"Little children, keep yourselves from idols."
1 John 5:21
This is a rather odd verse when you take in the context of the entirety of John’s first epistle. A thorough examination of the five chapters will show no familiarity with the concept of idols. There is no discussion of graven images, no observance of statues worshipped in a pagan temple, nothing of the sort. So what does this verse mean in light of John’s letter to the early Christian church and to us today? Without mincing words, John exhorts a Christian community imploding. An infiltration of false teachers has torn the community in two, beginning with the denial of the Incarnation. This denial has caused serious ethical, social, and moral consequences to play out. In his letter, John describes to his Christian brothers and sisters how they can be confident they know the one true God. The Scriptures are explicit in the command to love God but also to love His people. This love is only imparted through the Holy Spirit, and serves as a litmus test of our faith and hope in the Lord. “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world -- our faith (1 John 5:4).” With a pastoral love, he exhorts them to guard against any god or idol that is not Jesus, the Word made flesh (1 John 1:1-5). Therefore, John’s exhortation transcends the ages. In every season we must guard against imposter’s of the Triune God, phonies of the incarnate Word, pretenders of the Helper. But just as John wrote, we face not idolatries built of wood, stone and metal, but rather the idolatries which are eerily similar to the God of the Old and New Testament. This subtlety is not caught by the untrained eye. As Irenaeus, the early church father, aptly put “Error never shows itself in its naked reality, in order not to be discovered. On the contrary, it dresses elegantly, so that the unwary may be led to believe that it is more truthful than truth itself.”
In 2005, the National Study of Youth and Religion concluded its study on the religious temperament and commitments of teenagers in America. The study presented several harrowing conclusions: “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…U.S. Christianity is [not] so much being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively colonized and displaced by quite a different religious faith.” It would be easy to lay blame at teenager’s feet. It would be easy to place the sole blame on parent’s shoulders too. But in reality the study identified that when the church consistently delivers a watered down faith and gospel that teenagers will lack the perseverance observed time and time again throughout the scriptures, from Abraham to Paul, and so many in between. If this is the case, then we should pause and consider what Christianity is being given to our children and youth today.
One description of the Christianity being given to future generations is the “cult of nice.” An environment of nonjudgmental openness, self-determination, and the authority of personal experience are some major tenets of the “cult of nice.” It is where lifestyle choices are no longer a matter of morality but rather preferences, and to impose any restriction or limitation is viewed as just plain mean. The “cult of nice” is found in the American church, in our pews, in our small groups, Sunday school classes, praise hymns and prayers. We want a god who is nice to us, that grants wishes, hall passes, and provides us with a little cushion when life gets bumpy. This is exactly the kind of god John warned the church about, an idol, a god made in man’s own image. We want this kind of nice god because it means less demands on us as sinful humans. With this god, we can kind of get all that we want – and we want a god who placates to our sinful desires. The only problem is that this is not the God of Scripture; it is not the God of Isaiah 63, Habakkuk 1 or John 19-20. Ironically, this polite sort of god, according to the National Survey of Youth and Religion, is the god that most teenagers describe as the one they know and understand. How can this be?
One theory is that this is the kind of faith and Christianity being modeled for children and youth. The problem is not the kids, or their ability to comprehend the Christian faith, it is we have failed to live out a radical faith before them. Christian Smith, who led the National Study on Youth and Religion, noted that faith modeling through parents is the number one contributing factor to successful discipleship in the church. But not just parents the church as a whole is needed. It’s been noted by several sociologists that a 5:1 ratio is needed for “successful” faith modeling to occur, which translates to five faithful, orthodox Christians for every child. That means all of those Sunday School teachers and small group leaders count. That means relatives and friends’ parents count. That means every Christian adult – passionately following Jesus -- in your child’s life counts.
The state of American Christianity is dire, and what is needed isn’t hipper worship services, coffee bars, or cool programs. What is needed are passionate followers of Jesus, to walk into the halls of children and youth ministries and say, similar to Isaiah’s response, “Here I am Lord, I am here. I am in the greatest mission field today.” This kind of activity and service does not guarantee that the future generations of children and youth won’t worship the false god of the cult of nice, or the idols encountered in the second century. The work of redemption is up to the Lord, but what we can do is model for younger generations that the Lord we love so dearly is worth submitting to and following.
References above can be found in Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean or Soul Searching by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton.