I read an article by Christian Smith called On “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith." You can read the entire article here, and I think the book will be on my reading list soon. I also want to thank Ralph Williams from the White Station Church for passing the article on to me. So, what is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Well, first of all, it is a widespread way of thinking about God among our Christian teenagers today. Not only do I buy into the research presented by Mr. Smith, but as a campus minister I run into this view of God every day, and up to this point I really didn't have a name for it. Second, the concise belief system (or doctrine code) of this is as follows:
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
At the heart of this belief system are two important ideas. First, the moralistic component is a striving to be a good person. In fact, there is even a strong belief that the more "good" one is, the more one is going to be blessed by God. Now, we could spend days on what "good" means, but luckily for us Mr. Smith has summed it up (which is below) but underlying these morality principles is one basic generational driving force: "I must feel good about myself"
Being moral in this faith means being the kind of person who other people will like, fulfilling one’s personal potential, and not being socially disruptive or interpersonally obnoxious.
Following closely behind this "feeling good" mentality is our second component, the therapeutic. Consider these quotes from teenagers interviewed by Mr. Smith:
“When I pray, it makes me feel good afterward.”
At the heart of this approach to God, is God himself. Who is the God of moralistic therapeutic deism? Well, for most Christian teenagers God is best defined as the creator, the one who got it all started and is defines what morals are for us, but who is not relationally involved in our lives, especially the parts of our lives that we feel might be offensive to God, or in which God would not be comfortable. For those of you who know your deism:
For these teenagers--and some adults--God sometimes does get involved in people’s lives, but usually only when they call upon him, which is usually when they have some trouble or problem or bad feeling that they want resolved. In this sense, the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the Therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs.
Ok - so I have tried to sum this up in a concise way. Remember the full text of the article and book are both available. But here's my question: WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE THEY GETTING THIS? From me... From church... From parents... So, let me make a few suggestions as we think about the true and living God, the God of relationship, the Father of the Son Jesus Christ who's SACRIFICE and TRIUMPH makes our love, hope, and peace possible, the God who poured out the Holy Spirit as an indwelling presence of God within us...that God.
(these are in no particular order)
Does prayer always have to make us feel better? Does every prayer need to include a "sick list" or an "I want" list? Do we always have to be persistent to God about what we want or can prayer be about what God wants? What if prayer was actually a conversation, a relationship out loud in which sometimes, like my wife, God tells me that I need to pay him more attention and perhaps we need a "date night" (not actually, but some time that is absolutely devoted to God). What if through prayer we can be refined and disciplined, and renewed (not by feeling better but by being drawn deeper into God's will and way).
So pay attention to prayers, especially the ones you pray in front of your children and your teens and those you are influencing in the faith. Listen for the type of GOD we address in those prayer and be attentive to how many times we ask God to do or be something for us without pledging to do or be something for God.
I have two observations here. First, does worship always have to be a pep rally for Jesus? Is there a space for Lament and conviction and repentance for sin within our worship times. So often we talk about bowing down to God while standing and crying out to God while being half asleep on a Sunday morning. Worship is supposed to be moving to those assembled, I'm perfectly fine with the whole "experience" of worship, but when that experience does not resonate with the whole of human life, then we should logically assume that either God doesn't care about those circumstances and emotions in us, or worse, that God isn't comfortable with that part of our lives. Quite frankly, I find that churches dwell on a happy Jesus "pep rally" because it is the easiest of all human emotions to unpack within an hour and then release. Thus, worship is about happiness, which is why the Lord's Supper is such a strange part of worship, for me it is every week, but for other church groups it is occasional. Here's my thought, when the Lord's Supper is central to the worship experience, then other emotions besides "happy" are being unpacked and brought before our Savior, who didn't live for his happiness, and asks us not to live for our happiness either.
The second observation concerns the sermon, since I am a homiletical thinker (apparently) so I want you to listen for something. Does your preacher often encourage you to be a better person without reminding you that you have help in that process? Do you leave your church thinking you need to do something better or study the Bible more, or pray more without much guidance on how to do it? If so, then the sermons at your church might be adding to this thinking about God. An alternative might be a preacher who provides a picture of what life with this God looks like, what it is to live in God's kingdom, both affirming the experience of those who live in the Kingdom and inviting other to join in God's Kingdom. That is a sermon I love to hear!
Just a quick note here to remind us that service in the name of Jesus is not really to fulfill some duty or to make us feel better about ourselves. Jesus served those he loved and were deeply connected to, remember him washing feet. While I think this generation of young people are really focused on service, if you are leading service opportunities or creating them, remember to be relationally engaged and really work hard to know that you go with God into areas where often we wonder if God could even be there--my experience has taught me that God is not surprised by my willingness to serve, God has been waiting for someone to answer his call to go.
The church must be bold in sending out people to take risks for God (see my last post) and the church must be a place that equips people to do their Kingdom work. If the New Testament is right that all have received gifts from God to be about God's business, then the church is more than an event or an institution, the church is God's army, God's people, God's family, ready to do his work. And church goes outside of the building, into homes, work places, gas stations, and community gardens. We can have church anywhere, because God is present where his children are! I hope you are part of a Christian community that looks like this!
Does God come to your house? You get to choose what that looks like, but the question is simple. Notice how you pray with your family, what you talk about with your kids and spouse, the books you read. But beyond those things: the vacations you take, the missions you go on, the friends you have (both Christian and non-Christian), and the list can go on and on. Does God get to do all of this with you? Does God get to participate in the night that your baby will not sleep and your at the end of your rope because you wanted this baby for 5 years and now you are not sure if you can make it through this one night - kind of circumstance? It's not all going to go as planned, God knows that (read the flood narrative again) and will be there.
So, I think I need to read this book Soul Searching because I see the phenomenon and I'm sure there is much more to this trend than I have time for here!
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.