Therapeutic Moralistic Deism.
Student ministers know this term well, or at least they should. Christian Smith and Melinda Denton have popularized this term out of their massive research called The National Study of Youth and Religion.
They argue the Western Church has done a phenomenal job of communicating to students. But what has been communicated has not been as biblically centered as we might hope. We have communicated Christianity as behavior modification too often and as the matchless work of a grace-bearing God who is the center of it all too little. In her presentation of the findings of perhaps the exhaustive study, Kendra Creasy Dean observed:
“The National Study of Youth and Religion reveals a theological fault line running underneath American churches: an adherence to a do-good, feel- good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow him into the world.” (Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, p. 4)
In other words, Dean argues that this study shows the very way many of us have raised children in our churches has worked against any sort of missional impulse we might otherwise hope to engage. This is no small charge. She adds: “American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship.” (p. 6)
What has been taught, this thing they call therapeutic moralistic deism, has offered a how-to faith based on the needs of the individual over the redemptive plan of the Creator God. How has this happened, often in churches who stand firmly on the Bible as the Word of God? I would argue part of this comes from our tendency to view students as “kids” who are more silly than serious, and wrote a whole book on that called Raising the Bar. In addition, we have fundamentally made a shift in much of our teaching and living of the Scripture from seeing the Bible through the lenses of the gospel and the mission of God to understanding the Bible primarily as a roadmap which will guide us via morality to the place of faithfully serving God.
Unfortunately, many churches have taught the Bible to children and youth not as a book with one central, redemptive message, but as a collection of stories and morals with the gospel as the key story. Therapeutic moralistic deism is “therapeutic,” for it focuses on surface change, turning the Bible into a counseling manual more than the revelation of God. It is “moralistic,” because its focus is behavior modification. Acting right subtly becomes more important than believing right. It is “deistic,” because it does not require a God who is intimately involved in all of Creation and in all aspects of our lives, but who generally exists to bring us happiness and most specifically in our spiritual lives.
I call it the Aesop’s Fable approach to the Bible. It is ironically a “moral failure,” for by focusing on morality too much we actually hinder students from seeing the lifelong, holistic implications of their faith. Motivation for serving God stems more from changing our behavior than from living a life of radical faith. Such extrinsic motivation will actually work on the short term: show students how sex before marriage will lead to guilt and disease, for instance, or show them how lying will cost them friendships, and they will abstain from these sins, at least for a season. But if moral change becomes the primary focus of our faith, the long-term obedience we seek may actually be the one thing we will not see.
If we are to help the Millennial Generation, who have grown up in a culture with far less of a Christian memory than those who came before them, we must not assume they understand the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to Consummation. Our role as teachers, parents, and pastors is to show them the centrality of redemption in Scripture centered in Christ, and to show them how the gospel affects everything else, not just their church life. This is the task of disciplemakers in our time. Remember this generation drives reality TV. Give them real, biblical substance, not just surface change.
If we focus mostly on moral change in students versus gospel change, we may get neither.