Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: Treating the Parasite on Discipleship to Jesus

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


Worship planning moralistic therapeutic deism
Photo: Public Domain from Centers for Disease Control.


Kenda Creasy Dean is making headlines in both the religious and the secular media these days, thanks to the findings of research published in her book, Almost Christian.

Chief among her conclusions is that in many congregations across the United States, youth (but not only youth!) are being formed to embrace not Christian theology, practices and teaching but instead a set of principles and practices based on what she calls, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD).

Here are its core teachings:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over 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 is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (from Chapter 1: "Becoming Christianish", Kindle location 272-279).

Both she and the researchers she cites (Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, principle investigators for the National Study of Youth and Religion (2003-2005) note that MTD is insufficient to create a religion in its own right. Instead, like the worm Ascaris Lambracoides (pictured above), the largest roundworm that regularly infects the human intestines and lungs, it is a parasite on Christianity and any other tradition it can encounter, colonize and infest.

Here's what Smith and Denton had to say about it:

"We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that it is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into... Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

The result is that while the vast majority of American teenagers claim to have a connection to a Christian faith tradition, very few of them can articulate their faith in any coherent way. What they say when asked about their faith, if anything, sounds far more like MTD than anything remotely resembling discipleship to Jesus Christ who sends us into the world to witness to and embody God's mission.

And if pressed, I would imagine we'd find very similar results among most adults in Christian congregations as well. Indeed, as Alan Roxburgh points out in Missional Mapmaking, even the most frequent "remedy" proposed for increasing involvement and discipleship, the small group, actually gained prominence in the late 20th century and functioned (and still functions!) primarily as a way of mutual care, feeling good about oneself and each other, and not as a way of mutual accountability and rigorous growth in practicing the way of Jesus.

MTD is nothing new. It is really the essence of American Civil Religion, with a slight therapeutic twist added in the late 19th century and through the 20th and into the 21st with something like a vengeance.

So not just today's youth, but very likely the majority of today's living Christians in the US have been formed more as disciples of MTD than the Jesus revealed in the Bible and the long testimony of the Church.

So What Do We Do? How Do We Treat This Parasite?

Medically, many parasites, including the imposing Ascaris Lambracoides, can be eliminated by taking a course of medications for a few days. Medicine goes in, worms die and quit reproducing 220,000 eggs per female worm per day, you're cured. But of course, if other issues, such as sanitation and water supply are not addressed, it's very likely you will become infected and infested again almost immediately. The personal cure is fairly quick. The long-term solution requires substantial systemic intervention and change.

Kenda Creasy Dean is not sanguine or simplistic about the degree of change necessary for our congregations and our youth to become disciples of Jesus rather than disciples of MTD. She is quite clear about what it will take.

And it is no small transformation.

First, it requires parents to step up and talk and live as disciples of Jesus. Why parents? Because parents remain by far the single most important influence in their children's lives, including in matters of faith. This is why she insists that "adults need spiritual apprenticeships... and need them first."

Second, it requires some way to give youth (and adults!) practice in giving testimony to their faith, and particularly about Jesus-- in words, as well as in deeds-- not as an occasional "special" practice, such as one might find in camping programs, but as an ongoing and regular part of their socialization in the congregation and their practice in daily life.

Third, we must all learn to practice detachment-- in the medieval Christian sense. Kenda Creasy Dean describes it this way: "disentangling ourselves from whatever distracts us from Jesus Christ, so all of our attention-- and all of our lives-- may be fixed upon him." Detachment from such entangling practices was at the heart of the First General Rule and its list of practices to be avoided. The idea was not to separate oneself from other people, but rather to pull away from practices that consumed time, attention and focus from doing what really needs to be done to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts. And, she notes, such detachment (or reflexivity, another term she uses interchangeably) is often kick-started in thin places and liminal or de-centering situations-- or what Alan Hirsch calls "an ordeal."

Prospects for shedding the MTD parasite permanently are slim and grim. As Kenda Creasy Dean admits, MTD is likely here to stay in a consumerist culture bent on making people feel badly enough about themselves to purchase something to make themselves feel better. So it's not going to leave the culture or most of our congregations. And not without a fight in our congregations!

And even if the fight happens, what keeps us from being reinfected? Building enough of the real thing-- the gospel and the way of Jesus in this world-- into the lives of others and with others (adults and youth and children alike!). Or, as Peter Berger would put it, a vital "plausibility structure."

That's where Kenda Creasy Dean sees part of the hope in the NSYR. Though youth are "buying into" MTD as a way to succeed in life in American culture, they don't see it as anything substantial enough to invest their lives or risk their lives for it. It's ultimately bland. Nice. Boring. She sees the geometrically escalating drop-out by younger adults as a product both of the major drop-out that occurred among their parents beginning in the 1960s and as an indicator that MTD really does present a God who is only barely worth caring about.

And meanwhile, it remains always and everywhere possible to form people into missionally-minded and practicing disciples of Jesus, now as ever. Peers can help. Congregations or groups committed to this vision can help. Kenda Creasy Dean writes, "The single most important thing the church can do to cultivate missional imagination in young people is to develop one as a church, reclaiming our call to follow Christ into the world as envoy's of God's self-giving love."

So what now?
Who is ready to take the medicine to get free personally where you are?

Who is ready to join you in engaging the systemic work-- with parents, youth, older adults and children-- where you are, so that discipleship to Jesus is supported well enough that those who have gotten free of the MTD parasite may be more immune to it going forward?