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Moral Failure in Student Ministry

Therapeutic Moralistic Deism.

Student ministers know this term well, or at least they should. lChristian Smith and Melinda Denton have popularized this term out of their massive research called The National Study of Youth and Religion.

They argue the Western Church has done a phenomenal job of communicating to students. But what has been communicated has not been as biblically centered as we might hope. We have communicated Christianity as behavior modification too often and as the matchless work of a grace-bearing God who is the center of it all too little. In her presentation of the findings of perhaps the exhaustive study, Kendra Creasy Dean observed:
“The National Study of Youth and Religion reveals a theological fault line running underneath American churches: an adherence to a do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow him into the world.” (Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, p. 4)
In other words, Dean argues that this study shows the very way many of us have raised children in our churches has worked against any sort of missional impulse we might otherwise hope to engage. This is no small charge. She adds: “American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship.” (p. 6)

What has been taught, this thing they call therapeutic moralistic deism, has offered a how-to faith based on the needs of the individual over the redemptive plan of the Creator God. How has this happened, often in churches which stand firmly on the Bible as the Word of God? I would argue part of this comes from our tendency to view students as “kids” who are more silly than serious, and wrote a whole book on that called Raising the Bar. In addition, we have fundamentally made a shift in much of our teaching and living of the Scripture from seeing the Bible through the lenses of the gospel and the mission of God to understanding the Bible primarily as a roadmap which will guide us via morality to the place of faithfully serving God.

Unfortunately, many churches have taught the Bible to children and youth not as a book with one central, redemptive message, but as a collection of stories and morals with the gospel as the key story. Therapeutic moralistic deism is “therapeutic,” for it focuses on surface change, turning the Bible into a counseling manual more than the revelation of God. It is “moralistic,” because its focus is behavior modification. Acting right subtly becomes more important than believing right. It is “deistic,” because it does not require a God who is intimately involved in all of Creation and in all aspects of our lives, but who generally exists to bring us happiness and most specifically in our spiritual lives.

I call it the Aesop’s Fable approach to the Bible. It is ironically a “moral failure,” for by focusing on morality too much we actually hinder students from seeing the lifelong, holistic implications of their faith. Motivation for serving God stems more from changing our behavior than from living a life of radical faith. Such extrinsic motivation will actually work on the short term: show students how sex before marriage will lead to guilt and disease, for instance, or show them how lying will cost them friendships, and they will abstain from these sins, at least for a season. But if moral change becomes the primary focus of our faith, the long-term obedience we seek may actually be the one thing we will not see.

It could well be that we are contributing to students’ dropping out of church with our short-term focus over eternal values. But the much-debated topic of dropout rates actually fails to emphasize a more critical point, because even those who remain in our churches lack the missional drive to make gospel impact in their daily lives. In other words, how many who stay “in church” still “drop out” of active, daily, missional faith?

All this of course is not to say that behavioral change is unimportant. Our morality marks a vital part of being conformed to the image of Christ. But, a growing sense of moral uprightness and a concomitant behavior reflecting this is a result of our faith; it simply cannot be the prime motivator. We have confused the point (the indicative) with the result (the imperative), and this has not helped us in discipling students. For instance, instead of seeing the story of David as all Scripture does, tied closely to the story of redemption and the coming of the Messiah, we take a story like David and Goliath and moralize it, and in so doing we actually marginalize it. We preach about how David killed Goliath, so we can now defeat those pesky enemies in our lives. Or, Joseph’s brothers victimized him and yet God used him, so Joseph’s story becomes a means of therapy for those who have been hurt. Yet when we read the story of Joseph from the perspective of all of Scripture and the message of redemption throughout, we see his vital role in the mission of God to save sinners. That is not to say we cannot learn practical advice from David’s defeat of a giant or Joseph’s determined faith; but it is to say that we can miss the greater point of these narratives by turning them into individual stories with a moral. These are not parables; they help us to connect with the plan of God in eternity.

The practical result of turning the Bible into a series of moral truths is to assume the gospel and to minimize its role in our lives. We move the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the category of “lost person only,” so that the gospel is for unbelievers, not believers. So we have our mega-youth events and we share the gospel (or often tack it on at the end) at these, but we do not teach the impact of the gospel for the believer and the redemptive story of God in all of the Bible and thus its impact on all of life. Thus, students grow up in church, learn a lot of stories, and are destroyed in one semester of Intro to Philosophy when they go off to college. They never got the border of the puzzle of life by understanding the mission of God; they simply got practical stories on how to deal with certain felt needs, and they got their eternal destiny taken care of, or so they think. Many become the dechurched—those who grow up in the church but walk away when away from the familiar (family, home church, etc). Others limp their way through life spiritually, never getting the great plan of God for creation and for their lives.

As a result too many students move into the adult world understanding their faith as something on the level of importance of music, sports, or other topics that matter but are, as Dean notes, “Unnecessary for an integrated life.” (Dean, 6). In other words, she adds, Christianity becomes nothing more than “a very nice thing.”

Following Jesus into the world cannot simply be a “very nice thing.”

A focus on Christianity as therapeutic moralistic deism explains why so many believers today confuse biblical Christianity with civil religion and the spiritual war for the souls of men with the culture wars of winning political arguments. In recent months I have moved from speaking on a variety of diverse subjects to staying focused on the greatness of the gospel and the glory of Christ. I have seen more come to faith than any season of ministry in a long time. And I keep getting emails form students who tell me how their understanding of Christ has pushed them outside the walls of the church to caring for others through the gospel. In earlier seasons of revival we read of how young people played critical roles in those movements, and those movements had a searing hot devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we will have a missional movement in our time, it may manifest itself in many ways practically, but it will be birthed out of gospel fervor not moral failure.

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Alvin L. Reid (born 1959) serves as Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he has been since 1995. He is also the founding Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism. Alvin and his wife Michelle have two children: Joshua, a senior at The College at Southeastern, and Hannah, a senior at Wake Forest Rolesville High School. Recently he became more focused at ministry in his local church by being named Young Professionals Director at Richland Creek Community Church. Alvin holds the M.Div and the Ph.D with a major in evangelism from Southwestern Seminary, and the B.A. from Samford University. He has spoken at a variety of conferences in almost every state and continent, and in over 2000 churches, colleges, conferences and events across the United States.