Saturday, April 7, 2007

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

I came across a reference to a study that was done a few years ago and documented in a book named Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. The study interviewed 3,000 young people from a variety of churches and denominations across the country to determine their beliefs and understandings of their faith. The researchers summed up the dominant beliefs of the next generation of the Church with the following points:

  • "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 one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."
  • "Good people go to heaven when they die."

The researchers, even being secular, recognized that these beliefs are not even close to being Christianity, or any other existing religious system. Hence they coined a new term to describe this current cultural brand of religious belief that exists at large among our nominally-Christian youth: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” In short, a works-righteousness based belief in a distant and impersonal God that exists only to make our lives better.

Does this bother you? It does me. Perhaps because of my current stint teaching our high-school youth Sunday school class, I am sensitized to this topic. And frankly because I see this kind of pseudo-Christian belief among our own teenagers in that class. I am seeing that most of these young people, even those who have grown up in the church their whole lives and been the recipients of years of ministry and teaching, are unable to define even key terms of Biblical Christianity. For example, I was using the term grace a few weeks ago in class and realized that I was not connecting with them, so I asked for a definition. The responses I got were not encouraging. And if our youth do not have working definitions of the basic language and foundational principles of the gospel like grace, mercy, justification, righteousness, atonement, etc – how can they put these pieces together to make sense of the person and work of Jesus Christ in their own lives, how can they live these truths out, how can they communicate them to others?

So how can this be? With all the variety of youth ministry, programs, conferences, resources, etc that are in place, how can this next generation of the Church be so – well, Biblically clueless? Remember, we are talking here about teenagers that are actively engaged in their churches, not the fringe kids or the pagan youth culture. Is it because they haven’t learned what has been taught them? Or is it because they have learned what has been taught all too well? I can’t say, although I think the latter is more likely, since my guess is that if a similar survey was done in churches across the land asking adults these same questions, we would find that the dominant belief system of my own generation would also be Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In other words, we are reproducing ourselves in the next generation.

I have also been thinking on these things in light of our current study in 2nd Timothy, where Paul is passing on the baton of the ministry of the gospel to the younger Timothy. He exhorts him to retain the standard of sound words, to guard the trust of the truth of the gospel, and to do so by entrusting these teachings and truth and doctrines to other faithful men. We can only guard the treasure of the Biblical truth of the gospel by passing it on correctly and faithfully and fully to others, and to the next generation. I have to ask - are we doing a good job of passing the torch on?

On a positive note, however, I have seen a few of these young people that are actively seeking to be taught straight Biblical truth and doctrines and have told me so. One of the young men in the class told me, “I really want to be fed and challenged.” So I don’t think it is a lack of desire to work through the hard stuff of Christian theology and doctrine, and that is encouraging. In fact, I have heard stories of churches around the country that have returned to teaching the Bible and doctrine in their youth ministries, and they are packed out with kids that want to learn and grow rather than be further entertained.

I know there are a number of you readers out there that minister to our youth. Do you see these trends, both negatively and positively? What are your thoughts?


danny wright said...

I was reading through Pyro and saw your comment. It raised my interest because I had come up with the same analogy as I was pondering the discussion. (of the car)

As far M.T.D., I first heard this concept from Doug Groothuis, (the constructive crumudgeon)

a philosophy professor who did a working sabbatical at our little church recently. I would agree with your analyses that for the most part it is true.

I taught the fifth and sixth graders for a couple of years and discovered quickly that these children were, for all practical purposes, totally and completely Biblically illiterate. There happened to be two students that were not, one of them was home schooled, the other was not, but it was obvious that her parents had taken the time to show her the way to eternal life. After two years I threw my hands up. For better or worse, I eventually concluded that I was not going to overcome the influence of hours of TV, days of secular humanistic government education, peer pressure, and passive parenting in one hour a week during which I spent most of the time keeping the students from bouncing off the walls. At that point I focused my energies in the Church to calling for and encouraging parental accountability.

It is no surprise consequently that as children get older and more acquainted with the harshness and realities of this world, they do turn to something, and that something is the highly compartmentalized concept of M.T.D.. Unfortunately this has three negatives: 1. it places them on a collision course with reality, 2. it is a false notion of authentic Christianity. 3. the probable consequence of the inevitable impact of such a worldview with reality is the rejection of this false notion of Christianity and in so doing rejecting true Christianity.

Jon said...

I would agree with you that many Christian adults would believe the same thing. It is at times discouraging to see the biblical illiteracy of "Christians". To be fair, I'm working on a master's in biblical studies, and I still feel like I have a long way to go before I know and understand the Bible like I should.

I think at least part of the problem, too, is our reading and understanding of scripture. How many times do we read 2 verses of Ephesians and never stop to think about how these verses fit into the chapter, book and canon as a whole? For that matter, how often does one get any teaching from the Old Testament at all, in any form? My point is, when we ignore the Old Testament and compartmentalize the New Testament, it makes perfect sense that MTD would arise.

janelle said...

I completely agree with you...its everywhere; I notice it especially on the college campus, since that is where my mission field is at this time. The reality is that God became personal through Jesus Christ; not only does He exist and interacts with us, but He actually became one of us. This is so foreign to some people who think being "religous" means just believing in a god. That is where we come in; preaching the wonderful Gospel.

But that is just on a secular college campus. In the youth group, this shouldn't be the case. These are students in the church. Where does thinking like that come from? Is it laziness, not wanting to acually think about things, but just wanting to accept what is easy? Or is the leadership of the church in general? I know all youth groups are not like this, as you said, and not all kids are the same. Some really know their stuff, others don't really care. But ultimately, it comes down personal things like where the heart is, and how hard we really want to seek God.