Youth Ministry and Boomer Ministry Face a Similar Challenge: “The emperor has no clothes!”

A few years ago Youth Ministry scholars like Christian Smith and Princeton’s Kenda Creasy Dean identified a disturbing trend in North American youth ministry programs. As they noted, a significant part of what passes for the faith is only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the historical Jesus and his teachings.

Smith says that what composes Christian teaching in most mainline churches now is really “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. He writes that that MTD may be defined by the following beliefs:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Old and New Testaments and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (Smith 2005, pp. 162–163.)

Many youth programs are just fun and games, with no spiritual meat. They are just entertainment.  We teach our young that the goal is to have a happy life and the way to achieve this is by being a good person, a responsible and moral citizen. If we are honest we really just want to make sure we raise up good church members, people who will pay the bills and keep the doors open when we are not able to do so.

I think this was already a problem when we Boomers were young. True, some of us went off to fight for social justice and an end to racial discrimination. But many others set about to become good consumers, with a little niceness thrown in. Today many of us continue to worship at the altar of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Speaking about today’s challenges, which may have started with us Boomer parents and grandparents:

“The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people …. if churches practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to church more often is not the solution (conceivably it could make things worse). A more faithful church is the solution … Maybe the issue is simply that the emperor has no clothes.” (Kenda Creasy Dean, pp. 23-24)

There’s a reason why thousands and thousands of young people flock to Taizé every year and it’s not for the clever ice-breakers! It’s because they are seeking a deeper connection with God and they want to make a difference in the world.

I think we Boomers want to make a difference too, now more than ever. So how do we turn things around? How do we nurture a faith in ourselves and our grandchildren that is faithful to the teachings of the One we claim to follow?

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