Moral Therapeutic Deism could be ruining your youth ministry.

There, I’ve just come right out and said it.  Before I unpack how it might be messing with your work with young people, what is it?

“MTD” was first mentioned in the book “Soul Searching : The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” (2005).  It was mentioned again, about a number of years later in “Almost Christian” (2010) and now, I’ve been promoted to write this blog post because it is mentioned again in a book that was just published last month, “Faith Formation in a Secular Age” by Andrew Root (2017) – there will be a review of his book shortly 🙂

Helpfully, Andrew Root gives a really simple explanation of each aspect of MTD – literally a half sentence on each.  Here it is, as laid out early on in his book,

Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is a concept that emerged out of the sociological work of Christian Smith and was popularised by practical theologian Kenda Creasy Dean.  Smith in his extensive study of youth and religion, said that the operative religious constitution of American youth could be characterised by the terms

“moralistic” (God wants me to be a good person and not a jerk)

“therapeutic” (God or religion should help me feel good); and

“deism” (God is a concept to decorate my life with but not an agent who really does anything).

MTD presents Christian faith as a kind of individualised, consumer spirituality.

From the Introduction, “Faith Formation in a Secular Age”, Andrew Root (2017)

So, to think about how it could be ruining your work with young people ask yourself a couple of questions ::

Is MTD how you understand your OWN relationship with God?

Think about this for a minute, what do we understand about what it means to be a Christian for US?  It is from this that we teach, share, lead our teams and the young people we work with.

Is our own faith built around trying to be good for God?

When our life with God is wrapped up in what we do for a living, what we “do” for God every day there isn’t a straight forward answer to that.  Is being a follower of Jesus about being “good” or pursuing holiness?  With one of those we cannot get there in our own effort – it is not we who are “good”.  We have a good God!  God didn’t send Jesus to make us good.  God sent Jesus because we were dead in our sin and needed to be brought to life!  Pursing holiness is not about trying to be holy, but about putting Jesus front and centre – Having Jesus seated on the throne of our lives and trusting His Holy Spirit to bring forth the fruit.

Is our own worship built around how it makes us feel?

Have you ever found yourself saying, “the worship didn’t do anything for me?”  What does this mean?!  We know, when we think about it for just a moment that the worship (in this instance maybe sung worship, the preach in church, the activity of God’s gathered people) isn’t for us.  Our worship is for and about God – but, what are we bringing?  Are we actually bringing OUR worship – or wishing to be entertained by the speaker, caught up by the brilliance of a worship band, revelling in the really decent coffee we have casually wandered in to the service with . . . ?  Are we bringing our worship or a consumer of it?

Is our own relationship with God superficial?

This is a tough one.  Does God have ALL of us?  Everything we are?  If our God is a “consumer choice” then, rather than being our first love – our relationship with Jesus becomes one among many options.  A lifestyle choice, an appendage, an add on.  This might be so subtle to us that we are in ministry – maybe for years – and we haven’t noticed that our life is sustained by the Christian sub-culture of events, conferences, books, trends and fads.  We haven’t paused to appreciate the Jesus we started out with – who never changes – because we are worried we might miss what is “next” in youth ministry.

Ok, take a breath.  If we can see some of these traits in our own lives – this impacts our ministry.  In fact, Kenda Creasy Dean argues in “Almost Christian” that young people have this view of Christian faith because it is what has been predominantly passed on in the US.  Is this also true of the UK environment for young people growing up in our churches?

A final question then, what ARE we passing on?  What kind of faith are we transmitting?