MTD: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (part 1)

I am a youth worker and I have aided the spread of MTD. I have accepted poor excuses absences. I have been complacent about uninvolved parents. I have even settled for activities that were more fun than formation. Sadly, almost no one in my congregation would be shocked.

MTD not the telethon disease du jour, but it can be just as deadly. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a term coined out of the National Study on Youth and Religion(NSYR) to describe the pale imitation of faith prevalent among teens and young adults. This week Kenda Creasy Dean is raising awareness and calling for action at the 2013 Texas Annual Conference.

According to Almost Christian–Dean’s book based on the NYSR– 3 out of 4 teens claim to be Christian. Yet only half of those say that faith is important to how they live their life and even those are “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith. What they profess instead is a feel good/do good malaise neither challenges nor supports them. For example, when asked about the goal of religion 330 young people used language about feeling good or being happy, while only 125 reached for traditional theological categories such as sin, redemption, or discipleship.

At the core of MTD are four assumptions:

  • God exists and created the universe
  • God wants people to be nice
  • The goal of life is to be happy
  • God is necessary only when I need assistance (and isn’t great at that)

Or put another way, it looks like this:

Baptism used to be about dying to self so as to commit to God and a faith community. Now it is about me; a public celebration of me as an individual (complete with gifts and a new wardrobe) that should reflect my personal style. And of course the cake is the center piece.

This may seem an extreme example, I’ve sat through enough painful graduation Sunday sermons and confirmation parties to appreciate how uncomfortably close to normal a “classy baptism” is.

Where did this come from? How did our young people end up this way? It’s easy to say this is just a phase. Perhaps it’s a symptom of adolescent narcissism or part of growing up with access to terabytes of data, but little access to wisdom. However the sad truth is, they learned it from us, from their parents and mentors, from the church.

Dean pointed out “Young people do not practice MTD because they misunderstood, but because we taught it to them. How we taught it to them is worth exploring (see next post) but the more pressing question is, what a we going to do about it now?

In recent years I’ve heard a lot of talk about the gap years. We now think its normal for young people to leave the church and that when they have kids if their own, they’ll float back. That held some truth for baby boomers, but ever indicator says that era is over. Most of the kids who leave the church today, aren’t coming back. Not unless we start offering them something more than MTD, something they can’t find anywhere else. Not unless we start offering Jesus unadulterated.

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