I’ve known about the phrase “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” for some time but it wasn’t until recently that I learned that the phrase was coined by Smith and Denton in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Once I learned that, this book jumped to the top of my reading list. I was primarily looking for a comprehensive description of the term from its “primary source.” In this quest I was not disappointed. What I didn’t expect, but got anyway, was an accidental-guide to youth ministry.
Soul Searching is officially written from a secular sociological perspective. In some respects, the book is simply a report on the results of a major survey of American teenagers (NSYR) on the topic of religion and spirituality. The book examines the results of this survey through a sociological lens. In this regard, the book is theologically neutral. It does not make claims about the doctrine of any particular religion.
That said, the book is not neutral. The authors are, at least, sympathetic toward various religious traditions and seem to be concerned that, in regards to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, have strayed so far from their doctrinal and historical roots. Near the end of the book the authors consciously stray from their sociological framework to offer advice to religious congregations. Such a diversion, while only consciously done at this place in the book, is not out of place.
Soul Searching is an exceedingly influential book, not just about what it says about American youth in particular, but about what it says about American religion in general. The phrase coined in the book, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” (MTD) is an apt term for the form of religious thought popular in America today. It’s essential that Christian families and leaders be able to recognize this parasitic pseudo-religious system. When I read this section in the book I highlighted almost everything. That’s usually a sure sign that the book is good.
MTD is just one of the many contributions of Soul Searching. Its presentation and analysis of the NSYR results are also very informative and relevant to anyone interested in reaching American teenagers.
This is a must read (a phrase I won’t use very often) from anyone involved in youth ministry. I would also highly recommend it for other pastors, since MTD is widespread, not just in among American teenagers, but among parents as well.
I said in the introduction that this book was an accidental-guide to youth ministry. It is definitely not a guide in format. It’s a sociology book. But, the issues its raise are relevant issues to all youth leaders. The findings of the NSYR research ought to make all of us think intentionally about youth ministry.