Wednesday, October 06, 2010

    Youth Ministry and the "Mr. Nice Guy" God

    All the way back in 2006 (how time flies when you are having fun in ministry!), I wrote on this blog about a national survey of youth which suggested that many young people in the U.S. have a view of God as not much more than a cosmic therapist whose sole aim is to help us feel good and achieve our personal goals.  This understanding of God has been labeled moralistic therapeutic deism. I'm currently reading an advance copy of Wayne Rice's new book Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again) in which he wrestles with the findings of this very study.  Adam McLane also touches on it in this post, suggesting that before we judge our youth on this issue, we perhaps should take a look at ourselves.  

    Here is portion of the post I previously wrote on the subject:
    The National Survey of Youth and Religion has some fascinating things to say about who these teenagers are that roam the hallways and youth rooms of our mainline churches. One of the most significant findings of their in-depth research is that Christian teens, by in large, seem to subscribe to what the researchers call "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." The MTD creed goes something like this:

    (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 God is needed to resolve a problem."
    (5) "Good people go to heaven when they die."

    I think that hits the nail on the head. And this isn't just the viewpoint of many teens. It has permeated into the adult ranks of the Church as well. In the text that summarizes the studies findings, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the authors argue that MTD has replaced a more traditional version of Christian belief and practice [with a very different religious faith than we find in the gospels]. This "different religious faith," perhaps not by accident, happens to be a perfect bedfellow with our modern consumer culture that sells happiness as the goal of life and supplies consumer products that promise to satiate our unending appetite for feeling good. The researchers argue: "Therapeutic individualism's ethos perfectly serves the needs and interests of the U.S. mass-consumer capitalist economy by constituting people as self-fulfillment-oriented consumers subject to advertising's influence on their subjective feelings."

    None of this should be a big surprise. I recall when I started serving at my current church several years ago and early on held a meeting with the adult and teen leaders of the youth group. When asked how they understood the purpose of our youth ministry program, the general response was something along the lines of "We come together to be nice to each other and have fun." In essence, youth group as "The Nice People's Club." Here's the problem: there are lots of "Nice People's Clubs" out there in the secular world. Does the Church not have an identity distinct from secular culture? One of my favorite texts in seminary, perhaps suprisingly as it was written by conservative authors, was Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. In it they strongly argue that when the Church ceases to have an identity separate from the secular culture, it ceases to be the Church. The authors write: "...both the conservative and liberal church...are basically accommodationist (that is, Constantinian) in their social ethic. Both assume wrongly that the American church's primary social task is to underwrite American democracy." (p. 32)

    Of course, it goes without saying that if all we want our young people to learn is that God wants them to be good citizens -- to be nice to each other and to live a happy life -- it doesn't take long to teach that message. They pick that up pretty early on. So, once they get it, what use is the Church to them -- unless of course the Church is working to make them happy, too.

    So, here's what I'd suggest. Go to the teens of the church, present them with this notion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and ask them what they think. Is this how they understand God and faith? If so, are they willing to risk going deeper with their faith? And if they don't see themselves reflected in MTD, are they willing to try to articulate what it is they do understand the Christian faith to be about? Maybe it's time to just sit down with kids and start having these conversations -- to ask them what they really think about God, sin, death, salvation, the afterlife, justice, and love. We might be suprised at what they have to tell us.


    ontherock said...

    "But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we would have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world - and might even be more difficult to save." (C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity) It's so easy to settle for "nice," isn't it? Good food for thought and discussion.

    Brian said...

    Great quote! And I agree -- settling for "nice" is easy, but such a limited way of life. As I see it, part of our challenge is to help youth see something far more meaningful and challenging in the way of Christ.

    Cindy said...

    I don't think that this theology originated with children & youth and permated into "adult" theology. I think this is what many Christians believe. We teach this to our children. It is a reflection of our coprpoarate culture. I think we need to start with God and discern if our culture is in line with God.

    Brian said...

    Cindy, I wholeheartedly agree. To the extent that MTD is an accurate reflection of the dominant theology held by youth, it can be attributed to the fact that they swim everyday in cultural waters that promote this understanding. I often find that my role as a pastor of youth is to help them critque the culture in which they live so that they can decide for themselves if that is actually the culture in which they want to live -- and to what degree does that culture reflects the gospel. It occurs to me though that is isn't just secular culture teaching MTD. Are we teaching this understanding of God in the Church, too?

    Erik said...

    Great post, Brian. I first heard of MTD in 2006. When it was being explained to me, I first thought "this sounds like the adults I know"...and not "this sounds like young people." If faith is caught-not-taught, they are being formed by adults that suffer from MTD. I honestly think this is why young people are turning away from church and declaring themselves "spiritual, not religious." They call b.s. on the notion that God is some happy-clappy old dude that wants people to be smiling and nice and doesn't stand for anything. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience!