Does Youth Ministry suffer from an MTD?

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Sounds painful? And is there any protection? Can the church perform safe youth ministry to prevent it?  


Actually, that in a way is half of the problem. Safe youth ministry causes MTDs to occur in young people, signs and symptoms include prayer being used for coping when car parking spaces cant be found, and the belief that being good and moral is enough. So, less of the analogies to STDs, what am I talking about?

In 2005, Christian Smith discovered that the majority of American teenagers are still relatively religious, and are active believers in their churches, yet he realised that they were ‘incredibly inarticulate’ about their faith, the beliefs and practices and its meaning and how it plays a part in their lives. It wasnt that they dont hold on to doctrines, but the main one that he discovered that they implicitly had was MTD, or ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’  (a socially transmitted religious disease)

Young people afflicted with MTD are part of faith communities, but that these faith communities practice is a million miles from the practices of historic communities, the origins of the faith, a prosperity rather than a poor gospel (for example). A creed for the MTD would hold on to the view that God required people to be good, because God is like big brother always watching, that life is about being happy as God wants me to be happy and feel good about myself, God is always there, but mostly only needed in crisis, and good people go to heaven.

One of the benefits for young people who ‘suffered’ from MTD is that many young people who expressed faith in this way, and belonged to a faith community exhibited more positive outcomes in their personal life, from academic, health and social factors (Smith C, 2011, p28). Smith also discovered that social patterns were the biggest factor in the religious observance of a young person, the more connections a young person had with faith, the more ‘normalised’ it became. This is worth reflecting on further when thinking when young people with limited social patterns of faith encounter faith. However, I digress, here is a (damning) extract from Christian Smiths book:

However, it appears that only a minority of US. teenagers are naturally absorbing by osmosis the traditional substantive content and character of the religious traditions to which they claim to belong. For, it appears to us, another popular religious faith, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is colonizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness. Exactly how this process is affecting American Judaism and Mormonism we refrain here from further commenting on, as these faiths and cultures are not our primary fields of expertise. Other, more accomplished scholars in those areas will have to examine and evaluate these possibilities in greater depth. But we can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition,’ but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the struct ures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctif ication, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christ ian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith. (Smith, 2011, p171)


But breathe deeply Youth ministry sisters and brothers from this side of the pond…  you might be reading this from the comfort of the shores in ‘post-brexit’ Britain (though i know there are some readers from the USA who might want to switch off now) , this was Christian Smiths research and it was done in the USA, and is now over 10 years old. In the UK things are different arent they?

The general consensus amongst youth ministry is that the UK is about 10 years behind the USA in a number of ways, usually because when the US develops practice, writes about it, publishes it and these publications have practice adopted in the UK its about 5-10 years, though this varies considerably in regions. But maybe it is about 10 years in the early adopting high youth ministry orientated focussed areas. But MTD isnt caused by youth ministry, or at least not solely by youth ministry, for youth ministry in a local church is only a vehicle for the education or discipleship of young people in accordance with the church’s theology and culture- with a few moments of prophetic challenging, and if not directly the church, the theologies the church subscribes to, whether evangelical, liberal or other. So, MTD as a disease occurs in the context of the whole faith community, but because the research has identified it in young people, youth ministry gets the awakening. Youth ministry is told to go on training to make preventative cure, when the church is the fostering culture, and church is only the fostering culture if it adopts, and forms its own culture within the broader culture. It is relatively easy to point to an American culture having strong therapeutic tendancies ( Smith, C p191), and the church has adopted something similar – a happiness religion to be relevant in a desire for happiness culture.

So, does UK youth ministry have an emerging MTD problem?

There have been many surveys in the last few years that have indicated that adults in the UK, even from faith backgrounds either hold a variety of or are unable to articulate doctrinal positions – is this an indicator of something?

What about what is expected from children and young teens as a result of, or in the application of Bible studies and talks – is it enough that they understand, learn and experience – or does some moral action become the tenet for Christian living as a response – the be nice to one another, help your parents, Sin is being ‘naughty’ (and Santa is watching)  And many many activities and groups and churches and sessions dont do this, but morality can become the highest call of the christian young person can’t it at times? …

What of the God of contemporary UK youth ministry? Is he too nice? too loving, too accepting – too bland?  Its no wonder the Old testament is avoided, let alone Ananias and Saphira, and talk of the martyrdom of the early disciples brushed under the carpet to a point. I have heard it said at an evangelistic event that Jesus wants young people to have their selfies taken with him, that’s the path of pure relevancy with no cost. Jesus is only a click away, and requires no sacrifice or cost. And this was one of those types of events that pretty much the only young people were there were linked to youth groups already. So, nothing very deep for those already living faith in a social context. However, it was just one example, and possibly a harsh one, however – the broader question – what kind of God does youth ministry reveal to young people?  thats not just what is told – but what is implied also.

The question is for individual contexts to reflect on. It would be difficult to diagnose MTD from a distance. Are there warning signs that UK youth ministry in places is a one night stand from getting the disease? or has it got it abundance in some places, ministries and churches?  And if so what might a cure be?  Maybe MTD is beneficial to young people for themselves, but what it means is that the bible is little more to young people than the kind of self help manuals that pepper WHSmiths bookshelves. Im not going to venture back into saying again that in youth ministry the bible is treated as little more than a proof text justification tool, and that how it is read and interpreted is more important that what is read (ive said that before here: , but where might doctrines and liturgies be explored, meditated and reflected on with young people? How might these be meaningful if they are absent?  What kind of doctrines might youth ministry explore with young people to overcome being materialistically consumed by MTD?

What kind of authenticity might young people want?  People in church who have sinless lives, or people in church whose dramatic life of faith takes them to the brink of societies pain, suffering and edge in order to witness to Christ? People who act out a faith they believe, who love abundantly and generously not counting the cost?

MTD and UK youth ministry – is it a problem? is it a reality? what are its effects?  once caught can it be cured and by whom?



Smith, Christian: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual lives of US Teenagers (2011)

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Faith Speaking and Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine ( 2014p 

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