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Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: Not Just a Problem with Youth Ministry

“I just think you need more games,” the dad told me across a very syrupy waffle. “If you had more games and funny skits, then my son would have been at church, not looking at porn.” I was shocked! Here was a man who had left a church over too much entertainment and now wanted it back. I realized that MTD wasn’t just a problem in the culture of American teenagers, but in the culture of the American church. The larger influence of a success-over-faithfulness model of American Christianity is having devastating effects on youth ministry.

Kenda Creasy Dean, in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, argues that American teenagers have bought into MTD, not because they have misunderstood what the church has taught them, but precisely because it is what the church has taught them. She writes,

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length. [3]

When this self-help theology is combined with a sola-boot-strapia sermon from TBN, we start having teens singing, “God Is Watching Us from a Distance” while—at the same time—wondering why Jesus isn’t fixing their parents’ marriage or their problems with cutting.

MTD isn’t just the problem of youth ministry; it’s the problem of the church. And American Christianity has become a “generous host” to this low-commitment, entertainment-driven model of youth ministry.

Counter to the Gospel

Think about those three words, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. They run counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ in every way. We are not saved by earning our way up the good-works ladder, nor is God the divine genie dispensing wishes at command. He’s not a distant “clock-maker,” sitting back to watch it all play out, but the personal Immanuel who became man to seek and save his bride. The gospel says that Jesus has accomplished for you—through his life, death, and resurrection—everything that God has required of you; thereby, securing eternal life for all God’s people, and received by faith alone.

This is where the importance of method comes to the forefront, which (unfortunately) is often disassociated with theology. While our theology of the gospel should inform our method, the American church—to a large extent—has practiced just the reverse. The question on many youth leaders’ minds is, “How do we get bored teenagers into the church?” The question should be, “How are we to faithfully plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ for his glory and our joy in him?”

Many youth ministries have engaged in direct competition with the world to woo and attract students by all sorts of gimmicks and giveaways. In fact, a large church in the Atlanta area recently gave away iPods to the first 100 youth at a lock-in! But is that the method God has given us to draw young people into a deeper, richer, more meaningful relationship with Christ?

There Is Hope

There is hope, however, because Jesus will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. There is hope because God is in the business of saving and sanctifying teenagers through the ministry of Word, prayer, and sacrament. God has given us means of grace—not just to reap the benefits of their content and application—but as the way in which we plant and water the gospel, looking to God to provide the growth. These means of grace should inform how young men and women are drawn into the church—youth who are disillusioned by the gimmicks and fog of an entertainment-driven world of empty pleasure.

Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has said, “The loneliest moment in life is when you have just experienced the ultimate, and it has let you down.” Like a political pendulum, the experienced “high” from self-centered experience and rampant consumerism fails to provide rest for the restless soul. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can call the prodigal out of the trough and satisfy his longing heart.

MTD remains a problem in youth ministry because it remains a problem in the American church. It channels the method of ministry from gospel to gimmick. But the later English Puritan John Flavel points to God’s far better plan: “The intent of the Redeemer’s undertaking was not to purchase for his people riches, ease, and pleasures on earth; but to mortify their lusts, heal their natures, and spiritualize their affections; and thereby to fit them for the eternal fruition of God.” [4]

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 163.

[2] Ibid., 163-71.

[3] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 29.

[4] John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), 6:84.

This article by Brian Cosby about moralistic therapeutic deism originally appeared here.