What Would Judas Do? Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and You

The youth ministry world is wrestling through the ramifications of what Christian Smith coined as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

What is MTD?

After interviewing 3,000 teenagers, the authors found that many young people believed in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions:

  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 Bible 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.


Since the original study came out about five years ago, youth workers have been scratching their heads, more research has been done, many books/articles have been written, and essentially we are all just trying to figure out both how we got to this point and how we can rebuild our ministries in ways that combat this.

As a simplest– I have often wondered if MTD in our students may be related to MTD in their youth pastor? In other words, are we even willing to consider that our own relationship with Jesus  (or lack thereof) may be leading students to follow our lead into MTD?

As I look in the mirror I am left to ask myself and my fellow youth workers some difficult questions.

  • Is youth ministry my vocation or is it my calling? (The latter isn’t an independent evaluation)
  • Am I still passionate about my relationship with Jesus?
  • Do I still love and chose to be faithful the Bride of Jesus? (His church, all of it.)
  • Are my actions reflective of my first love? (personalize Revelation 2:1-6)
  • Am I setting expectations in my teaching that are realistic for my students walk with Jesus? (Am I teaching Scripture in a way that is approachable and personal?)
  • Do I consider myself a manager of a program or a minister of the Gospel?
  • Do I still have the passion for lost teenagers that I had when I dedicated my life to this cause in 1993?

Let us look at ourselves with sober judgment and search our hearts; making adjustments and repentance a necessary part of that self-appraisal.

As I minister to students it is always my heart that they pick up my faith.

My fear is that in too many cases they are picking up a faith that is vastly different than the faith we want them to pick up.


13 responses to “What Would Judas Do? Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and You”

  1. Mike Lyons Avatar

    In 1993, I was 13. I’m just saying. 😉 Good work, Adam. I’ve been thinking about this basic issue lately, although I don’t know all the big words. It’s definitely something we need to be talking about.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      Yeah, I was only 17 when God got a hold of my heart and changed the direction of my life.

  2. Tim Schmoyer Avatar

    I think it’s MTD not only in their youth workers, but also in parents and even their peers. It’s what they’re surrounded by and it’s basically what the church teaches when you boil it down.

  3. Sam Grottenberg Avatar

    As a rookie in youth ministry, the idea of MTD is alot closer to my experience in the church (only a few years have passed since I was in youth group myself) – the issue was super-prevalent amidt my teenage peers, and I have no reason to believe it has gone away with the current age-group.

    I think MTD is partially a result of what I would call “Golden Rule Christians” – the older generation, at least in the mainline world that I come from, modeled the Christian life as such: “be a good person,” pray when you need something from God, or when something goes wrong in your life, and for the most part, you’ll be living a “Christian” life.

  4. Brian Kirk Avatar

    I think Tim is probably correct, sad to say. MTD permeates our culture and our churches. I think much of this boils down to whether or not we are willing to offer youth a radical world-changing understanding of Jesus or instead a portrait of a Jesus who just helps us with our own self-actualization and personal happiness.

    1. Tim Schmoyer Avatar

      Sad to say I’m correct? lol j/k I know what you mean.

  5. Katie W Avatar
    Katie W

    This is sometimes a problem with me for both children’s sermons and the “application” part of youth lessons. The “what to do now”. We want them to get something out of it. While I do think good education does involve life change, sometimes it’s ok for the lesson to be…. God is good. Period.

  6. Brian Kirk Avatar

    Tim, sorry it sounded like I was bemoaning the fact that you got it right on this issue! : ) My first mistake this year! (I get it right most of the time, too).

    Katie – point well taken. It may very well be that we inadvertently start teaching MTD at a very young age because it’s the simplest way to describe God to children.

  7. John Mulholland Avatar


    Great gut check for those of us in ministry.

  8. Marc Cardaronella Avatar

    Great points! MTD definitely comes from parents, but youth workers too? Very well could be since in Smith’s book youth ministry often had little impact.

    I was just thinking about something similar to this today. Our message is really only as effective as the life we back it up with. If the kids don’t see the power of God’s action working in our lives, will they really believe that our message of God’s power to change lives is true?

  9. benjamin kerns Avatar

    i think an important piece to this puzzle is also adolescent development. kids are self centered beings. in fact it is all they can be developmentally. and as they move through adolescence, they can begin to think conceptually and begin to see that they are not the center of the universe. and if you add to that the gobs of research about adolescence lengthening, then we have the perfect storm for MTD.

    i do agree that we need to look in the mirror and we probably need to clarify what and why we do what we do. but we also need to remember where students are developmentally and care for them in that place and walk with them through this season.

    thankfully god is faithful and he seems to continually grab a hold of hearts and turn them toward him and the church continues on to the next generation.

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