This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The New York Times Op-Ed page last Sunday (8/8/10) had a piece by a Pastor named G. Jeffrey MacDonald. 
He bemoans the devastating consequences on clergy health of the fact that what most congregations seem to want from their Pastor is comfort and entertainment.

In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.”

In the recent issue of The Christian Century, Kenda Dean talks about the failures of most church youth ministries to cultivate actual Christianity. ( 
Instead, what our young people tend to learn in church is something called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  She says that the creed of MTD would include the following:

• “A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over 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 feel good about yourself.”
 • “God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.”
 • “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Both of these timely articles identify a proverbial elephant in the room of American Christianity.  It is not clergy health, as much as that seems to be the angle important to MacDonald.  It is that many, many church members come to church for reasons other than seeking to be disciples of Jesus Christ.  The Christendom mentality, in which the church was merely the quasi-spiritual sidekick of American culture, is still alive and well in our churches.

Even Mac Donald’s complaint about what Pastors really feel called to do, has almost no theological content:

Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult.  When they’re being true to their calling, pastors urge Christians to do the hard work of reconciliation with one another before receiving communion.  They lead people to share in the suffering of others, including people they would rather ignore, by experiencing tough circumstances — say, in a shelter, a prison or a nursing home — and seeking relief together with those in need.  At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.”

That he could articulate all that without mentioning Jesus Christ is remarkable.  (Maybe his editor watered it down?  I know how that goes….)  But most of the spirit of that paragraph could be said of athletic coaches, therapists, and social workers. 

The point of ministry is not that we ministers get to “shape lives for the better,” or these other things, as good as they may be.  It is to cultivate disciples of Jesus Christ, people who live by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We don’t “share in the suffering of others” out of civic duty; we do it because we are following Jesus’ example of love.  

MTD is what the Powers-That-Be have always wanted churches to give people.  MTD does not threaten to upset comfortable economic arrangements or transform people’s lives.  Unlike Jesus or the Holy Spirit, MTD is very domesticated, diluted, saccharine propaganda, the kind of thing the managers of an asylum might want the inmates to live by.  MTD is, and has always been, “the opium of the people.”

I doubt that whining about “clergy health” is going to change any behaviors in this regard.  (Most denominational health plans will cover anti-depressants.)  We need to either cave in and give people the MTD they want, or have the courage to get out from under having to depend upon MTD enthusiasts for our livelihood.

I know there are still people out there who seek to follow Jesus Christ.  Many of them are even in churches!  Many are not.  But those are the people God wants us to find and gather together.

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