Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism & The Failure Of Church Leadership

“Not all liberal churches are MTD,” says a reader, who sent me this article from the leftie Christian site Sojourners, in which writer Stephen Mattson lists “7 Things Churches No Longer Do, But Should.” Excerpt: 4. Challenge: For similar reasons to not practicing discipline, churches avoid really challenging believers to go beyond their comfort zones. Discomfort is […]

“Not all liberal churches are MTD,” says a reader, who sent me this article from the leftie Christian site Sojourners, in which writer Stephen Mattson lists “7 Things Churches No Longer Do, But Should.” Excerpt:

4. Challenge:

For similar reasons to not practicing discipline, churches avoid really challenging believers to go beyond their comfort zones. Discomfort is seen as something to avoid at all costs for fear of alienation and scaring away parishioners — so few are brave enough to authentically push congregants towards higher levels of maturity, especially when the price could mean lower attendance numbers.

5. Academically Teach:

Churches used to be innovative leaders in education, but now all “higher level” teaching is seemingly reserved for Christian colleges and other higher educational institutions. Local churches have outsourced their responsibility for deep, academic, and complex teaching related to the Bible, theology, philosophy, and doctrine — often trading it in for superficial entertainment.

Yes, some of Christianity’s most important principles can be simplified, but Christians are losing the ability to know how to do word studies, read Scripture within context, understand the historical roots of our faith, and comprehend basic foundational principles; it’s no longer being taught within churches.

The whole thing is thought-provoking — and applies to conservative-oriented churches as well. On Mattson’s No. 5, Candace Chellew-Hodge, a comparative religion professor, gay Christian pastor, and contributor to the liberal Christian blog Religion Dispatches, says her students don’t know nothin’ ’bout nothin’. That is, each semester, she asks her students, as an exercise, to come up with a religion of their own. She’s trying to teach them how religion works. In the piece, she talks about how feelgood and non-judgmental their made-up religions are. I don’t know if Candace Chellew-Hodge has ever heard of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but that’s what these kids worship. She writes:

Ultimately, what the class presentations revealed most clearly to me, as a teacher, is how distant this generation is from a full-featured understanding of religion.

These students held a romantic view of the idea of meditation, reincarnation, pilgrimage and other elements of major world religions. They like the idea of quiet meditation, especially if it can make their lives less chaotic and more balanced. They like the idea of reincarnation—you get another chance even if you mess this one up! Pilgrimage sounds fun, too. Road trip!

But, what they miss about all of these religious practices is that deep within each of them lie the core ideas of human suffering, the concept of discipline, and the very real threat of punishment.

For Buddhists and Hindus, meditation is not just a way to calm the mind, it’s a vehicle for enlightenment. Meditation, and other yogic/ascetic practices, are not meant to make you simply feel good.

Similarly, reincarnation isn’t an invitation to take another ride through life. You must go back around to learn the lessons you didn’t learn the last time. In that sense, reincarnation is not something to seek out, it is something to avoid.

Pilgrimage, too, is a way of seeking a way out of suffering. Christians walk the Via Dolorosa, for example, not to revel in Jesus’ sacrifice, but to understand, in a deeper, embodied sense, his suffering.

By ignoring the question of suffering of humanity, and role of religion in addressing that suffering, I am afraid that this new generation is denying itself the opportunity to truly connect not just with the divine, if that’s their thing, but with each other.

Unless they can acknowledge suffering—either their own or that of others—all the feel-good religion in the world will not be much good.

I think Chellew-Hodge draws exactly the wrong conclusion at the end of her piece, about how church leadership fails these young people. But I agree with her that this is in large part a problem of church leadership — and by that I don’t simply mean pastors, but everyone involved in the church, including parents who expect the institutional church to be the exclusive teacher of religious knowledge to their kids.

A friend of mine’s teenager goes to a church where he is bored out of his mind. He told his father that he’s not being challenged in the least. The kid is intelligent and eager to learn about theology and Scripture, but youth group is all about eating pizza and being social. The parents are not geared toward theological matters, and is basically outsourcing his teenager’s Christian formation to their church … which, it sounds like, is giving its kids a whopping dose of MTD. I was around not long ago when the teenager was talking about how bored he was with church, and thought, yep, this kid is going to walk away from church when he’s a senior, or when he goes to college, and is going to think he has figured Christianity out, and it’s boring and stupid, when in fact she was barely even introduced to real Christianity. The sad thing about what that teenager is going through is that the conclusions he’s drawing about church are exactly correct. That kid struck me as someone who really did want to know about God, and really did want to be challenged, and inspired, and taught. But it sounds like his church is afraid to challenge its kids at all. Why? For fear of losing them?

On the other hand, I received an e-mail today from a young woman who graduated from Patrick Henry College a few years ago. She loved her time there, and is a proud graduate. But she said some of the kids come out of such hard-shell fundamentalist Christian backgrounds that it lays the groundwork for them to lose their faith entirely:

The greatest tragedy I see at PHC is that the fundamentalist culture of the families that send their kids there, and the attitudes expressed by the administration, is driving fragile young people away from the faith. These kids are so damaged by their upbringing, so disillusioned and disappointed, that they are unable to retain faith. They can’t find a middle way. They associate the God of the Bible with the perverted interpretations of Christianity imposed upon them by their parents and things like ATI and Vision Forum. And because they are steeped in fundamentalism, when they reject the religion of their youth, they exchange it for the virulent fundamentalism of New Atheism, or feminism, or what have you.

I’ve seen this happen time and again…

She goes on to talk about things that have happened on this front in her family. I’ve not included that, at her request.

It’s a hard thing, isn’t it, trying to find that middle way between too lax and too hardcore.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Twenty years ago I was one of those bored high-schoolers. Most of what we got was discussions on “how far to go on a date” and that sort of stuff. It was irrelevant to me at the time because I was suffering with what turned out to be major depression. I didn’t know how to talk about it to anyone.

So between my boredom and my troubled emotions, I quit high-school youth group. I started going to an adult Bible study during my senior year in high school. That helped a little (I didn’t have to sit and watch all the other high schoolers date each other and have fun while I was suffering), but I had real issues and only discovered much later that I needed professional help.

There were really deep questions I had, and I felt like no one wanted to even discuss them. I didn’t really even know who to talk to about them, but the standard fare was so light I had no clue how deep Christianity really was. I only discovered its depth when I began to look into Orthodoxy and started to become familiar with the Church Fathers.

Boy, is that ever true, though in my case, it started with Catholicism. In all my years as a Catholic, it was always so puzzling to me why so many American Catholic parishes denied the spiritual and intellectual riches of the faith. It’s not that everybody is capable of fully appreciating Aquinas or John of the Cross, but the general profundity of Catholic thinking and worship, the rightful inheritance of all Catholics, is typically kept away from the people. I don’t think they’re doing that on purpose, necessarily; it’s just what they think people want, and can handle. It’s like priests and DREs have decided that the people can’t handle eating on silver and fine china, so they’re only going to give them plastic forks and paper plates — and the people decide that’s all there is to the faith.

It really is true what the reader says about the Church Fathers. I lack the training, the intellect, and the patience to grasp Aquinas, but the early Church Fathers — who are equally the heritage of Catholics and Protestants as Orthodox — are generally much more accessible. I never bothered with them until Orthodoxy. They are so deep and lucid. I wonder how many teenagers or young adults who have left Christianity really understand what they have left. Kyriacos Markides wrote The Mountain Of Silence, an introduction to Orthodox spirituality, in part because he wondered how many Western Christians fed up with the cerebral dryness of Western Christianity and who have turned to Eastern religion because of it would have done so had they realized the mystical depths of the Eastern Christian tradition. I love that book. It made me also think about other Western Christians who have become involved with charismatic forms of Western Christianity. I’ve felt a strong sympathy for charismatic Christians and their hunger for a greater mystical element in the Christian life, but have never felt the slightest inclination to draw close to them. I find their forms of worship deeply alienating to me, personally. For me, Orthodoxy is perfect, combining profound reverence and ancient form with deep mysticism. It can be as emotional as a Pentecostal service, but the emotion is contained within a strong traditional form.

Is there a Roman Catholic analogue to The Mountain of Silence, I wonder. Catholics, what do you say? Anybody with the slightest knowledge of Catholic history knows that mysticism has deep roots in the Roman church, but it’s so much harder to find it today, versus in contemporary Orthodoxy.