Less “god”, More Jesus

The Rooted Blog has a whole series on the effects of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism on teenagers in particular and the Church in general. Check it out. As youth workers and leaders, we need to be ready to address the major spiritual issues that impact this generation. Read this insightful article by Andy Cornett which connects with so many teenagers I’ve talked with in my years of ministry. We need to adopt some changes like he did so we can get real with the Gospel for this generation.

Your fellow worker in the field,  Adam


You know this feeling. You love teenagers, you hang out with them, you’ve studied and prepped for a talk, worked hard on a program, taught about Jesus and following him, and … at the end of the day, you find your beloved teens kind of unable to talk much about what they believe. Everybody wants to be “closer to God.” But when pressed, nobody has much in particular to say. You wonder … what is going on here? Are we that ineffective?

Your teens might be suffering from a case of MTD. According to “Soul Searching,” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) has become the “de facto dominant religion among teens.” Though it’s without creed or organizers, MTD functions like as a parasite to its host, the church. Its chief tenets are that God wants us to be good (and get along) and go to heaven when we die, God wants us to be happy, and God is there for us if/when we need him.

Why do your teens have it? Turns out, they probably caught it from the adults at your church. In her absolutely devastating and wonderful book “Almost Christian: What the Fatih of our Teenagers is tellin the American Church,” Kenda Creasy Dean takes the argument further into the Christian territory of local church youth ministry. Dean (who was one of the researchers/interviewers on the NSYR that formed the basis of “Soul Searching”) offers both diagnosis and prescription for treatment. (Confession: this book is brilliant. I have read and reread it and have heard her speak; if anything good comes out of what follows, it’s properly her thoughts, not mine). I just want to focus on one tantalizing prescription:

Less “god,” more Jesus.

Dean notes that most of the teenagers in the study seem paralyzed when asked about Jesus himself (yes, of course, some did better than others). But here are a few observations that ought to both comfort and encourage us:

  • MTD banks on a default, ahistoric deistic concept of “G/god;” Jesus is vastly different, particular, personal.
  • MTD has some basic beliefs/practices, but it can’t tell a compelling story or capture your heart; Jesus is the best Story and captures hearts (and thus minds and bodies as well).
  • You can’t love MTD – but you can love a Jesus who has first loved you. (And as Dean says, “you learn best what you love most”).

Since reading the book, here are a few practices I’m learning to adopt in talking with students.

  • Start asking students about their relationship with Jesus – not “God.” In English, God is the default word for a deity, so those three letters become a box in which just park our own conceptions/feelings/thoughts/beliefs on the divine. We could talk about “God” all day and not being talking about the same “god.” As Christians we believe in One God- in the three persons of Father/Son/Spirit, and it’s time for us start using those names and asking students about Jesus. Who is Jesus for you? Do you sense that Jesus is with you? For you? What is one thing Jesus is doing in your life right now? And when you are done, pray with them and for them – to Jesus.
  • Use “Jesus” (and God, and Father/Spirit/Son) as subject, not as object. Talk less “about” God: talk more about what he has done, is doing, and will do. When God is the subject, it’s clear he is doing the action. We all know the red letters in the Bible of what Jesus says – but do you talk about what he does? I haven’t done this, but I want to go through a gospel and list out all the verbs where Jesus is the subject. With God (and particularly Jesus) as the subject of our sentences (past/present/future), we emphasize his ongoing, active presence in our midst.
  • Get personal: talk about your own faith story and what Jesus has done/is doing in your own life.  Let teens see the personal difference that Jesus Christ has made in you. Where possible, be explicit about the links between what you do and why. If you are taking some steps in following Jesus, be clear about his love that motivates you. If you are taking some risks in faith, be clear about your trust in him and his leadership. Model this yourself. Ask your leaders to do this. Ask parents to do this with their own kids (it has a huge impact).

It seems like the more personal God gets, the bigger difference he makes. But wait– isn’t that the whole story revealed to us in the story of Scripture? A Father who graciously sends his only Son and gives his Spirit freely that we might be united to him? Thought so.

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