At RCLPC there is a small group reading the book Almost Christian: What the faith of teenagers is telling the American church by Kenda Creasy Dean. This book is not about teenagers, though it grew out of the National Study of Youth and Religion. This book is about the church–what we believe, how we behave, what messages we are sending, and what faith we are passing on. (If you’d like to read it, you can get a copy, or you can borrow it from the church library–we have two copies available.)
The question of transmitting the faith to the next generation has long been a part of the faith experience of the western church (and probably other religions as well). Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be as big a problem in other parts of the world, nor did it seem to be a big problem prior to a couple hundred years ago. Up until the generation that sparked the Great Awakening in the late 1700s, the idea that the next generation would not continue in the faith was fairly ludicrous. There may have been individuals that rejected it, or things that changed, but the content of Christianity was not experiencing a transmission problem. (If it had, all that Catholic? Anglican? Reformed? Catholic? Reformed? Catholic? Anglican? Reformed? drama in Britain in the 15-1600s would have been a moot point!) Obviously there has been a breakdown in our system, both in Europe and North America. When the culture shifted enough that we could no longer simply assume that the Christian faith and religion was being assimilated simply through every day life, the church lagged in developing ways to teach. In many ways, we still lag in our ability to teach what we believe and what it has to do with our lives, even as we have ready and waiting students! Simultaneously, we developed an aversion to rocking the boat (a holdover from medieval European Christianity, that got into bed with the empire and made playing the games of politics and culture a religious art form?). Soon, without even realizing, our Christian churches (and probably many other faith communities as well) had been colonized by what the authors of the NSYR call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It sounds nice, almost Christian, even, but it isn’t Christian. In fact, it’s an entire religious system built on being nice.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has a few basic tenets. Among them:
1. there’s a god, probably, and he made the world but doesn’t do much with it now. EXCEPT: if you have a problem, he’ll always be there to help you. (yes, the “he” is intentional–this MTD god is always male.)
2. this god wants you to be happy. and nice to people. nice/good people get to be happy and go to heaven. not nice/not good people do not get to be happy and do not get to go to heaven.
That’s pretty much it. You can see why the depictions of the moralistic therapeutic deist god are such metaphors as “cosmic butler” and “divine therapist.”
The difficulty, of course, is that this is not Christian at all. It has almost nothing in common with Scripture, nothing to do with our historic understanding of theology or faith or discipleship, asks nothing of us, and is so vague and floppy as to be basically worthless.
And so Kenda Creasy Dean asks whether it’s any wonder young people leave the church. Why be a Christian? Why be anything? You can believe both of those things and be a pretty good person without bothering with any of that religion stuff.
The problem here is not that we do not pass our faith on to our young people. The problem is that they are learning all too well what we are teaching them, and it is not biblical, missional Christianity that makes disciples and asks us to learn to be holy as God is holy. Instead it’s a pragmatic, get-along-with-the-culture, be-successful-in-life-and-work, be-nice faith. As Dean says, “At issue is our ability, and our willingness, to remember our identity as the Body of Christ, and to heed Christ’s call to love him and love others as his representatives in the world.”
Have you ever encountered Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? What do you see as the main differences between MTD and Christian faith? What does Dean mean when she says that if we are to reclaim our Christian theology and practice, the issue is our ability and willingness to remember our identity? What does it mean to be the Body of Christ, as opposed to the gathering of MTDists?
In coming weeks, we’ll study this book together and learn what is happening and what we can do to change it. On Mondays we’ll be talking about what we DO believe, what is the content of our faith, what kind of theological and spiritual tradition we stand in–so we can be better equipped to live it and to teach it to others. Tuesdays will be a Bible study. On Wednesdays we’ll talk about the book. See you here!