By John Meunier and Kenda Creasy Dean, Special Contributors…
Editor’s note: This column is adapted from a blog posting by the Rev. John Meunier, and a response to that post by the Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean.
First, Mr. Meunier:
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may very well be the default religion of most mainline Protestants.
I first encountered the term reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian. Dr. Dean borrowed the term from the work of others, but MTD forms the heart of her analysis about youth in the church. One of her core points is that youth today practice MTD because they learned it from their parents.
Here is an outline of the doctrines of MTD:
• A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.
This religion is so deeply embedded into our congregations that digging it out will be fatal to most. Like a cancerous tumor, it has invaded too many vital organs to be safely dug out.
I find myself perplexed by what to do about it or how to move forward. Will slow, patient and steady preaching, teaching and invitations to true discipleship wean people away from MTD? Or does it require shock therapy—the kind that shakes congregations and shatters them?
Musing on this helps me see why John Wesley went out outside the church in search of new converts. Paul went to the Gentiles for some of the same reasons. Some of our most famous megachurch pastors did, too. It is far easier to raise up new Christians free of MTD than it is to cure a congregation in the advanced stages.
Has anyone figured out how to do this?
Dr. Dean responds:
John Meunier thinks out loud—and it’s really helpful. He wonders what the best course of action is to shake congregations out of their life-sucking MTD stupor: slow and steady teaching and discipleship, or some kind of ecclesial shock therapy?
After spending nearly a decade of my life immersed in the research that led to the term “moralistic therapeutic deism,” I still don’t know how to fix it short of divine intervention (which may be what God is going for). In answer to John’s question, I’m inclined to say: “Both.”
But then I remember where I go, week after week, to draw life: a 37-member congregation, not counting the young adults who stop by for a month, or a year (or three or four) while they’re students. You might call Kingston United Methodist Church a “raw” church, unprocessed and unpredictable. The pastor is a Ph.D. student who will be moving on in June. The financials are, frankly, unsustainable. The century-old building has three creaky, leaky rooms and a really scary basement.
It’s the best church I’ve ever been part of.
Our family went “off-the-grid,” ecclesially-speaking, three and a half years ago, finding ourselves in a church that has been on the brink of closing for the past 132 years. We came, frankly, because we were losing our kids (and—significantly—ourselves) to MTD in the large program church we had been attending.
People like me are supposed to change churches—not change churches—but as a parishioner, I kept waking up in the middle of the night, knowing that “something is not right.” If our daughter was to have a faith home before she graduated (and both words in the phrase “faith home” mattered), we were running out of time. An ocean liner can change course, but it does so slowly. So that’s how we wound up in a rowboat, a skiff that gets tossed around when the weather changes but can also change course pretty fast if you put your back into it. And in a small congregation, if you’re going to get anywhere, you need every single person to row.
Since our pastor is one of my students, he is well aware of MTD (and is really sick of it). He disagrees with significant parts of Almost Christian. But I give him props for never once caving to an easy portrayal of God, or to a simplistic vision of Christian community, or to a convenient faith. He does this with humility and humor (two underrated pastoral assets), and allows the congregation to be complicated.
We lean “liberal” (whatever that means) on things like grace and homosexuality and “conservative” (whatever that means) on things like Jesus and potluck dinners (i.e., we want to conserve them). “Doing church” is pretty straightforward: The people gather, the Word is preached, the sacraments are administered, prayers are asked for, songs are sung—and then everybody goes home to feed some sheep.
And that, as it turns out, is huge. “Feeding sheep” is what a missional imagination looks like in my congregation—and trust me, it had nothing to do with my book (which no one knows exists). The congregation’s mission statement is “Feed More Sheep,” and every single person—the tall and the small—can say it. For a year, every Sunday somebody shared how God had called them to “Feed More Sheep”: parents and children, seminarians and octogenarians, newcomers and old-timers.
Were those testimonies theologically air-tight? Not hardly. Sometimes I cringed. But most of the time, I was awestruck at what God was doing in the “then and there,” amazed by an unexpected servant who mustered up the guts to put into words how he or she tried to love Jesus by feeding his sheep.
Is there MTD at Kingston United Methodist Church? Absolutely. But it’s far less pronounced than in the “professional” churches I’ve known. Or (let’s be honest) have helped lead.
The Rev. Meunier is pastor of Wesley Chapel UMC in Lawrence County, Ind.
Dr. Dean is an ordained UM elder and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.