One of the astounding takeaways from the NSYR was the lack of conflict between children and parents on the faith. Why? Because, as the teenagers reported, they simply did not discuss the faith in their homes.
Parents, speak of the faith in your homes. Read the truth you have received in the Word of God to your children. Discuss it with them. When they have questions you cannot answer, take them to your pastor. Spend more time with your children in the Word of God than you do in television, YouTube or social media. Passing on this good deposit to your children will be the most important thing you do in their life.
Nothing shall separate us
This will not guarantee that your children will remain in the faith. Nothing we do can guarantee that. Therefore, repent of your failures and receive Christ’s forgiveness. And then remain confident in God’s promise never to leave or forsake us. Continue to teach and encourage your children in the Christian faith. For the only antidote to self-idolatry is the worship of the true and living God.
So go to church. Every Sunday. For there, God’s truth is given in His Word. There, forgiveness, life and salvation are delivered through the Means of Grace. There, we learn the language of the faith. And there, you will hear of Jesus, who is the Truth, who gave Himself for all — none excluded.
 “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated,” pewresearch.org.
 “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated,” pewresearch.org.
 Ryan P. Burge, The Nones (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2021), 31, 95–122.
 For those interested in this history, read Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2020).
 Christian Smith, Soul Searching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 165.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of The Lutheran Witness.