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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

  • Interesting that this post comes now because I just did a message to my students and referenced these 5 main beliefs. They scoffed at the last 3 especially, which means they are doctrinally trained, but then said that most Christians live like these 5 things are true.

    My thought is this: We need to teach kids that SIN is a real issue and being nice isn't going to cut it. We need a SAVIOR and that savior is Jesus. We can't get out of sin on our own.

  • Funny how you posted this now; I just did a message to my kids and referenced the 5 key beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

    My thought is this: We need to teach that SIN is a real issue and that being nice won't cut it. We need a SAVIOR and his name is Jesus.

  • I think in large part we are contributing to this view. I think a lot of it is coming from parents who bring their kids to church so they will be good rather than bringing their kids to church so they will know Jesus.

    I wonder, what the difference between teaching morality and teaching moralism is?

    • I'm not sure what the difference is. If you're going somewhere with that, I'd love to hear it.

  • CCC

    This is less about what denomination a church is affiliated with and more about the congregational life… this should be a concern and conversation for all youth ministers, adults, and youth.

    Great book that tackles this conversation – Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean

    • Almost Christian didn't tie to the problem to a specific denomination, but it did say that Mormons and Conservative Protestants are least likely to subscribe to it and most likely to be highly devoted. On the flip side, it said mainline protestants, Roman Catholics, and non-religious are most likely to be affected. Thus, there are denominational trends.

  • I think our teaching style is a symptom rather than a cause. Our worship (songs, word, fellowship) usually emulates our culture and collective beliefs. If we (as an individual leader or collective church culture) hold to a powerful Gospel, or high sense of social justice that is reflected in our services and church activities.

    I like summary of your post. We do need to be intentional and think through everything we do carefully as shepherds. But, I also think if a leader is into MTD (even without knowing it) his interpretation and especially application of the Word will lean in that direction, no matter what style of teaching he uses.

    To answer you question, we teach through books in basically every setting from 6th grade-main service. Right now I'm working through Jesus' life according to the synoptic Gospels using a harmony as a lesson guide.

  • Soul Searching (which is available as a DVD project) is a call to attention for the church. Kendra Dean's Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church builds on Soul Searching. She is preparing a study manual on her website. Both should be strongly suggested as must reads for parents and church leaders.

    This is our problem. Both projects put real numbers to what many youth workers have been saying for years. The Church has handed off youth ministry to youth workers to take care of–you know, like keep the yard looking nice for us. Our faith was never supposed to be set up like a department store. I can't remember who said it, but "the church that acts like a mall gets treated like one."

    In many ways that is what we have done. We've bought into a market driven culture, hoping to sell the faith to potential buyers. The Gospel is a life changing message–one that goes against so much of what seems normal to us–and not just for individuals. However, we have made it into a comfortable make-your-life-better advice mechanism. Faith in a resurrected Christ makes us new, not better.

    Thanks for the post. There's a new book whose title I can't remember (it's not available anywhere) that builds from these two books. I'll share the title when I can remember it.

    Stay blessed…john

  • Tim, I think you're right on. Here are a few causes, in my opinion:
    1. Having a good handle on theology and the Bible is not expected of most youth pastors. Consequently, youth pastors (including myself in my early years) often teach what's easy and what students respond well to, which is often MTD.
    2. John is right on target about many churches wanting youth pastors to simply "keep the yard looking nice." How many annual reviews of youth pastors (if they occur; my first annual review occurred in year #7 of vocational ministry) focus on numbers, plans for next year's summer trip, etc.? How often to senior pastors take a keen interest in what's being taught by the youth pastor?
    3. We don't focus on deep discipleship of students. What I mean by that is we don't teach that the path of discipleship is often painful, but it's worth it.

    Tim, to answer your question, both our junior high pastor and I (senior high) have really seen the benefit in taking an exegetical approach to teaching. Sure, we still do topics, but right now, the high school group is taking a two-plus year journey through Mark and the junior high students are going through Galatians in small groups this fall. And when we launched a new campus a few weeks ago, the very first thing the students there are going through is James' letter using Barry Shafer's inductive study from YS. It takes a lot of training of our leaders and students to get used to it, but it is well worth it.

  • I am probably 35-65 on topical/book studies. I throw in a topical study every once in a while to give myself some real true study time for the next expository study we are doing. However, I dont think the biggest problem lies in our teaching series…
    We as adults (speaking from my own context here, not taking shots at anyone but myself) tend to let the ball drop. The reason we are teaching MTD is because, sadly enough, we are modeling MTD. Well, I always thought it was some form of Deism we are modeling anyway. I have seen in my own life and in the lives of our workers a reliance on God for the big big things, but not in the day to day operations of our lives. Until we as youth workers and leaders take on the responsibility to first make Jesus the focus of every thing we do, then we will not model/teach that to our students.

  • Tim–

    You are hitting on such a trivial topic within student ministry teaching approaches.
    Is there one correct way to teach? Maybe. Is expository preaching/teaching a great method? Yes. Is weaving theological and topical message beneficial? Yes.

    I think there are seasons and windows within the student ministry annual calendar to teach solely topically and exegetically. It is all about moderation, including moderation.

    I think the best student ministry teachers are the ones who can take big lofty theological ideas and translate them for a teenage audience who does not care the doctrine of depravity/trinity/atonement.

    Student pastors must be committed to reading Scripture with 1st century eyes and asking twenty-first questions. We are harming our students if we swing to heavy on the theological side or on the topical side. In my experience it is really important to talk about healthy friendships and exegetically talking about the book of James.

    • rueful

      Completely agree with everything in here. "It is all about moderation, including moderation" hits the nail on the head for me, because Ive seen youth pastors in my area who will say "were too topical, be more exegetical" and run with it and not prepare their kids for being able to handle exegetical studies. Same happens the other way too, where kids want deeper studies but the youth pastor is on the swing up towards topical and not going deep enough. It also appears that when we try and find a middle ground, we too often will just go with topical for a few weeks and then exegetical the next few weeks.

      I really thing there needs to be more of a balance and that yes, though exegetical is the goal to get to, topical should still be a main player in any youth ministry.

    • I agree there needs to be a balance in the scale of topical and expository preaching. If we focus and weigh too heavy on one and not the other our student will not be balanced in their faith.

    • Hmm, "harming" our students is a pretty big word. I don't have a problem with both approaches to teaching scripture, but I'm not sure I'd go as far to say that it would harm our students spiritually.

      I also don't agree that the teenage audience doesn't care about doctrines of depravity/trinity/atonement, etc. There are no-doubt spiritually apathetic teens out there, but part of being a leader is giving teens what they need, not just what they want. There are many teens out there who both want and need to learn about doctrinal issues. I know many of them. I do agree, though, that how you approach those subjects and teach them makes a huge difference in how they're received.

      • Tim– Yeah you are right harming probably isn't the best word, maybe….. limiting?
        I would agree with you that teenagers do in fact need doctrine teaching. I am just saying youth ministers who focus on "doctrine" only run into a few problems. I actually think more youth ministries need to focus on doctrine.
        I wonder why not many youth pastors teach doctrine? Maybe they feel like they don't know how to? or have deep doctrinal understanding?

  • bethegospel

    I think there are many youth pastors who are dropping the ball, and probably just as many who are carrying the torch fighting this. I hope the latter group grows.

  • I believe we need to take a journey back to Christ and look at his example of presenting the word. As I look through scripture I see a person doing both. Jesus has a unique way of presenting the message in a relevant fashion that taught the precept he was wanting while drawing the people into the experience. He quoted scripture, then used a story to illustrate the point, or in some cases just presented a story that challenged our understanding of scripture. What is unique is not the presentation, but the desired end result. Do they get what I am teaching, and can they apply it to everyday life?

    If we take this perspective and look at our environment I think for each of us we must develop the method that will present the best opportunity for our students to grow in their faith and have a close encounter with Christ. This isn't one side is better than the other, for me it's what is the best method for this message to communicate the truth of God's word so that my students can grasp the concept and apply it. One of the greatest crimes in a church is lacking creativity when presenting the Gospel to the world around us.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for a great post Tim

    • James really well put!

      I am going to give these statements an amen:
      This isn't one side is better than the other, for me it's what is the best method for this message to communicate the truth of God's word so that my students can grasp the concept and apply it.

      one of the greatest crimes in a church is lacking creativity when presenting the Gospel to the world around us.

      Jesus has a unique way of presenting the message in a relevant fashion that taught the precept he was wanting while drawing the people into the experience

  • After reading through the comments, I have noticed a focus on teaching method and doctrine. Are either one of these really going to encourage our students to obey Jesus because they love Jesus? The Holy Spirit can use anything he wants to cause a student to fall in love with Jesus, I suppose. The question I would like to pose is how often do we teach/model the cost of following Jesus. A student who is following MTD is not likely to experience a cost of following Jesus. On the other hand, a student who continues to genuinely strive for Jesus will likely experience the cost of following him throughout an average week in high school.

    Another thought that just came to mind is how we evangelize to students. Growing up in the church I was taught to present my testimony in a 3-fold fashion: 1) how I was before I followed Christ, 2) my conversion experience, 3) how I am after following Christ for a while. This is very much focused on me rather than focused on Jesus. It emphasizes what Jesus has done for me. If students come to Christ through this kind of testimony, is it any wonder they follow Christ through a religion steeped in MTD?

    My points are very much half-thoughts. Anyone care to complete them or follow them up?

    • Hmm… good thoughts on our approach to how we structure our testimonies. You're right — that is very much MTD. Hadn't thought of that before. I'm gonna have to think through that some more…

  • Late to the conversation, but watching very closely what is being said. I think it is a good point about how (and what) we teach. It surely has the ability to reinforce MTD. What is interesting to me is that the focus here is teaching and how best to integrate a method. In education, I call that being an information merchant – presenting information in the best way. Teaching isn't really happening if that is all that is going on. You can compare rubrics all day long, but if the information doesn't reach acceptance and synthesis, it dies 15 seconds after it is introduced.

    IMO, we have the best information that makes the biggest promise. The promise that it doesn't "return void" means that its power is beyond our presentation method or style. I think the bigger culprit of our teaching is our own expectations of the results of it.

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  • Interesting take on this item in Is youth ministry affirming Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? . I for one have watched many twists on this and can frequently recognize the holes in the arguement or procedure however, on this reading I am hard-pressed. My motto – Folks are about to do what they want to say. In the close, they always do. The best we can long for is to highlight a few things here and there that with luck permits them to prepare an educated decision.

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