TMT: is it killing our churches?

At SCBC we’ve been studying the material that came from the Fuller Youth Institute study on churches that are doing well with young people: Growing Young. We need to, we are mainly an ‘older’ congregation! One chapter suggests empathising with young people. It mentions ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ as a common feature of ‘Christian’ youth in the USA. The ugly descriptor comes out of Smith and Denton’s broad study of youth and religion in the USA.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

MTD starts with the ‘golden rule’, and thus places stress on doing good. If the beginning is at least biblical. After all it was Jesus who taught ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Mat 7:12; Luke 6:31) and Paul continued this teaching (Gal 5:14). MTD soon absorbs a strong dose of the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the greatest of these is happiness. On this view, God’s primary business is not enforcing morality, but making things comfortable for us. Aside from this function as supernatural Valium, God might almost as well not exist. Thus their choice of ‘deism’ rather than ‘theism’, although the degree of activity this view allows to God is greater than in classical deism.

I think however, that as I listen to students, and on Facebook, or even in church, whether or not the descriptor works well for young people in the USA it is wrongly worded for NZ.

Therapeutic Moralistic Theism

In reordering the terms (as well as reclaiming ‘theism’) TMT changes the equations significantly. Listen to people’s prayers! Whether intercession for others or supplication for themselves, God is always asked to ‘put things right’ and remove the sources of our discomfort. Rarely, if ever, is God asked to pardon our sin, and only the extremists request divine vengeance on the persistently immoral. No, the key term is ‘therapeutic’ — indeed, if one ever hears attempts at apologetics in everyday life they are couched in terms of God the omnipotent Valium. Believe and pray and your life will be smooth and pleasant, as well as long and peaceful.

Though this is where morals come in, because we recognise that God does have some interest in ‘good behaviour’. If someone is ‘bad’ then God is hardly free to reward them with the promised pleasant life. So, since morality is almost exclusively understood in terms of sex, stop sleeping around, get married, and above all do not have sex with someone of the same gender, and you’ll be right!

Of course the ‘theism’ in my revised descriptor is no more like traditional theism than the deism in Smith and Denton’s was like traditional deism. For though this god is highly involved in everyday life, guiding surgeon’s hands and offering divine diagnostic skills to physicians, as well as changing traffic lights on prayer requested schedules and providing parking spots almost whenever they are required, this god has no real eternal significance — for everyone goes to heaven, even puppies and kittens (though not nasty snakes or mosquitoes).

How TMT is killing Christianity

If TMT sounds horribly like the Christianity you hear too often, beware. Since it is so ‘nice’ TMT provides no challenge. The supernatural welfare state, with a sugar coating of benign liberal capitalism, can never call us far from our ‘comfort zones’. Though [w]rapt in cotton wool as we are these zones seem as tightly restricting as swaddling cloths the call to transcend them usually requires little more than smiling at a stranger, or eating some strange foreign food (though, naturally, nothing really extreme).

TMT is theism, since god is present and active. (Oh, so active coordinating all those surgeons and traffic lights!) Yet it is theism-lite, since this god is merely concerned with this world and its quotidian concerns. It is as god whose kingdom is no wider than our horizons.

What the young want and older people need

What the young want, somewhere sometimes deep beneath the cotton wool, is to be challenged, to be invited to live a life less ordinary — is this all there is? The daily round, the common task, the nine to five treadmill, ending in death or retirement (which is like heaven, but with less health and energy, so perhaps death is preferable).

Older people by contrast have usually had time to experience the deception that follows when even supernatural Valium fails. Long ago when they prayed and prayed for someone’s mental unbalance to be righted, or for a child’s disability to be cured… or more recently when they asked for the latest draught to be sweetened in the bitter cup of life…. They need to learn that God’s interventions are mysterious and wonderful, but not a daily command performance. That God is not a convenient god to be ordered to provide comfort and restoration on our schedule.

TMT is killing the church because it fails to inspire the young, and it fails to comfort the old, and if it cannot do those things then it is ultimately useless.