"Christian-ish"

Part 1 in a series of posts about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 

In a previous post Matt attempted to name ‘the dragon’ that V&B hopes to assist the Church in ‘slaying’ - or, less colorfully, the challenge to North American Christianity that we feel called to address. That dragon is what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, theologians like Kenda Creasy Dean, and others involved in the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Unlike Matt, I am not sure how I first came across the results of the NSYR. There's a really good chance that I just heard about it from him - he's usually quicker than me to discover new and interesting things worth reading and thinking about. But I, too, received this research as a revelation, quickly devouring both Dean's Almost Christian as well as the primary compendium of the NSYR's findings, Smith and Denton's Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Similar to Matt, I was a freshly minted seminary grad employed in church youth ministry at the time and struggling to engage a room (filled mostly with the toughest audience imaginable - 8th grade boys) with the beauty and truth and goodness of the Christian faith. The NSYR allowed me to begin to name what I was up against: an ethos of lukewarm indifference that Smith and Denton call "Benign Whatever-ism" and the pseudo Christianity of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).

The MTD 'creed' consists of the following five convictions:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
— "Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," Almost Christian, p. 14

There is a lot more to say about these five propositions, but the upshot is that the faith of most young people in North America who would identify as Christians is something different from actual, historic Christian faith. It is a 21st century version of what George Whitfield and John Wesley called "Almost Christian," or, more slangily (and following Dean), it is "Christian-ish."

But MTD isn't just an epidemic in teenage faith; one of the findings of this research is that teenagers overwhelmingly mirror the faith of the adults in their lives - especially their parents - and so the problem is not merely one for youth ministry and youth ministers to figure out. Moreover, the problem isn't bigger than youth ministry merely because the youth are the 'future' of Christianity - though they are. Instead, the fact is that this is a problem for the whole church because MTD is probably the most common creed actually believed in and lived out by most of the folks who sit in the pews at your church and mine. 

Anybody who has tried to have a deep faith conversation with young people in Sunday School or youth group gatherings probably won’t be surprised by the details of the NSYR’s conclusions about the nature of adolescent faith in our churches. Their more alarming discovery is that we are to blame. But all is not lost: Dean suggests, rightly, that the best strategy for making the faith of the teenagers in your church more Christian is to work on making your church more Christian. And, parents, the best way to deepen the spirituality of your own kids is simply to deepen your own. 

For the next several weeks I'm going to roughly follow Kenda Dean's book to help us explore MTD and what we in the Church can and should do about it.