We Must Never Forget Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

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Over a decade ago, Christian Smith published a groundbreaking study about the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. The researchers coined the terminology, moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD), which became a buzzword in youth ministry circles for several years. A week didn’t go by when an article on a youth ministry blog or a tweet from a youth ministry leader failed to use this nomenclature.

Much research pointed to MTD as a primary cause for the failure of churches to produce lasting followers of Christ. Kids understood Christianity as the performance of moral behaviors. They viewed the purpose of faith as personal happiness and a bolstered self-esteem. They espoused a view of God as a distant, detached ambulance service, who would come if called in an emergency.

In many ways, I view the publications about moralistic therapeutic deism by Smith and other scholars as youth ministry’s nailing of the 95 Theses on Witteberg’s castle door. It was an indictment of a works-based faith — contrary to the biblical gospel — a misrepresentation of God that had begun to pervade the way churches represented Christianity to kids.

Over the past several years, I feel as if I rarely see the term used or the problem engaged. Maybe MTD became white noise as we heard it used so often. Perhaps, the discoveries of new problems in youth ministry have grabbed our attention. I do not know why this central issue in the mission of the church receives less attention today than it did seven years ago, but I would submit that those interested in the discipleship of young people in the church at large should continue to keep this concept at the forefront of our collective youth ministry consciousness.

In fact, I would say that we should never ever forget what Smith and others revealed through their research on moralistic therapeutic deism.

Never.

While the terminology crafted by Smith brilliantly captured the theological underpinnings beneath a crisis in youth ministry, they also offered new language to an age-old problem in the doctrinal history of the Christian church.

One can explain moralistic therapeutic deism in simpler language: man-centered, performance-based Christianity.

Whether describing moralistic therapeutic deism in youth ministry, the broader church, or individual lives, this theological bent clearly communicates that the Christian faith is all about man. It’s all about man’s effort. It’s all about man’s self esteem and self-fulfillment. It’s all about man’s internal locus of control.

Youth ministry as a field can never move beyond MTD because mankind, in its sinful nature, has never evolved beyond our self-focused, self-dependent, self-centered, self-exalting propensities. At the end of the day, youth ministers, teenagers, parents, head pastors – everyone born since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden – naturally bring our lives, our thoughts, and our endeavors back to ourselves, our performance, and our glory.

Continuing to engage MTD for years to come reminds us of our tendency toward man-centeredness and leads us to turn toward Christ-centeredness. Remembering MTD pushes us to embrace what Jesus has done in his life, death, and resurrection.

The Antidote to MTD

The Gospel is the opposite of moralistic therapeutic deism. The Gospel says it’s all about Jesus’ efforts in his perfect substitutionary life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection. Man’s efforts to attain righteousness fail miserably apart from God’s saving grace and Christ’s defeat of sin and death.

The Gospel says it’s all about Jesus’ glory and the advancement of his Kingdom. Religion as a tool for self-esteem and emotional optimization is exposed for its vanity in comparison to the call to live as a vessel through which God reveals his beautiful character.

The Gospel says it’s all about acknowledging God’s sovereign, active work in every inch of our lives and the world. God is not some far-off fallback plan. He has come to us in the person of Jesus. He stands by us in the Holy Spirit. He ordains all matters in the world by his sovereign discretion.

This year has been a season of remembering Martin Luther’s prophetic moment in protest of works-righteousness and in promotion of the Gospel. I think a similar recollection of the problem of MTD should be visited.

I encourage those who minister to young people, and who think and write about how we do it, to continue to revisit the valuable conversation that Christian Smith, Melinda Lundquist Denton, Kenda Creasy Dean, and so many others brought to the forefront of the youth ministry world a decade ago. The discussion of moralistic therapeutic deism forces us to confront our natural propensity to gravitate toward man-centered Christianity, and it drives us to the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

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