Everyone has an opinion about youth ministry. Parents, pastors, and the youth themselves have expectations and demands that don’t always overlap. But the rash of dire statistics about the ineffectiveness of youth ministry has prompted rethinking in these ranks. So we devote one day per week this month to exploring several issues in youth ministry, including its history, problems, and biblical mandate. The Gospel Coalition thanks Cameron Cole and the leadership team of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry for their help in compiling this series.
That a youth ministry “teaches the Bible” does not necessarily mean it teaches the gospel. Many mistake the gospel with moralism—being a good person, reading your Bible, or opening the door for the elderly in order to earn God’s favor. But the gospel is altogether different.
This is a problem across the youth ministry landscape. It’s not because teenagers and youth leaders have misunderstood the church’s teaching of historical-confessional, gospel-infused Christianity. It’s a problem in youth ministry wherever the American church has not preached Christ crucified and has catered to a pragmatic, entertainment-driven, and numbers-oriented model of church growth.
According to sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, most American teenagers believe in something dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).  Within this MTD “religion,” God is a cosmic therapist and divine butler, ready to help out when needed. He exists but really isn’t a part of our lives. We are supposed to be “good people,” but each person must find what’s right for him or her. Good people will go to heaven, and we shouldn’t be stifled by organized religion where somebody tells us what we should do or what we should believe. 
MTD isn’t a religion like Islam or Buddhism, but rather a melting-pot belief among American teenagers. Historic distinctions between denominations like Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists are not as important to teens because they see their Christian faith as just one aspect of their lives like anything else—be it sports, friends, school, or family. Its preacher is American entitlement and its sermon is a me-centered message about a distant, therapeutic god who wants teens to be good and happy.
Alternative to Entertainment
I sat in a Waffle House one early morning, talking with a dad who had caught his son looking at pornography. His family had just transferred from a nearby church that spent through the roof creating the most spectacular show in church—complete with fog machines, strobe lights, and professional musicians writing Christian lyrics to Lady Gaga songs. In between the dueling DJs, this family was starved for the Bread of Life. But despite their burnout over endless entertainment, they didn’t know an alternative.
“I just think you need more games,” the dad told me across a very syrupy waffle. “If you had more games and funny skits, then my son would have been at church, not looking at porn.” I was shocked! Here was a man who had left a church over too much entertainment and now wanted it back. I realized that MTD wasn’t just a problem in the culture of American teenagers, but in the culture of the American church. The larger influence of a success-over-faithfulness model of American Christianity is having devastating effects on youth ministry.
Kenda Creasy Dean, in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, argues that American teenagers have bought into MTD, not because they have misunderstood what the church has taught them, but precisely because it is what the church has taught them. She writes,
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length. 
When this self-help theology is combined with a sola-boot-strapia sermon from TBN, we start having teens singing, “God Is Watching Us from a Distance” while—at the same time—wondering why Jesus isn’t fixing their parents’ marriage or their problems with cutting.
MTD isn’t just the problem of youth ministry; it’s the problem of the church. And American Christianity has become a “generous host” to this low-commitment, entertainment-driven model of youth ministry.
Counter to the Gospel
Think about those three words, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. They run counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ in every way. We are not saved by earning our way up the good-works ladder, nor is God the divine genie dispensing wishes at command. He’s not a distant “clock-maker,” sitting back to watch it all play out, but the personal Immanuel who became man to seek and save his bride. The gospel says that Jesus has accomplished for you—through his life, death, and resurrection—everything that God has required of you; thereby, securing eternal life for all God’s people, and received by faith alone.
This is where the importance of method comes to the forefront, which (unfortunately) is often disassociated with theology. While our theology of the gospel should inform our method, the American church—to a large extent—has practiced just the reverse. The question on many youth leaders’ minds is, “How do we get bored teenagers into the church?” The question should be, “How are we to faithfully plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ for his glory and our joy in him?”
Many youth ministries have engaged in direct competition with the world to woo and attract students by all sorts of gimmicks and giveaways. In fact, a large church in the Atlanta area recently gave away iPods to the first 100 youth at a lock-in! But is that the method God has given us to draw young people into a deeper, richer, more meaningful relationship with Christ?
There Is Hope
There is hope, however, because Jesus will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. There is hope because God is in the business of saving and sanctifying teenagers through the ministry of Word, prayer, and sacrament. God has given us means of grace—not just to reap the benefits of their content and application—but as the way in which we plant and water the gospel, looking to God to provide the growth. These means of grace should inform how young men and women are drawn into the church—youth who are disillusioned by the gimmicks and fog of an entertainment-driven world of empty pleasure.
Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has said, “The loneliest moment in life is when you have just experienced the ultimate, and it has let you down.” Like a political pendulum, the experienced “high” from self-centered experience and rampant consumerism fails to provide rest for the restless soul. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can call the prodigal out of the trough and satisfy his longing heart.
MTD remains a problem in youth ministry because it remains a problem in the American church. It channels the method of ministry from gospel to gimmick. But the later English Puritan John Flavel points to God’s far better plan: “The intent of the Redeemer’s undertaking was not to purchase for his people riches, ease, and pleasures on earth; but to mortify their lusts, heal their natures, and spiritualize their affections; and thereby to fit them for the eternal fruition of God.”