Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

About 15 years ago, Christian Smith released the findings of qualitative research he conducted, interviewing approximately 3000 high school students (Smith & Denton, 2005).  His summary interpretation of kids’ statements about religious faith and practice: “we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might well call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’” (p. 162).  The tenets or creed of this “religion:”

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when He is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Though this ‘creed’ is particularly apparent among kids with Catholic and mainline Protestant backgrounds, it is also quite evident among Protestants that are more ‘conservative’ in theology and practice.  In their summation, Smith and Denton provide three points worthy of consideration:

  1. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is about the indoctrination of a moralistic approach to life.  Many sermons are moralistic in nature.  “Do good, try not to do bad” is the mantra of a moralistic version of Christianity. 
  2. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents” (p. 163).  Simply stated, God’s main job is to make us happy.  MTD is not about repentance, gratitude, dying to self, building character through difficult circumstances, giving of one’s self to social justice, etc.
  3. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism follows the basic tenets of deism – God created the universe and humanity, defines the general moral order, but is not particularly personally involved in the affairs of humans, especially where we prefer he not be involved. We call on him only when necessary and blame him when we are not happy or when things don’t go our way. Deists view God as “watching over us from above.”

Though Smith’s research is almost 15 years old, it is fair to conclude not a lot has changed in the course of the past decade or so.  Therefore, it is imperative that we be aware of the tenets of MTD as we communicate what following Jesus looks in our culture(s).  We want to help people know Jesus; MTD focuses on what we can get him to do for us.

Reference: Smith, C., & Denton, M. L. (2005). Soul searching : The religious and spiritual lives of american teenagers. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.


One Small Step…

I am on my way to Albania to serve Young Life in the southern Balkan countries of Albania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia, providing several leadership development educational opportunities. Key to surviving a 19 hour, three-legged trip is Audible and a couple great books. One book I hope to get to is First Man: The Life of Neil. A. Armstrong.

It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college. I remember staying up late into that hot July night, listening on my GE transistor radio ear piece to the broadcast of the Apollo 11 landing. It seemed like Armstrong took forever to finally climb out of the lunar module, Eagle, once it landed. When he did, I got to hear his famous quote live: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” I was fascinated with space travel from its inception. I especially followed the Apollo missions. When John F. Kennedy declared, “We choose to go to the moon” during a speech in Houston, I was 12 years old. I was 19 the night of the landing in July 1969. A moon landing was accomplished in seven years. Talk about focus!

There were several Apollo missions to the moon prior to Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing. I soaked it all up. I recall the first time an Apollo spacecraft left earth’s gravitational pull and entered into the pull of the moon’s gravity. It was a specific point in space in which the gravitational pull was zero. I remember a count down from Houston: 3,2,1… you are now being drawn in by the moon. Prior to that, the spacecraft’s engines were ablaze as it fought the pull of earth’s gravity. After reaching the zero-gravity point, they could begin to shut down the engines and coast toward the moon.

I suspect had Houston not informed the Apollo crew of the zero gravity point in space, they would have traveled several thousand more miles before they might have noticed. They weren’t focused on the point of zero gravity, they were focused on the moon. Passing through zero gravity was something that happened along the way on the journey to the moon. It’s quite possible they could have focused on reaching that point and ended up missing the moon by tens of thousands of miles.

John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 30:30). Christ-followers seek that. We would love to get to that point in life where it’s more about Jesus and less about self. Here’s the rub. In our desire to reach that crossover point in our journey where it becomes more about Him, we could easily end up making that our focus. Wrong focus! We want to focus on Jesus and along the way we get to a place where it’s more of Him and less of us. Unlike traveling to the moon, we can’t calculate when that might happen. It’s a natural outcome of focusing on Jesus. It’s metamorphosis all over again. I’d be willing to bet that if my focus is the crossover, I might never realize it. But if my focus is Him, then it might actually happen. If it does happen someday, I likely won’t be aware of it for a few years; not until looking back I realize something changed and I don’t have to strive as much anymore – not coasting, but sort of.

Striking Out a Land

Spring plowing on the farm was one of my favorite things to do. When I was in high school, we plowed with a 39 horsepower John Deere Model ’60,’ capable of pulling a 3-bottom plow, each bottom turning over 16″ of soil. Each spring we plowed about 100 acres, prepping the soil for spring planting of corn and grains to feed our dairy herd. Plowing 100 acres, turning over a maximum of 48″ of earth at a time, meant we plowed over 200 miles at 2-3 mph. Translation: we did everything we could to keep the ’60’ and its plow in the field, weather permitting. As soon as I was old enough to plow, my dad and I took turns keeping the tractor moving. I might start at 4:00a, he would relieve me so I could have breakfast and do morning chores, then my turn after lunch till after evening milking, then his turn until midnight. Efficiency was critical to spring plowing.

Plowing in a straight line was an integral component to efficiency. The key to plowing straight is starting straight – what farmers call “striking out a land.” I don’t know the etymology of the term, but apparently it’s part of farming 101. Striking out a land is pretty straight forward. You pick a target at the other end of the field (i.e., a tree or fence post) and head for it. Here’s the key: Never take your eyes off the target! For anything. Typically while plowing, the operator is always looking back to insure the plow is at the correct depth. Not when striking out a land. Never look back.

My first experience striking out a land didn’t go so well. I was maybe a freshman in high school. I had seen my dad do it many times. I had this. I picked a tree at the edge of the woods on the far end of the field, focused on it, dropped the plow in the ground and struck out across the field. About a third of the way across the field I looked back to see how I was doing. I was doing great – straight as an arrow! I turned back to the woods to again focus on the tree. Or was it a tree? I wasn’t sure I was focused on the correct tree. Looking around a bit, I found the correct tree a bit to the right. Whew! Or was it the correct tree? Nope. I decided the correct tree of focus was a bit further to the right. After a few such iterations, I finally settled on a tree. Another third of the way across the field I looked back to discover that a curve to the right had developed. Course correction. I picked a tree to left and headed toward it. When I got to the end of the field, I had plowed a beautiful ‘S’ curve – not the original intent.

How often do we do we start down a path only to later discover that we’ve missed our original intent? How often have we watched friends or relatives who had every intent of walking with Jesus for years to come, veer off and miss the mark part way into the journey? What happens?

When Jesus, the carpenter who understood farming, wanted to help people grasp the cost of following him, he told them “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Jesus was not making a statement of who’s in or out of the kingdom. He talked a lot about service in his kingdom, as he did here. He’s telling us that to follow him is to put our focus on him and not look back. Look back at what?

In context, Jesus is implying that we not look back at where we’ve come from or at what we have might have left behind when we started to follow him and serve in his kingdom. I also wonder if he might have been suggesting that we not look back to see how we are doing – equally as dangerous. And we all do that. We want to know how we are progressing in the faith. Or, worse, how we are progressing compared to others. No matter why we take our eyes off Jesus, the result is the same – we veer off course. How do we keep our eyes on Jesus?

First, it’s a choice. Life is always about choices and choosing to daily focus on (follow) Jesus is one of them. Second, and of primary importance, is focusing on the correct Jesus. Sounds like an odd statement. In our culture, there are many versions of ‘Jesus’ on which we could focus – the ‘Jesus’ of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (more on that another time), the ‘Jesus’ of evangelicalism, the ‘Jesus’ of the Democrats or Republicans, to name a few. The correct Jesus is the Jesus of Scripture, the one we encounter when we read the Gospels regularly and continuously. With our eyes on that Jesus, we have a better chance to stay the course, to not veer off, to not miss the original intent.

Metamorfoo

The Monarch butterfly fascinates me. It always has. I remember back in grade school when our class’ pet caterpillar ate all the milkweed we could find to feed it. We watched it shed its skin several times before it hung upside down, shedding its skin for the last time during the pupa stage, becoming a beautiful green chrysalis. We watched with anticipation as the chrysalis slowly became transparent, revealing the butterfly that was developing inside. Metamorphosis. What a great idea! Only God could come up with such an idea.

In the Monarch butterfly metamorphosis process, the caterpillar has but one job – to eat and not be eaten. After eating its fill of milkweed, the caterpillar takes a two-week nap inside the chrysalis. While napping, God transforms it into an amazing butterfly with the same DNA, but a totally different look.

Metamorphosis!

The Apostle Paul, author of the letter to the first century Roman Christians, cautioned his readers not to be molded by the world around them but, instead, to be transformed from the inside out by the renewing their minds (Romans 12:2). The Greek word that is translated as “transformed” is metamorphoo, from which we derive metamorphosis. Paul is telling the readers that in God’s economy, we are to act more like caterpillars rather than straining to become like butterflies. The economy of the world around us tells us we should strive to transform ourselves. Paul reminds us not to become molded by that approach, but to let God do the transforming through the renewing of our minds. But practically, how does that happen? A couple thoughts…

First, we need to learn not to conform. Or maybe choose not to conform. There were a lot of milkweed plants in the pasture on our family farm. I remember watching hundreds of caterpillars chomping away, focused on eating and not being eaten. I also noticed that the caterpillars were not at all tempted to join the cows as they ate the bountiful harvest of wild clover. They were not tempted to conform to what the cows around them were doing.

Second, we need to eat. God cannot transform a starving caterpillar. Nor can he transform people that aren’t taking in the nourishment that leads to a renewed mind. Consider this saying from the February 21 blog post…

If I keep on thinking what I’ve always thought,
then I’ll keep on perceiving what I’ve always perceived.
If I keep on perceiving what I’ve always perceived,
then I’ll keep on seeing what I’ve always seen.
If I keep on seeing what I’ve always seen,
then I’ll keep on doing what I’ve always done.
If I keep on doing what I’ve always done,
then I’ll keep on getting what I’ve always gotten.

This little verse is about change, about transformation. It starts with a change in our thinking; it ends with a transformed life. As we take in scripture, as we continuously hang out with the “visible expression of the invisible God” through the Gospels, and as we listen to messages that help us make sense of what we are reading, our minds are changed and renewed. Our main job is to let God’s thoughts permeate our minds and thoughts. Then, and only then, can God transform our behavior from the inside out. It’s his job and he’s really good at it. When we take the transformation process upon ourselves, we become become self-righteous moralists and are of little value to those around us who need to know Jesus.

Focus

About 20 years ago we visited a farm near Baton Rouge with its water needs supplied by an artesian well. An artesian well taps into an aquifer that is under geological pressure. Once tapped, the water comes to the earth’s surface without the need for a pump. The artesian well on this farm supplied all the farm’s needs – house, barn, cattle, and orchard irrigation. No pump, no pressure tanks, all free-flowing.

I asked the owner about the depth of the well. 2500 feet – deeper than they had anticipated. I asked him how long it took to drill. A couple months. I asked him the process of deciding where to drill. He said they were pretty sure there was water down there so they picked a spot and started drilling. And drilled, and drilled. They hit water a couple times, but not quality water, so they kept drilling. I asked him if he was ever tempted to give up and start a new hole. His response? “If we started a new hole, we would probably have gotten the same results and maybe even settled for water of less quality and might have missed out on this amazing, free-flowing water.”

We live in a culture in which we find it difficult to drill deep – relationally, spiritually, or in our careers. We are all in until things don’t quite go our way, then we pull up stakes looking for a better place to start drilling, hoping for better (different?) outcomes. I think we were designed to drill deep, to live with focus and intent.

We serve a God of focus and intent. Read through scripture and you can see this. He initiated the redemption process with Abraham and his descendants and has stayed that course throughout history. Note how often he reminded his people of their rescue from Egypt and their job to be a blessing to the world around them. Note how he consistently told humanity, “I want to be your God, I want you to be my people.” Note his focus on the outsiders, the poor, the widows and orphans. Note how this came through loud and clear through Jesus, “the visible expression of the invisible God” when he rolled out his ‘mission statement.’ Note how Jesus prepared his followers to carry out his mission by focusing on a few – Peter, James, and John, as well as Mary and Martha.

As Jesus charged his followers with the mission of carrying the good news to the world around them, he suggested they do so by emulating what he did. He told them, “as the father sent me, so I am sending you.” It seems to me that if our God is a God of focus, who modeled focus through Jesus, then maybe, just maybe, we might want to learn focus as well. It would serve us well in relationships, spiritually, and in our jobs. It’s how we were designed. God doesn’t intend for us to go wide and try to be everything to everyone. He intends for us to drill down with him and with the people he places in our lives. Focus. It’s transformative. And its one of the most practical things we can do.

Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4)

Practical Theology…

So, what makes theology practical? What makes anything practical? By definition, something practical is focused on the actual doing or use of something rather than theory and ideas. I like theories and ideas. I love theories and ideas. But I am aware that theories and ideas that don’t translate into action can lead to omphaloskepsis (navel contemplation). I remember my dad once saying about a pastor, “He’s so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” My dad was suggesting practicality might have been missing in the pastor’s approach to ministry and life.

Boston University’s Center for Practical Theology suggests that “practical theology” describes the mutually strengthening relationship between the theological learning and the actual experience and needs of Christian communities. There we have it – theology that is practical translates into actual experiences needed to live the Christian life. As mentioned in the first post, a ‘practical’ definition of theology is the attempt to understand God, what he is up to, and then joining him in his work. Practical theology translates into individual and corporate participation in God’s kingdom work – all easier said than done.

So, how do we get a handle on who God is, what he is up to and then, how we participate in his kingdom work? The intent of this blog is the exploration of some answers to these practical questions. We will approach this in bite-sized chunks in a manner that might transform the way we do life – with God and with those around us. The exploration will focus on Jesus. He is, after all, “the visible expression of the invisible God” (JB Phillips Translation). In my thinking, a practical way to begin to understand God and what he is up to comes through paying attention to Jesus’ words and deeds when he took on human form and walked among humanity.

In my thinking, a practical way to accomplish this is relatively simple and easy – by READING THE GOSPELS. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament. Not once, not twice, but ongoing. I try to read through them several times a year. I know a pastor that reads one of the Gospels each week prior to beginning his sermon prep. Frequency isn’t as important as consistency. Sustained and consistent time in the Gospels is a transformative experience – ask anyone that has adopted the practice.

Enjoy the Journey

Practical Lent…

Lent starts this week on Ash Wednesday. Lent (literally springtime) was popularized in the fourth century and had a different and more practical purpose than we might think seventeen centuries later. If we were to poll people this week as to the purpose of Lent, we would likely hear something about what we should give up during the 6+ weeks leading up to Easter. We might likely have a similar view. If so, we find ourselves entering into this springtime with a negative perspective. I live in Minnesota. With another 8-9″ of snow predicted for this weekend, I am not hearing many people dread the coming of spring. Who would want to approach spring sullenly? What about Lent?

The editors of Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter suggest that “Lent should never be morose – an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, we ought to approach Lent as an opportunity, not a requirement.” After all, the main purpose of fasting (the forging of a pleasure) is to provide more opportunity to discover and enjoy God. There is an old liturgy that refers to the Lent and Easter season as “this joyful season.” How might we approach Lent this year in a manner that brings joy? I will toss out a few suggestions, trusting readers to weigh in with other suggestions…

  • Read one of the Gospels. This is always my go-to. You plan your reading so that you finish at Easter, providing you with the backstory leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • Read Walter Wangerin’s classic Reliving the Passion (based on the Gospel of Mark). It has been transformative for me over the years. (It’s available for Kindle… or Amazon can get it to you in a couple days.)
  • Read Bread and Wine.
  • Find a weekly Lenten service with the express purpose of discovering and enjoying God in new ways.
  • Since we are talking about the hope of springtime, N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope would be a good read (though it might take you past Easter to finish).

Whatever you choose to do during this season, God will meet you, further revealing himself to you (I speak from experience!). Blessings!

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I’m Back…

After a hiatus of several years, I’ve decided to re-enter the world of blogging. Fifteen years ago I created a blog with the original intent of staying connected with young people I knew through church youth ministry or Young Life. In time the audience grew to a diverse mix of people with whom I had a relationship – young and older. Looking back, blogging was a healthy way for me to process what I was discovering as a Christ-follower. However, that blog came to a grinding halt four years ago as coursework ramped up in the Doctorate in Educational Leadership (Higher Ed.) program which I participated. I’m finding that I miss the opportunity to write and ponder. So, reentering the blogging sphere is for my benefit more than anyone. Feel free to join me in this journey.

Practical theology. What do I mean by that? Actually, I am figuring it out as I wander into this process. I have always described myself as a practical theologian, using the term theologian loosely. In my thinking, a theology that doesn’t play out in one’s everyday life is impractical, or of no real use. A ‘practical’ definition of theology is the attempt to understand God, what he is up to, and then joining him in his work. This blog will focus on how we join God in his work – both globally and in that part of the world where he has landed us. So, join me as we work together to figure this out. I do not intend to make this about theological stances. If that is what you are looking for, you will be disappointed. I do intend to help us see God and the life to which he has called us from new perspectives. And different perspectives are always healthy as this old saying reminds us…

If I keep on choosing what I've always chosen,
then I'll keep on wanting what I've always wanted.

If I keep on wanting what I've always wanted,
then I'll keep on thinking what I've always thought.

If I keep on thinking what I've always thought,
then I'll keep on perceiving what I've always perceived.

If I keep on perceiving what I've always perceived,
then I'll keep on seeing what I've always seen.

If I keep on seeing what I've always seen,
then I'll keep on doing what I've always done.

If I keep on doing what I've always done,
then I'll keep on getting what I've always gotten.

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