Incarnational Youth Ministry [Part 4]: Moral Therapeutic Deism

This series is adapted from a paper that I wrote for a youth ministry class in Fall 2010.  Posts in this series will appear on Tuesdays for as long as it takes to get through the content in manageable pieces.  Enjoy!

In addition to the pervasive attitudes pressing against the church from the outside, there is a dangerous cultural trend that is also eating away at youth ministry from within the church itself.  In her most recent book titled Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean identifies a disturbing trend in the faith of high school youth: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Dean notes that based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, a conclusion has been drawn that “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in the United States” (Dean, Almost Christian, 14).  This Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is guided by five core beliefs:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life.
  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.

These core beliefs have been picked up on by the media as seen in a recent episode of the hit television show Glee, which is tuned into by adults and young people alike.  In the episode, titled “Grilled Cheesus,” one of the main characters, Finn, discovers what he believes to be the face of Jesus in his grilled cheese sandwich.  The episode then chronicles his ‘spiritual awakening’ during which he prays to his “grilled cheesus” for things like a win at the first football game of the season, and a chance to make it to second base with his girlfriend Rachel.  The more his “prayers” come true, the more he obsesses over his “grilled cheesus.”  The episode also follows a number of other character plots in which each of the main characters grapples with some element of religion, faith, or lack thereof.

Kenda Creasy Dean almost immediately responded to the episode on her weblog, praising the show for its accurate portrayal of the current religious climate of adolescence, and identifying a number of ways that the show “got it right” in portraying said climate: (1) kids are accepting of all religions, including atheism; (2) prayer matters; (3) crisis makes it okay to talk about religion; (4) it’s hard to talk about religion (or anything else) that matters deeply to us–but we can sing about it; (5) teenagers often equate God’s presence with getting what they want; and 6) religion is still a humorless topic for the media.  If even the media is cashing in on the watered-down faith of America’s youth, then it is time that the church become informed and begin re-establishing the important theological frameworks of youth ministry identified earlier in this series.


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