Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (JDD Part 2)

So...last week I shared about Len Sweet's idea that today's church suffers from "Jesus Deficit Disorder."  You might remember I felt convicted by its description.  Well, God wasn't done with me yet.

You might also remember that I learned of this concept while taking an online course with nearly 20 other pastors from around the country.  Turns out, whatever sense of conviction I felt from the JDD material was nothing compared to what a couple of my fellow students shared with me during our online thread discussion on JDD.  They introduced me to an even deeper and more researched concept of the Christian faith in USAmerican society.  In 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  In this important work - about which, I confess, I was blissfully ignorant - they describe the state of the Christian faith as perceived by teenagers: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

In the research done by these two professors from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, they found that USAmerican teenagers, regardless of church affiliation, described the Christian faith in this way:

  1. There is a God who watches over us.
  2. This God wants people to be good, nice and fair.  [Moralistic]
  3. The central goal of life is happiness, success, and to feel good about oneself.  [Therapeutic]
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's personal life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.  [Deism]
Notice what's missing?  And, WHO is missing?  Again, to be clear, this is the Christian faith as perceived and experienced by teens at the beginning of the 21st Century.  This may not be the faith as taught in confirmation or Sunday School.  This may not even be the faith as preached from the pulpit.  Indeed, other research done since Soul Searching was published shows that teens outside the church had similar perceptions.  Regardless of sermons and curricula, this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems so prevalent that our younger folks seem to get it from the previous generations as if by osmosis.  

After reading and researching this concept introduced to me by these two classmates, I kind of felt like the old guy in a church I served who, when I would talk about the actual living out of our faith, would say with a smile: "Watch it!  You just went from preachin' to meddlin'."  Not only was my desire to please others exposed (last week's blog), but now I felt my preaching was also being convicted.  I pastored a fairly successful, growing suburban church in the late 90's and early 00's.  Like many pastors of such churches during those years, I fell into what I call the "5 Ways..." style of preaching.  "5 Ways God Can Help You."  "5 Ways to a Better Prayer Life."  [Now, a quick survey of my sermon titles will reveal, thankfully, that I never have actually titled a sermon "5 Ways...," but I have preached down that path a time or two.]

You can do a whole lot of "5 Ways..." preaching and fail to mention the same person who is missing from the definition of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: Jesus.  Oh yeah, Him!

I don't mean the name Jesus is missing from the faith as perceived by this generation who, by 2011, is now defined as all persons under 30.  I mean nearly everything Jesus taught seems to be missing: the first shall be last; to retain life, you must give life; love all; serve all; the reality that suffering, self-denial, persecution are a part of the Christian life...  

How have we - especially mainline Christianity - failed so miserably in living out or passing on Jesus' teaching that we are to be servants?  Perhaps it's because we have been under the delusion that such a concept can be passed on by teaching alone.  But, it turns out in this postmodern world, that Jesus' servant heart must be experienced before it becomes real to us.

So, at the risk of lapsing into the "5 Ways..." mode, let me share just one way in which the faith communities I serve have experienced a faith counter to the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  It happened last August when a handful of United Methodist Churches in Anchorage decided to live out the phrase: "Church Is a Verb."  We did so by taking our worship to the streets in the form of service in Christ's name.  We had about a dozen different projects in which our children, youth and adults all served.  If you want an idea of what this was about, watch this video prepared by my colleague Jenny Smith capturing scenes of our street service and our evening worship celebration: http://vimeo.com/14438701

Well, it turns out confession is good for the soul!  Thanks for bearing with me these two weeks...but, I must get back to the sermon series I'm preaching in February: "5 Ways the Sermon on the Mount Can Bring YOU Happiness and Success!!"


  1. Good stuff, Jon. My brother who is a pastor and monk says it is ALL about experience. Not much else matters. At the very least our Alaska United Methodist Church needs to explore and probe the depths of what it means to experience discipleship.

  2. Very interesting to hear the perception of teens verbalized. Thanks, Jon!