Are we essentially affirming Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

Is youth ministry teaching MTDBack in 2005 Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published a book called, “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” In it they reveal the results of a study they conducted across 3,000 teenagers and introduced us to what they call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism essentially says that teenagers believe in good morals and not necessarily in a major religion. The statues are:

  • 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.

Depending on your denomination, this may or may not be cause for concern, but it is for me. Obviously, my first question is, “What is youth ministry doing to contribute to this view of God?”

A few weeks ago Adam McLane suggested that how we live our lives for teenagers may possibly be contributing to this mindset among evangelical teens. While there may be an element of that, not only in youth workers, but also in parents and even their peers, I’m thinking that teens are surrounded by this mentality everywhere, even at church. If we’re honest about the content we usually teach, it could possibly boil down to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

For example, most curriculum out there is topical. We’re answering questions like, “What does the Bible say about _________?” (i.e. dating, sex, alcohol, relationships, etc.). The heart behind that approach has good intentions — “Let’s connect scripture with real issues teens are experiencing!” — but in the long-run, does it basically communicate, “God’s Word is here to address issues in your life and help you when you need it?” Are we unintentionally teaching students that our lives come first and then we figure out how to plug God into it, often for the purpose of avoiding the consequences that sex, alcohol and relationships could have? Do kids leave thinking that the Bible is basically a good book to help us live better and enjoy a better life? For all intents and purposes, when it really comes down to the core of what we’re saying, do teens hear that prayer is just for communicating our requests to God, requests that usually boil down to comforts for ourself and others?

Rather than asking, “How does God’s Word connect with your life?” maybe we should instead approach our teaching as, “What does God’s Word say and how will that transform you?” There’s a subtle, yet important distinction between the two. The former starts with us, the latter starts with God.

I’m not saying the topical approach is necessarily bad nor that I have a problem with it. I’m just saying we need to be very intentional about thinking through the outcomes of how we approach scripture with students, both the intentional outcomes and unintentional outcomes.

QUESTION: Does your youth ministry take an inductive, exegetical approach to teaching through scripture? Do you mostly go through Biblical topics? A little of both? Are there any observable ramifications of either approach in your ministry?

Posted on October 19, 2010

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