How have well-meaning youth ministers and well-resourced youth ministries produced a generation of Christians whose faith would be better categorized as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD)?
In their 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Denton coined that phrase. MTD is the combination of beliefs that 1) God wants us to behave 2) God wants us to be happy and 3) God exists but is not intimately involved in our everyday lives.
In their interviews with young people, those three beliefs surfaced as the primary way that this generation understands Christianity. How did we get here? I believe there are two primary reasons, and neither is bad, but both are incomplete on their own. They are the desire to instruct and the desire to inspire.
You can instruct with morals. Don't lie, treat others well, don't do bad things. And you can use countless Bible stories to illustrate good and bad examples of those things. This form of moralism tells teenagers: YOU SHOULD! We're not Gospel proclaimers, we're the morality police.
You can inspire with stories and emotion and lights and music and causes. And you can use countless Bible verses to inspire teenagers to believe in themselves, to achieve more, and to be better than others. These forms of motivationalism tell teenagers: YOU CAN! We're not Gospel proclaimers, we're cheerleaders.
Moralism starts with YOU SHOULD. Motivationalism starts with YOU CAN. What does the Gospel say? YOU MUST! YOU CAN'T! SOMEONE DID! IN HIM, YOU CAN!
Gospel Fluency can't be assumed. Poll your students sometime. Ask them to tell you the central message of Christianity. Ask them what the Gospel is. It may sound more like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism than the Gospel. Let's fight to preserve the good news that, in Jesus, God did everything He promised He would do!
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