Some time ago, I posted a series on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a term coined by Christian Smith, who wrote Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, with Melinda Lundquist.
Smith and Lundquist found that most Christian American teenagers (and their parents) have a view of Christianity that reduces to –
1. A God exists who created and orders 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 he is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
This is not the gospel of the Bible. This religion doesn’t rely on Jesus for salvation, but good works. This religion is not about participating in God’s mission to redeem the world. Rather, God exists to help me feel happy and good about myself. God is not my king. He’s my personal counselor and therapist.
It’s a non-threatening, non-challenging, and ultimately non-saving religion that will not change the world, much less save it. But it has so permeated our teaching and preaching that we have trouble seeing it as wrong at all.
And I am deeply concerned that our doctrine of church leadership is being taken over by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
When you ask yourself what you want in an elder, do you focus mainly on what the elder can do for you?
Do you mainly ask whether this is a man you want to visit you in the hospital — or a man who can challenge you to visit others?
Do you mainly ask whether this is a man who can help you solve your interpersonal problems — or a man who can challenge you to become a peacemaker who solves the interpersonal problems of others?
Do you mainly ask whether this is a man who’d be a great comforter and counselor in times of your own distress — or a man who’ll lead you to be fully committed in the mission of Christ to redeem the world?
You see, in nearly all writings within the Churches of Christ about elders that I’ve read, I see next to nothing about the mission of God, being missional, or helping the Spirit transform church members to become more like Jesus.
We might talk about these things in other contexts, but when we talk about church leadership, we want a therapist more than a shepherd. Shepherds lead sheep. And somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the concept of leading.
If shepherds lead, then where should our shepherds — our elders — lead us? Do we want to be led to ”be happy and to feel good about oneself”? Or to carry a cross of self-sacrifice for a lost and hurting world?
This is from an excellent essay by Christian Smith, “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S.Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith“ (an excellent essay — well worth the time to read) –
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, … of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, … of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.
When we speak of church leadership, are we more focused on “attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people” or “spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice.” Do we want to be led to serve the poor and seek the lost? Or to be well cared for in times of emotional distress?
Now, it’s important that the readers understand that I believe elders should very much be involved in pastoral care — visiting the sick, caring for the bereaved, etc. That’s not my disagreement. Rather –
* I am deeply concerned that we’re letting the pastoral element of leadership overwhelm the mission. If we don’t see our elders/shepherds/overseers as called by the Spirit to lead us into mission with God (as well as providing pastoral leadership), we miss one of the central elements of Christianity.
* I am deeply concerned that we’re letting the pastoral role of elders/shepherds/overseers become a consumer good, a fringe benefit of membership, rather than an example of how all church members should behave toward each other.
The elders aren’t called to be a sick-visiting ministry. They are referred to over and over as “leaders” and “shepherds.” The primary point of both terms is that they are to have followers — and if the elders are engaged in pastoral care (they should be), their followers should be doing the same. They should also be caring for each other, visiting the sick in the hospitals, comforting those who’ve suffered loss.
Hence, to be around an elder should be to be challenged to follow in their footsteps as they serve in the mission of God to redeem the world.
Elders should be challenging the members to step up and be better servants, more sacrificial, and more submissive to their fellow members. To be around an elder should be more about being called to step up and participate in God’s mission than being comforted and put at ease. Ease is not the goal. This is a cross-carrying religion.
Hence, the core of an elder’s work is surely mainly about helping the members become living sacrifices. This is the theme sentence of Romans 12. When Paul urges leaders to lead with zeal in Romans 12:8, it’s in the context of –
(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This, I believe, is what our leaders should lead us to do.
Yes, there is a pastoral role for elders, and it’s important, but it’s not the central, defining task of an elder. Leadership is. And we are living in a time when the church is desperate for leadership.