The Dragon

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As Cabe began blogging through our 'mission statement this week, I thought I'd give some autobiographical information on what began this journey for me.

In 2009 I finished seminary and was in the midst of a job search. Like many recently finished seminarians I never thought I'd end up a youth pastor. Actually, I didn’t believe I had the gifts, the call, or the care necessary to do the job. But soon it became clear that many of churches looking for fresh out of seminary pastors felt differently. And so before long I accepted to start this strange and wondrous calling in the strange world of youth work.

I've often heard of congregations who felt that their calling was to help 'break-in' pastors after seminary. Youth groups don't feel that way. Many don't care at all. It's a gathering determined by the time their parents dropped them off for church. They'll be glad to humble you and your grand ideas, but it comes from a grand indifference in many cases and not a resistance to change and new ideas. It didn't take long to realize I was in over and under my head as well as surrounded.

For a time I tried to buckle up and push hard into them and where they were at, only to have that barely register. As I was about to give up on teaching them to start a young adults’ Bible study Sunday mornings I got a postcard in the mail for an event Seattle Pacific University was hosting on youth ministry with Kenda Creasy Dean. Since I had just finished seminary in Seattle I thought it would be a nice time to go back up, hang with some friends, visit some old locales, and possibly learn something about youth ministry. What I hadn't expected was a series of lectures that wouldn't just change how I understood the task and gift of youth ministry but that would present a challenge and direction for a large part of my pastorate.

The first thing to say about Kenda was how wonderfully she approached those of us in attendance. She looked at us with energy, with belief in what we were doing, and she cherished the gift we were offering to the kingdom. Never once did it seem she was talking down to us. She shared from her passion, and her sharing from her passion gave me a new passion for what I was doing.

But not long into her talks she began to explain 'moralistic therapeutic deism.' As learned as I considered myself she showed how this sociological term for the beliefs of young adults was actually the work of the whole church. Christian Smith, one of the researchers who coined the term describes it this way:

By ‘moralistic’ I mean oriented toward being good and nice, in ways that assert certain moral claims (for example, ‘You should never have sex with someone you don’t really care about.’) in fairly arbitrary ways without their being integrated into any larger, coherent moral tradition.
By ‘therapeutic’ I mean being primarily concerned with one’s own happiness, good feeling, personal comfortability, and emotional wellbeing—in contrast to, say, a focus on glorifying God, learning obedience, or serving others.
Finally, by ‘deism’ I mean a view of God as normally distant and not involved in one’s life, except (as qualified by the ‘therapeutic’) if one has a problem one needs God to solve, one can call on God to fix it and make one feel better. In MTD, in other words, God functions as a combination divine butler and cosmic therapist.

As Kenda explained this research to us I'll never forget her describing the term and telling those of us who wanted to move beyond youth pastoring that the work of confronting MTD was the work of the whole church. What the researchers continued to find was that the youth didn't invent these beliefs; they weren’t just finding them on their own, but they were being discipled into them by the rest of church. While it make look slightly different among the generations above the youth, they discovered that you only need to scratch the surface to see underneath the veneer. As she explains in her book,  "The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe, namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on folks like us---which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all." 

If Vine&Branches had a core reading list at the top of the list would Kenda's book Almost Christian. I ordered it as soon as the conference was over, read it several times, and shared it and its content with anyone would listen. If Kenda and the sociologists are right Christianity in North America is sick. While many are attempting to ignore it, keeping track of other things (like attendance and money) it became clear to Cabe and me that if we wanted to help the church get better we'd have to name the dragon and then attempt to slay it. V&B is another step in our journey of seeking healing for God's church.

Matthew SheddenComment