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.

Leo Tolstoy: Youth Group President?

Check out this great article I came across via Trevin Wax.

Leo Tolstoy, a russian philosopher, best known for his novel War and Peace, pursued (unsuccessfully) moralistic perfection in his faith. Is this what we are really teaching?  Do we teach the bible solely so we can be better people?  The Gospel is about much more than fixing our behavior!  The great misinterpretation of the christian faith, that Tolstoy also believed, is that we must try harder to be accepted by God!

“Children and students, indeed all of us, are incapable of living the Christian life in our own merit. We are utterly unable to transform ourselves. Because of this simple truth, transformation is not about trying; it is about dying. The apostle Paul knew that transformation occurs when we continually die to ourselves and trust the grace of Christ fully: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11).”

I love that sentence. “Transformation is not about trying; it is about dying.”  Check out this article and see if you agree with the conclusions!

CNN posts about MTD

Crazy.  CNN has even picked up on the MTD (moralistic therapeutic deism) terminology when most people in our churches are unfamiliar with this phenomenon.  Check out the CNN article for yourself.

I will say this about the article. It clearly shows the infiltration of MTD into todays youth culture and contrasts that with  a “committed” faith.  So on that part I am thankful that even CNN recognizes the inadequacy of MTD as sincere faith.  Unfortunately this picture of the truly committed Christian does not include Jesus Christ.

No matter their background, Dean says committed Christian teens share four traits: They have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose and a sense of hope about their future.

In this article you will find a level playing field for varieties of “christian faith”, Catholic and Protestant.  I believe if you hone in on the evangelical, Gospel-centered denominations you will find more resistance to the infiltration of MTD.  Yet the problem is present in all faith traditions.  Even in the best churches you will find members, and particularly teenagers, who cannot speak accurately about the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and what that means for us today.

“If teenagers lack an articulate faith, it may be because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation,” wrote Dean, a professor of youth and church culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Not only parents, but churches receive the brunt of blame for this weak understand of christianity among teenagers.

Churches, not just parents, share some of the blame for teens’ religious apathy as well, says Corrie, the Emory professor. She says pastors often preach a safe message that can bring in the largest number of congregants. The result: more people and yawning in the pews.

Read the article and see what you think.  It is from a secular perspective but has a fair treatment of MTD.  It is my prayer that more youth leaders and parents will understand the reasons teens drift toward this watered down version of the Gospel, and then fight against it!  We must teach and live the truthfulness of the whole counsel of God. We must understand it is not about us but about the Glory of God!

Your fellow worker in the field,  Adam

Big Words for a Big Problem








MTD – Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  I believe this article, the second of four about the current state of youth ministry today, is right on target.  (click here for the full article at Gospel Coalition) Brian Cosby recognizes that the Bible is not to be taught as a guide for being more moral in our society, but the redemptive hope for our souls found in the Gospel!

“That a youth ministry “teaches the Bible” does not necessarily mean it teaches the gospel. Many mistake the gospel with moralism—being a good person, reading your Bible, or opening the door for the elderly in order to earn God’s favor. But the gospel is altogether different.”

Most teenagers are skipping (sometimes fumbling) through life without deeply thinking about their worldview framework through which they make assumptions about reality.  With an ambiguous and often contradiction laden framework, many teens can still coast through Student Ministry without challenging these beliefs!

“According to sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, most American teenagers believe in something dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).  Within this MTD “religion,” God is a cosmic therapist and divine butler, ready to help out when needed. He exists but really isn’t a part of our lives. We are supposed to be “good people,” but each person must find what’s right for him or her. Good people will go to heaven, and we shouldn’t be stifled by organized religion where somebody tells us what we should do or what we should believe.”

And this problem is not just in the realm of our student ministries, but it filters into the church at large!

“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length.  When this self-help theology is combined with a sola-boot-strapia sermon from TBN, we start having teens singing, “God Is Watching Us from a Distance” while—at the same time—wondering why Jesus isn’t fixing their parents’ marriage or their problems with cutting.  MTD isn’t just the problem of youth ministry; it’s the problem of the church. And American Christianity has become a “generous host” to this low-commitment, entertainment-driven model of youth ministry.”

I love this quote. It hammers home that our theology should drive our methodology!  Not the other way around!  Always keep this in mind student pastors.

“While our theology of the gospel should inform our method, the American church—to a large extent—has practiced just the reverse. The question on many youth leaders’ minds is, “How do we get bored teenagers into the church?” The question should be, “How are we to faithfully plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ for his glory and our joy in him?”

This article ends with hope for the church.  That hope rests in Jesus Himself.  Jesus will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!  So we trust Him. We seek Him. We focus our ministries on Him!

I applaud Brian Cosby in this informative and challenging reminder of the dangers this generation and our churches are facing.  May we stand in the gap with a tenacious focus on the Gospel!

Your fellow worker in the field,  Adam