From Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to Gospel-Driven Realism: A Renewed Student Ministry

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013.]

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Popularized from the findings of The National Study of Youth and Religion by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, the term encapsulates the way the Bible has been communicated to young people in recent decades. Smith and Denton argue that the Western church has actually done an effective job of communicating to students. The problem lies in the content being communicated. According to the study — and my anecdotal observations over the years would concur —  we have communicated too well a Christianity epitomized as behavior modification and too little as the matchless work of a grace-bearing God who reigns supremely at the center of it all.

In her book Almost Christian based on the findings of the above study, Kenda 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.”

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 hope to engage. This is no minor 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.”

What has been taught, this thing called Moralistic Therapeutic 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 that stand 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. In addition, we have fundamentally shifted much of our teaching and living of Scripture from seeing the Bible through the lens of the gospel and the mission of God to understanding the Bible primarily as a road map that will guide us via morality to the place of faithfully serving God in all areas of life.

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. But the Bible is not primarily about morality; it is mainly about reality. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “moralistic” because its focus is behavior modification. In a subtle way, acting right becomes more important than believing right. It is “therapeutic,” for it focuses on surface change, turning the Bible into a counseling manual more for the individual than the revelation of God. 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, most specifically in our spiritual lives.

I call it the Aesop’s Fables approach to the Bible: read a Bible story and then explain the moral from it. It offers 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 may actually seem to work in 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 our short-term focus contributes to students’ dropping out of church. 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?

This does not mean 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 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. The way we teach the Bible may in fact hinder our missional focus and our disciple-making.

The practical result of turning the Bible into a series of moral truths is to make assumptions about the gospel and 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), 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. So students grow up in church, learn a lot of stories, and live their lives with Jesus at the periphery. Many become the dechurched—those who grow up in the church but walk away when separated 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.

A focus on Christianity as Moralistic Therapeutic 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. We read of how young people played critical roles in earlier seasons of revival, and those movements had a searing-hot devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we are to 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.

But we have good news, the news of a God actively involved in our world whose Spirit works even now. We have the greatest story of all time, the story of a rescuing King Jesus. And even now we can see our God at work in a renewal of gospel focus, a growing missional awareness, and a recognition that if we keep doing what we are doing in student ministry we will keep getting what we are getting. I believe we are on the front edge of a revolution, a missional movement that gives hope in an ever-darkening world. This is why I have given so much of my own life and ministry to the younger generation, because as God has moved in youth in the past in great spiritual movements, He may well be doing so today.

NOTE: The above is adapted from As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students by Alvin Reid (Navpress). Find out more about this book here.

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