"What Would Jesus Say About Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?"
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
August 15, 2010
Luke 12:49-56

Last Saturday, an article in the New York Times caught my eye.  "Congregations Gone Wild."  That title conjured up some bizarre images.  I wondered, were people in some congregations jumping up in the middle of a sermon and shouting down the preacher?  Were congregational dinners turning into savage food fights?  Were scantily clad liturgical dancers streaking through the sanctuary?  In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul scolded them for abusing the Lord's Supper.  They were not eating a smidgen of bread and a thimble of grape juice as we do today.  They were indulging in a full meal and drinking so many glasses of wine that some of them were becoming drunk.  Was some contemporary version of this practice spreading through the American church?

Needles to say, I felt compelled to read further.  As it turned out, the story was nothing so exotic.  It was about clergy burnout.  In the last few years, several studies have documented a dramatic rise in clergy burnout.

In my first few years of ministry, all Presbyterian ministers received a little publication called Monday Morning that featured brief observations by fellow clergy.  On the back of every edition was an obituary with the names of Presbyterian ministers who had recently died.  It was striking and very reassuring because in virtually every edition, four out of five who had died were in their nineties.  A life insurance representative confirmed what I read in that little publication.  He told me that ministers live longer than the average person.

I guess I should have been born a generation earlier, because that benefit has vanished.  Recent studies reveal that "clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans."1 A recent study of nearly 2,000 Methodist ministers by Duke University adds to the list of health concerns.  It found that pastors also have higher rates of arthritis, diabetes and asthma.  Research conducted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) unearthed a disturbing trend with new pastors.  The number of clergy leaving the ministry within five years of being ordained has quadrupled since the 1970s.2

What's going on in churches these days that is causing burnout, poor health and earlier deaths for clergy?  The simple answer is that clergy work too many hours under too much stress.  The question is why are clergy in every Protestant denomination, plus Roman Catholic priests, plus Jewish rabbis feeling more pressure and working more hours?  Speculation mentions a combination of factors that are the result of broad trends in our increasingly secular society: aging congregations, declining memberships, fewer volunteers in an age of two-income households, the expectation of a quick response to every email, and with cell phones, never being unavailable.  I suspect 99% of all clergy would say "Amen" to that list.

However, last Saturday's article, "Congregations Gone Wild," highlighted a factor rarely mentioned.  The writer acknowledged that longer hours are a significant problem.  "But" he said, "there is a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation will solve: congregational pressure to forsake one's highest calling."   He goes on to explain that pastors are called to help people grow spiritually and that includes challenging people and occasionally telling people what they would rather not hear and leading them where they would rather not go.  "But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them."  And he points to studies that show that people switch their religious affiliations as never before.  Countless articles have noted that many Christians have adopted a consumer attitude.  If they don't like what they're hearing in their church, either they shop for a new one or jettison the pastor.  Most pastors feel the pressure to dilute their message - to say things upon which there is little disagreement and to make people feel good.3

Within a few days of reading that article in the Times, the latest edition of The Christian Century magazine appeared in my mailbox.  It contained an article entitled "Faith, Nice and Easy."  As I read it, I had the nauseating feeling that the pressure on pastors to deliver watered down, feel good messages is having a disastrous effect.  It is creating nominal Christians who espouse a simple and self-centered faith.  The article unpacked findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion which surveyed teenagers in seven denominations.  They found that the religious faith espoused by today's young people bears little resemblance to Christian theology.  And before you assume this is a jab at young people, the study indicates that this is simply what the young people are learning in their congregations and from their parents.

After pouring over thousands of responses of what teens believe, the researchers summed up the new religious creed as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  It sounds more complicated than it is.  All of us need to understand this term because it is permeating the religious culture.  By moralistic, they mean: God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other.  By therapeutic, they mean: the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.  By deism, they mean God created the world and watches over it from a distance, but God is not really involved in the world until I need God to solve a problem.  The researchers go on to say that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may be the new mainstream American religious faith for our individualistic, consumer-driven society.4

Over the last couple of decades, we have slowly and unintentionally been creating an environment in which religious leaders feel the squeeze not to ruffle any feathers, but to simply enhance people's self-esteem.  And the result is a generation of shallow believers who think it is all about them.

However, it is clear from this morning's Scripture reading that Jesus didn't get the memo.

He says that faithfully following him will not always result in peaceful coexistence.  He says, "Do you think I have come to bring peace - to smooth things over and make everything nice?  No.  I've come to disrupt and confront!"5

What's going on here?  This does not sound like the Jesus we are accustomed to hearing.  In the first chapter of Luke's gospel we read that Jesus will "guide our feet into the way of peace."  When Jesus is born, the angels herald the event by trumpeting, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors."  After the resurrection, he appears to his disciples and says, "Peace be with you."

What happened to the compassionate healer who cared for the outcasts and taught us to love God with our heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves?  What happened to the tender Jesus who is gentle and forgiving?

A colleague states the obvious: the "fairest Lord Jesus is completely absent from this passage.  Instead, Jesus is a jackhammer, a crowbar, somebody who breaks apart our moorings and disrupts our lives.  (In this text) Jesus promises division instead of peace, discord rather than harmony."6

In today's passage, Jesus uses sharp language to remind us that there are repercussions to becoming one of his followers.  He was on his way to Jerusalem to confront the religious leaders of his day who were perpetuating a system that was no longer concerned for those on the margins of society.  And Jesus was saying to those who thought they wanted to follow him,  "If you seek to heal those who are broken, if you extend compassion to those in need, if you seek justice for people who are being harmed by the current system, it will put you in conflict with those who are benefiting from the status quo."

Christ was called to work for a world whose foundations were justice and peace, and he called others to join him in his quest.  But he wanted to remind all would-be repairers of the world that those who are benefitting from the current system are not interested in transformation.

Jesus was a threat to the religious and political leaders of his day because he exposed their injustice, their hypocrisy, their disregard for the poor and their contempt for sinners.  His opposition to the establishment put his life in danger and all who became his followers would also put their lives at risk.  Knowing that some would give him their allegiance and others would not, he warned that this would disrupt their closest relationships.  Families would become divided over him: fathers against sons and mothers against daughters.

What was true for the first Christians is also true for us.  Following Christ means you cannot simply go along with the values of a culture that says greed is good, possessions will make you happy, if someone hurts you get even and it is perfectly fine to use people to get what you want.

In our day, you are not faithfully following Christ if your faith is essentially Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  Following Christ requires much more than simply living a good life and being nice, making personal happiness your chief aim in life, and believing in a benevolent Creator who makes no demands on you.

Fortunately, Westminster has a history of taking bold stands that many churches would not.  We warmly accept and ordain people of all races and sexual orientations because we are all God's children, we house people who are homeless within our church walls because Christ calls on us to take care of our neighbors, and we engage issues in classes and sermons that stretch our thinking because God has given us good minds to develop our faith.  I love our church family because you put our faith into action.  I feel privileged to serve as your pastor.

God calls on each of us to be brave and to stand up for justice in the face of criticism, hostility and danger.  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cannot give rise to a Dietrich Bonhoeffer who put his life on the line in an attempt to stop Adolf Hitler.  It cannot give rise to a Rosa Parks who refused to get up out of her seat and go to the back of the bus.  It cannot give rise to a Martin Luther King, Jr. who challenged on the people of our nation not to judge people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

In 2003, when our country invaded Iraq, we were living in Richmond.  Popular opinion in Virginia strongly supported the invasion.  I have a close friend who felt called by God to oppose that war and so every Saturday for months, she joined a number of women who dressed in black and silently protested the war by walking along main boulevard in downtown Richmond.  People cursed them, yelled that they were un-American, gave them the one finger salute and even spit on them.  But they persevered, because they believed the war was unjust and they felt compelled to stand for peace.

Feel-good theology does not rock the boat.  It does not create rifts in relationships or make people uncomfortable.  But it also does not inspire courage or teach the value of personal sacrifice or make people passionate about following God's agenda.

Jesus says we have a choice to follow him or not.  Your decision will make all the difference in the world.



  1. Paul Vitello, "Taking a Break From the Lord's Work," in The New York Times, August 1, 2010.
  2. Ibid.
  3. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, "Congregations Gone Wild," in The New York Times, August 7, 2010.
  4. Kenda Creasy Dean, "Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens," in the Christian Century, August 10, 2010, p.22.
  5. This is how Eugene Peterson translates Luke 12:51 in The Message.
  6. Deborah Kapp, "Splinters," August 19, 2007, Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.