Nothing alarms church folk quite so much as problems with the young folk. So it was about five years ago with Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
Smith and Denton’s research produced the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe the typical American teen’s view of God. It’s “deism” because the god of the typical teen is mostly distant and uninvolved. It’s “therapeutic” because that distant god still wants everyone to have a happy life and occasionally is willing to get involved when a person has an unhappy crisis. And it’s “moralistic” because this god wants people to be nice and fair to each other, which teens think is the upshot of all world religions.
So America’s Christian kids have a problem. But I worry over a more serious problem. It’s bad if Christian teens think this way about God. But it’s worse if Christian adults think this way. Unlike Smith and Denton, I don’t have research about what American Christian adults think. But I’ll venture an unresearched conclusion anyway: given the way we typically have preached and taught, I think many churches have lots of moralistic therapeutic deists who are over 21.
What We’ve Done
We church leaders can blame ourselves for this sorry situation. To be sure, we acted for what seemed like good reasons. We want to make the Christian message accessible and relevant to people outside the church. No more dry theology, no more doctrinal disputation, no more arcane vocabulary. To be heard, the Christian message needed to be presented in practical terms. “Give me something on Sunday to get me through the week!” was the demand that we answered.
And certainly we aimed to answer it biblically. Rightly confident that the Bible addresses life’s practical issues, we proclaimed biblical answers to everyday problems. We listened as people told us what bugged them: relationships, self-esteem, success, emotional health—or the lack of any of those. We combed Scripture for passages that provide answers. We supplemented Bible study with insights from behavioral science. We drew contrasts with conventional, secular wisdom. We made “how to” the catchphrase of every sermon and every Bible study and “inspirational” the objective of every program.
And in the main, we gave pretty good answers. Now and then we conveniently may have lifted some biblical texts out of context or borrowed some sappy phrases from shallow self-help hucksters. But we were right in our estimate that the Bible would supply us with some powerful, practical insights.
Feeding a Falsehood
But in so doing, I fear we unwittingly fed the falsehood, not far from any rebellious human heart, that God can be domesticated. Humans in general want people to be good, so our hearers were glad to find a God who sets moral standards. Humans in general want to be liked, so our hearers were content to find a God who likes us. Humans especially want to run their own lives, so our hearers were anxious to keep God as distant as possible. But humans want help when their self-sufficiency seems insufficient, so our hearers still expect God to be available when they call the 911 prayer-and-forgiveness line.
Thus the practical God we proclaimed was easily received as the deficient god of moralistic therapeutic deism. Everything we stressed may have been true, but little we said challenged the universal human tendency to create gods in our own image.
Practical, Not Relevant
I think we can describe what happened this way. In the pursuit of the practical, we missed the relevant. The two are not the same. A hardware store is eminently practical, but it doesn’t tell me what my life is all about. If I am consumed with the “practical” issue of getting through the week with its problems and annoyances, will I ever think about what lies beyond those problems and annoyances? Will I understand why I am here and where I am headed? Will I come to grips with my deepest needs and longings, or will I just shuffle through the rat race with moderately better speed and comfort?
As we have preached and taught the Bible’s practical wisdom, we may unwittingly have neglected the Bible’s central message. Certainly the Bible has a central message, and it is eminently relevant.
Consider how that central message is stated in Luke 24:44, “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’” It takes just a quick look at the original-language sentence structure to see that in this statement Jesus is not just saying there are some now-fulfilled predictions here and there in Israel’s sacred books. He said the entirety of Israel’s Scriptures are “fulfilled” in what he had just accomplished. And if we peruse the variety of texts to which the New Testament connects Jesus’ story, we see how true that is.
We are accustomed to thinking Jesus fulfills the promises of the prophets. But Jesus himself says he fulfills all the sacred books: the Law, which shows what God’s righteousness is and how people fail to keep it; the prophets, who proclaim human failure but promise the fulfillment of human longing; and the Psalms, the inspired words that God’s people sang to express their devotion and their despair.
Fulfilling It All
How does Jesus fulfill all of that in his death and resurrection? He enters fully into the story. He lives under the Law. He experiences the same testing that led others to fail. He partook fully of the lowliness, obscurity, and weakness of people who live in a world dominated by evil. In what seemed like the end, he let the evil powers do their worst to him. And in doing that, he overcame evil, bound it up, set it at naught, and turned the history of human rebellion into a promise of God’s final victory.
Note well what this means. Everything the Bible says ultimately connects to the cross. So when we preach and teach the Bible but fail to make that connection clear, we have failed to preach and teach what the Bible is really saying. Making the connection is more than simply tagging on an invitation to appropriate Christ’s saving death for oneself. It is helping people understand the essential, organic, unbreakable connection between what the Bible says on any particular topic and what Jesus accomplished when he died and arose.
Doing this has an elegant advantage: it makes our message practical and relevant and true, all at the same time. We can address the same workaday matters that we have believed our listeners need. But in doing so, we will share not just what to do but the deep, essential why, which takes us to the God of the cross. That is the relevant point to be made—that we struggling, suffering, dying people have a God who has struggled and suffered and died with us and for us—alongside us and in our place—bringing a victory that overcomes our inherent weakness and inevitable failure. In making this great connection, we have laid bare the great truth that puts all the Bible’s wisdom and all of our experience into a singular, coherent, utterly relevant perspective.
The Foundation of the Cross
Sounds good, but is this stretching to make a point? Well, consider the issue of relationships. Clearly the cross informs those: Jesus gave himself willingly in self-sacrifice for undeserving and ungrateful people.
Take self-esteem or emotional health. The cross shows us not only God’s persistent, costly love but also our deep need to give ourselves similarly for others.
And then success: who can miss the implication that the cross turns it upside down? On these or any other issues, what does the Bible teach that doesn’t in the end stand on the foundation of Calvary?
We Christian church folk ought to get this well. We make it a point to keep the cross central by sharing the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day. But rightly done, our observance must be more than a mere “time set aside to remember.” Our remembering the cross needs to be organic to everything we say and do in worship as we preach, teach, sing, and pray. And then it needs to remain organic to everything we do and say when we worship outside our Lord’s Day assembly.
Why did we ever wonder whether observing the Lord’s Supper could be “seeker sensitive”? What did we imagine seekers ought to seek?
To cure moral therapeutic deism, take one cross constantly. It yields real morality—knowing how the cross defines and drives what is right and good. It yields real healing—from the One who heals us by his wounds.
And distant deism? The God of the cross is not removed from our experience. He entered it.
Jon Weatherly is vice president of academic affairs and professor of New Testament at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.