From Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to Gospel-Driven Realism: A Renewed Student Ministry

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013.]

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Popularized from the findings of The National Study of Youth and Religion by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, the term encapsulates the way the Bible has been communicated to young people in recent decades. Smith and Denton argue that the Western church has actually done an effective job of communicating to students. The problem lies in the content being communicated. According to the study — and my anecdotal observations over the years would concur —  we have communicated too well a Christianity epitomized as behavior modification and too little as the matchless work of a grace-bearing God who reigns supremely at the center of it all.

In her book Almost Christian based on the findings of the above study, Kenda Creasy Dean observed, “The National Study of Youth and Religion reveals a theological fault line running underneath American churches: an adherence to a do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow him into the world.”

In other words, Dean argues that this study shows the very way many of us have raised children in our churches has worked against any sort of missional impulse we might hope to engage. This is no minor charge. She adds, “American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship.”

What has been taught, this thing called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, has offered a how-to faith based on the needs of the individual over the redemptive plan of the Creator God. How has this happened, often in churches that stand on the Bible as the Word of God? I would argue part of this comes from our tendency to view students as “kids” who are more silly than serious. In addition, we have fundamentally shifted much of our teaching and living of Scripture from seeing the Bible through the lens of the gospel and the mission of God to understanding the Bible primarily as a road map that will guide us via morality to the place of faithfully serving God in all areas of life.

Unfortunately, many churches have taught the Bible to children and youth not as a book with one central, redemptive message, but as a collection of stories and morals with the gospel as the key story. But the Bible is not primarily about morality; it is mainly about reality. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “moralistic” because its focus is behavior modification. In a subtle way, acting right becomes more important than believing right. It is “therapeutic,” for it focuses on surface change, turning the Bible into a counseling manual more for the individual than the revelation of God. It is “deistic” because it does not require a God who is intimately involved in all of Creation and in all aspects of our lives, but who generally exists to bring us happiness, most specifically in our spiritual lives.

I call it the Aesop’s Fables approach to the Bible: read a Bible story and then explain the moral from it. It offers ironically a “moral failure,” for by focusing on morality too much we actually hinder students from seeing the lifelong, holistic implications of their faith. Motivation for serving God stems more from changing our behavior than from living a life of radical faith. Such extrinsic motivation may actually seem to work in the short term: show students how sex before marriage will lead to guilt and disease, for instance, or show them how lying will cost them friendships, and they will abstain from these sins, at least for a season. But if moral change becomes the primary focus of our faith, the long-term obedience we seek may actually be the one thing we will not see.

It could well be that our short-term focus contributes to students’ dropping out of church. But the much-debated topic of dropout rates actually fails to emphasize a more critical point, because even those who remain in our churches lack the missional drive to make gospel impact in their daily lives. In other words, how many who stay “in church” still “drop out” of active, daily, missional faith?

This does not mean that behavioral change is unimportant. Our morality marks a vital part of being conformed to the image of Christ. But a growing sense of moral uprightness and concomitant behavior reflecting this is a result of our faith; it simply cannot be the prime motivator. We have confused the point (the indicative) with the result (the imperative), and this has not helped us in discipling students. The way we teach the Bible may in fact hinder our missional focus and our disciple-making.

The practical result of turning the Bible into a series of moral truths is to make assumptions about the gospel and minimize its role in our lives. We move the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the category of “lost person only,” so that the gospel is for unbelievers, not believers. So we have our mega youth events and we share the gospel (or often tack it on at the end), but we do not teach the impact of the gospel for the believer and the redemptive story of God in all of the Bible, and thus its impact on all of life. So students grow up in church, learn a lot of stories, and live their lives with Jesus at the periphery. Many become the dechurched—those who grow up in the church but walk away when separated from the familiar (family, home church, etc.). Others limp their way through life spiritually, never getting the great plan of God for creation and for their lives.

A focus on Christianity as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism explains why so many believers today confuse biblical Christianity with civil religion and the spiritual war for the souls of men with the culture wars of winning political arguments. We read of how young people played critical roles in earlier seasons of revival, and those movements had a searing-hot devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we are to have a missional movement in our time, it may manifest itself in many ways practically, but it will be birthed out of gospel fervor, not moral failure.

But we have good news, the news of a God actively involved in our world whose Spirit works even now. We have the greatest story of all time, the story of a rescuing King Jesus. And even now we can see our God at work in a renewal of gospel focus, a growing missional awareness, and a recognition that if we keep doing what we are doing in student ministry we will keep getting what we are getting. I believe we are on the front edge of a revolution, a missional movement that gives hope in an ever-darkening world. This is why I have given so much of my own life and ministry to the younger generation, because as God has moved in youth in the past in great spiritual movements, He may well be doing so today.

NOTE: The above is adapted from As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students by Alvin Reid (Navpress). Find out more about this book here.

Briefly Noted: Note to a College Freshman

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on October 28, 2013.]

As we mentioned recently on BtT, I stumbled upon Henry Stob’s Theological Reflections while browsing the “used books” selection at a bookstore. Which, in case you wondered, is one of the reasons why I consider used bookstores one of the great delights of the modern world. (Thank you for having been about to wonder.)  One never knows what sorts of epistolary treasures might be found if one takes a few minutes to browse.

But to the point: Theological Reflections includes an essay which Stob entitled, “Note to a College Freshman” and which I think is worth noting briefly.[1] Stob, a former professor at Calvin College, encourages college freshmen to make the most of their college experience by transcending certain reductionist or otherwise misguided views of college education.

He begins by addressing the college freshmen. “You have come to college and you have taken a mind with you. . . . Mind is intellect, will, and feeling fused into one. Mind is what you are on the deeper level of your being. It is the spiritual measure and size of you, the conscious center and core of you.” (229) A freshman’s mind is more than the sum total of his thoughts. Further, Stob the college freshman is responsible and accountable for his mind. “The mind that is in you as you enter college is the product of many historical forces and influences. . . .This means that you have been an agent in the making of the mind you have. For its present set and temper you must, in consequence, accept the responsibility. And you must accept the same responsibility for its future form and texture.” (229)

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5 Truths About Jesus, Life, & Death

Charles Spurgeon said that doubt was like a raised foot, poised either to move forward or to take a step back. And no situation raises that foot like that of death. When confronted with death—either that of a loved one or our own potential death—we inevitably ask, “Jesus, if you really cared, why would you let this happen?”

It’s encouraging to me that this question isn’t new to us. Even in the gospels people came to Jesus in times of crisis and asked, “Jesus, why would you let this happen?” But the story of two miracles in Mark 5 helps us see several truths about Jesus, life, and death.

1. To Jesus, death is as easy to fix as waking someone up out of a short nap.

At the end of Mark 5, when Jesus arrives at the bedside of Jairus’ daughter, he doesn’t offer up a triumphant declaration (like he did for Lazarus in John 11): “Arise, come forth!” Instead, Mark tells us he said in Aramaic, “Talitha, cumi.” Talitha is a pet name, something like “honey.” And cumi isn’t a strong verb. It simply means “wake up,” like you would say to someone who had just dozed off.

Can you picture it? Here is Jesus, sitting down on this girl’s bed, like her mother would, taking her gently by the hand, and simply whispering, “Honey, it’s time to get up.”

Do you see what a beautiful picture of death this is? What is it like for a believer to die? Jesus sits by your bedside, takes you by the hand. And when you awake, his face is the first one you see, his voice the first one you hear. You wake up refreshed, more alive than you have ever been.

2. Jesus’ delay is not inconsistent with his love.[1]

It’s easy to miss the frustration that Jairus would have felt in this story. Sandwiched between Jairus’ request for help and Jesus arriving at his house, Jesus took the time to heal a woman with a chronic condition (a “flow of blood”). That’s all well and good for her, but with his daughter’s life hanging in the balance, Jairus couldn’t see this detour as anything but risky. And sure enough, by stopping to engage this woman, Jairus’ little girl died.

“If he loved me,” Jairus probably thought, “if he cared, surely he’d have gotten there in time to help my little girl.” But Jesus knew what Jairus didn’t—that the delay wouldn’t make any lasting difference. Even the girl’s death was only a temporary setback for him.

Our afflictions in this life, no matter how bad, are only—as Paul says—“light and momentary” (2 Cor 4:17). They doesn’t mean that our darkness isn’t real. It simply tells us that in the midst of our darkness, Jesus hasn’t forgotten. The moment we step foot into eternity and see the beauty of what God has done through our affliction, all of the pain of this life will seem—in comparison—like a bad night in a cheap motel.

3. Jesus both offers more and requires more than you ever imagined.

Both Jairus and the woman with the chronic condition come to Jesus for one thing and end up getting more than they asked. But Jesus also requires more from both of them than they were expecting.

Jairus came to Jesus in need of a healing; what he got was a resurrection—a miracle upgrade. But to get the resurrection, he had to endure the pain of death and trust Jesus in the midst of it.

The woman wanted a hit-and-run with Jesus: get her healing, get home. She got the healing, and she was called “precious daughter” by the Son of God—the only time Jesus used this term for anyone in Scripture. But to be welcomed into his family, she had to expose herself to Jesus and profess him before the crowd.

This is how it is with Jesus: he’ll give you more than you think you need, but he requires more, too. There’s only one “trade” Jesus is willing to make: he’ll give you himself for all of eternity in return for your complete surrender. All of you for all of him. He has no other terms.

4. Our victory over death came only at great personal cost to him.

Mark 5:30 says that when the woman touched Jesus, “power went out from him.” That implies that Jesus actually became weak. And this is odd, since throughout the Gospels Jesus does much more with much less effort—casting out a legion of demons, calming a hurricane, without breaking a sweat.

But when it comes to cleansing us, that only comes at great cost to him. To cleanse us, he had to become dirty. To raise us to new life, he had to be struck down in death. Jesus’ death and resurrection are hinted at even here, showing us that what we need most—reunion with God—also costs him dearly.

5. Personal stature contributes nothing to overcoming death.

The two characters in this story are hardly equals. You have Jairus, a religious leader; and a women who because of her condition, is religiously unclean. Jairus is rich; this woman is poor. He has servants; she is one. He has a name everyone in the city knew; her name isn’t even mentioned, because no one knew her.

Yet Jesus gives healing to both in response to faith. Their stature, their accomplishments…even their righteousness, mean nothing to him. That means if you identify with the nameless woman, if you don’t want people to know you, if you feel broken, dirty, ashamed—that Jesus can give you wholeness and salvation. He can make you his daughter.

But on the other hand, if you think God is going to accept you because you are a pretty good person—on the scale of things, you’re in the upper third or so—then you’ll never know his forgiveness or his resurrection. God will only fill empty hands. All that you need is need.

[1] I am particularly indebted to Tim Keller for insight on the next two points from a message he preached at Redeemer on this passage called “The Timing of Jesus.”