Is Church Therapy?
While doing some reading in preparation for a sermon, I came across something that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in 2012. I think we can all agree that our world is changing rapidly, but his statement gave me pause: “The spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century.” Yes, we are changing, but his words put the gravity of the changes in perspective, and I must admit, I am inclined to agree. Numerous factors have conspired together in order to bring us to this place, but I want to shed light on one that has been particularly subtle and yet devastating: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton did a study in 2005 – more than twelve years ago – and discovered that most teens, regardless of race or socio-economic background, now ascribe to this mushy pseudo-religion. While difficult to pin down, it basically holds that God is the creator and watches over human life, but he is not actively involved unless desperately needed (Deism). Moreover, God desires for us to be “good” – or moral. We should be fair and be nice. The goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; thus, the purpose of church or relationship with God is therapeutic. I go to church to feel good about me. I want someone to share tips with me on how I can be happier. And in the end, all the good people go to heaven.
The danger in MTD is that it is not entirely wrong. It sounds good on the surface. It comes across as a loving, non-judgmental answer to the issues of our time. It uses phrases and language that we find familiar. However, there is no mention of the cross, no regard for holiness, no awareness of the Biblical story in which God moves to redeem and save His people. There is no awareness that there is anything we need to be saved from. Thus, people who ascribe to these ideas have no real need for Jesus.
Sadly, this is becoming subtly embedded in churches of every variety. Many have morphed from gospel-centered communities into “feel good” therapy sessions in which people learn about God’s love while doing good things in their community to solidify their status as a good person. It is their means of obligating God towards them. It is what the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us of more than 80 years ago: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Jesus said in Matthew 10:16 that we are being “sent out” as His disciples. However, we are to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” We need to see the trends of our culture, so pay attention. As you hear people teach or preach or see some on television, run their comments through this grid. Think critically about what you hear. Talk to your children about what they are learning and how their understanding of faith is growing. As always, let us hold grace and truth in tension as we lovingly serve our city for God’s greater glory.
What informs your ideas about God?
Dr. Swanson recommends these classic explanations of Christian faith, as a way to check-in and affirm what you believe.