If you are you have been in youth ministry for more than a few years, you’re likely familiar with the term “Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism” (MTD)—a descriptor invented by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist-Denton in their groundbreaking report on the National Study of Youth and Religion (Soul Searching).
These two iconic social-science researchers used MTD to describe the typical orientation American teenagers have to God and the Christian life—they see God as an impersonal “divine butler” and the Christian life as a set of moral imperatives.
Since Soul Searching‘s release, there’s been a “hard rebellion” against MTD in the youth ministry world. But I think it’s worthwhile to pump the brakes a little and ask: “Is MTD such a bad thing?” My guess is that young people are stuck in MTD because the church as persistently emphasized its underpinnings—Try harder to be a better person, using religious principles as leverage. This mentality creates a widespread interior narrative in teenagers: “God wants me to be good, God wants me to be happy, and I can define God as I want to.”
This Jesus-centered way of living runs counter to the egocentric default setting of adolescence.Click to tweet
In Fowler’s theory of faith development, stage three (where most adolescents find themselves) is called “synthetic-conventional faith.” This stage of faith is influenced by the developmental work of puberty, and an over-focus on how teenagers think others see them. Like any stage-related theory, a person can be “stuck” in one stage rather than moving on. In other words, MTD certainly reflects characteristics of a conventional faith that is stuck in “do good to be good” mode, rather than an integrative faith that makes a relationship with Jesus the hub of their life. This Jesus-centered way of living runs counter to the egocentric default setting of adolescence.
As youth workers, we all know teenagers who return from a camp or retreat on a “spiritual high,” only to go back to “life as normal” when they’re no longer in a faith-focused, peer-rich environment. In this reality, maybe MTD is less of an enemy and more like building block (or stepping-stone) for a deeper faith. If we see MTD as a foundation rather than an end, then maybe we see the necessity of stronger intergenerational discipleship.
We could also ask the question: “What are the alternatives to MTD”? We could move in the direction of a deeper faith and discipleship with MTD as a foundation. Or we could move in the opposite direction—Immoral (or amoral at best), nihilistic, atheism (or agnostic at best). As a culture, we certainly seem to be moving toward INA (Immoral Nihilistic Atheism).
According to a 2015 Gallup poll: “This liberalization of attitudes toward moral issues is part of a complex set of factors affecting the social and cultural fabric of the U.S. Regardless of the factors causing the shifts, the trend toward a more liberal view on moral behaviors will certainly have implications for such fundamental social institutions as marriage, the environment in which children are raised and the economy.” The evidence of nihilism is equally prevalent—issues ranging from abuse, divorce, and other family dysfunctions are frequently hidden from most church leaders. These issues have been given the name of “millennial morbidity.” Under the influence of this growing sense of nihilism, the relational disconnect between young people and adult role models and a general fear of young people (ephebiophobia), it’s no wonder suicide is the number two killer of youth. Finally, even the giants of atheism have questioned the dire impact of a religion-less landscape—Richard Dawkins says he fears that if religion is abolished it will “give people a license to do really bad things.”
My adopted sons were raised in INA environments, so I know the forming influence they can have. If I have a choice between MTD or INA as foundational faith building blocks, I choose MTD!