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It was my goal to test the Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (Almost Christian, pg 14).

Lab Write Up: Analyzing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism Data

On December 22, 2010, I invited my youth pastor readers to participate in the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism Case Study:  Teens Telling Us What They Think.  This case study consisted of asking 1 Christian student and 1 Atheist student if they agree or disagree with the 5 Moralistic Therapeutic Deism statements. It was my goal to test the Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (Almost Christian, pg 14).

Total number of students participated:

15 Christian Students


15 Atheist Students

= 30 Students Responses

Student Responses To the 5 Statements of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

Agreed:  100% of the Christian students and 53% of the Atheist students

Disagreed:  47% of the Atheist students

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by the Bible and by most world religions.

Agreed:  100% of the Christian students and 46% of the Atheist students

Disagreed:  54% of the Atheist students

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

Agreed:  53% of the Atheist students

Disagreed:  100% of the Christian students and 47% of the Atheist students

4. God is not involved in my life except when I need god to resolve a problem.

Agreed: 0%

Disagreed: 100% of the Christian students and 100% of the Atheist students

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Agreed: 46% of Atheist students

Disagreed : 100% of the Christian students and 54% of Atheist students


– Christian students have a more or less solid understanding of basic Christian theology.  Their youth pastors are doing a great job of teaching the students the teachings of God.  In hindsight, our students may be in a better theological place than what the research is indicating.

–  Atheist students are theologically confused, especially about the after life.  Confusion tends to leave a lot of room for them to develop their own moral and spiritual philosophies for how to govern their life.  Our students live in a very existential culture, which gives them permission to write their own moral and spiritual code without any accountability or connection to history or tradition.  This is why the teachings of the Bible are very difficult for an un-churched student to swallow.  The Bible is authoritative and existential students don’t respond nor interact well with authority.  Having to believe and trust in an absolute truth is a tough task.  I have wrote about the direct implications of existentialism in student culture here.

–  Youth pastors need more “service” events that are designed to attract all types of students.  Kenda Creasy Dean argues for this missional mindset in her book:  Almost Christian.  She would like to see more youth ministries become outward focused.  This is why I strongly believe in the inside/out youth ministry evangelism approach.  I also wrote a post about: 20 Ways Teens Can Be Missionaries. The more inclusive our youth ministry programming becomes, the more possibilities we will have to engage in theological conversations with un-churched teenagers.  This notion falls into the ecclesiological belief that “You can belong before you have to believe.”  Belonging (before you believe) to a youth group establishes a solid relationship from which students can tackle tough theological topics together.  It is so important for our “Christian students” to be interacting with un-churched and non Christian students.  I have wrote about the having a proper theology of a high school meeting which will create an experiential space where everyone can belong before they “believe” without feeling judged.  The deism data indicated that there was a polarity of how students understand God.  This suggests very segregated student social clusters.  It appears each student social cluster does not have an influence on one another.  Essentially, Christian students only talk to the Christian students and Atheist students only talk to Atheist students.  I wonder why there isn’t more of an overlap of conversation happening between Christian students and Atheist students?  Clearly they come into contact with one another, but unfortunately there isn’t much dialogue between the groups about theological matters.

–  I was surprised to find out that most students believe God is an integral part of their life.  All the students believed God is at work in their life regardless of the positive/negative circumstances they find themselves in.  The great thing is: students do not necessarily see God as a genie in a bottle who grants them all of their wishes.

Questions For Reflection_______________________

Do you believe there is an inherent segregation between Christian students and Atheist students?  Are there opportunities of and for cross-pollination?

Are our Christian students “too” theologically informed and not reaching out enough to other teenagers in order to engage in theological talks?

Have you found that un-churched students are very confused about the afterlife?  I have found that some un-churched teenagers don’t know what to believe about the afterlife. The “best” answers they can think to point to involve karma and reincarnation.

Do you think that our Christian students are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists?  Or are non Christian/un-churched teenagers more susceptible to catching the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism bug?

About Jeremy Zach

Orange XP3 Specialist | Youth Worker | MDIV | Hot Sauce Addict | Dr. Dre Beats Lover

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  1. Like you, I found the ‘Almost Christian’ hypothesis haunting. And your earlier goal–“to find out how teens (both Christian and atheist teenagers)… respond to these [MTD] beliefs”–was a great one. I’d love to hear more details of how these students reacted to Dean’s sober analysis. Were they offended? Discouraged? Defiant?

    On the other hand, while I agree that the NSYR may have overstated its case, I don’t quite see how your data supports your conclusion (i.e. “Christian students have a more or less solid understanding of basic Christian theology”).

    To me, the five-part description of MTD works better as a summary than as a questionnaire. It collates thousands of transcripts–interviews in which students would be hard-pressed to ‘fake’ a commitment to Christian orthodoxy. Presented as true/false quiz questions, however, MTD’s tenets are easier to deny. After all, what church-going teen would admit to their pastor that “God is not involved in my life, except when I need God to resolve a problem”?

    Offered an easy-to-ace test, then, are the students in question just telling us what we want to hear?

    • Matt-
      I didn’t present the students with Dean’s treatment. I was more interested in the MTD statements.

      My data indicated that a solid Christian student was able to detect the flaws in the MTD statements—more or less.

      I think it is fair for you to disagree with my method. I wanted an easy and accessible method that any student could answer without any confusion. I was more interested in simplicity and clarity rather than assessing summarization. Summaries are harder to measure and I wanted to make it as simple as possible since the student was already volunteering his or her time.

      You are right students can easily tell us what their youth pastor wants to hear, but in the informed consent I had a requirement that the youth worker needed to have 1+ year relationship with the student hoping the student would be able to tell the “truth” in love and the teen would not feel like he/she would have to fake it in order to make it. Any researcher can always worry about the participant fabricating his/her answers.

      Again no research is perfect and I was more concerned about hearing from real life students perspective on what the NSYR is telling youth workers about teens.

      What do you think about my questions for reflection? Do you see any correlations or trends?

  2. Again, thanks for the thoughtful project; this is great, interesting, important stuff.

    “Any researcher can always worry about the participant fabricating his/her answers.” This is true, but it’s harder for students to fake their way through thorough, theologically-focused interviews than through easy-to-guess true/false questions. But maybe you have more information from the case studies? You had asked for typed responses so that you could “really dig into each teen’s thoughts, word for word, without a filter.” Did the students expand on their yes/no answers? I’d love to hear some of those more free-ranging responses.

    I’m not sure what to make of the atheists’ responses. If these students ARE actually “atheists,” wouldn’t they–by definition–disagree with the first and second statements? But that’s not what we see; instead, the majority profess a belief in God! Either your interviewers selected the wrong teens, or your conclusion is spot-on: “Atheist students are theologically confused”! :)

    I’d agree that believers too often segregate themselves from atheists, though some might argue that such segregation is fundamental to the Church’s ‘set-apart’ identity. Still, I appreciated your challenge to youth pastors; we must create non-judgmental spaces for unbelieving students to experience Christian community and ask tough questions. In some ways, we may need them more than they need us! Could atheistic teens could help us combat the Church’s endemic MTD? Their skepticism and hypocrisy-detection might cast a light on our inconsistencies and heresies.

    Have you had any success making this happen? What would youth ministry with these goals look like?

    • I do in fact have more information on their responses. One student wrote for question #2:
      “I strongly disagree. Whether it’s the new or old testament, there are stories of men killing other men and eventually going to Heaven. Like the story of Samson (I love that story by the way): Samson had the great power given to him by God. Naturally, you would think he would use it for the good of the world, but he doesn’t. He tears a lion to shreds then kills about 30 Philistines because he wouldn’t accept that they had figured out the answer to his riddle. At the end of the story, he commits suicide, which mind you, I’m pretty sure is one of the worst sins, and eventually gets a spot in near God. I don’t understand how that works. He sinned more then once, and didn’t even confess before his death. How does that make him good, nice or fair? And didn’t God create Man in his image? ”

      I have found some success if holding theological classes for any student in the community. It appears that many students (non-Christian or Christian) are very interested in theology regardless of their spiritual convictions. So the goal would be to give students a forum on how to articulate and critically thinking through their theological beliefs.

  3. I’m not so surprised by the lack of dialogue between Atheist and Christian teens. Thinking of the more likely setting for dialogue, i.e. the classroom. In my experience, both as a student and now a youth pastor, is that most teachers DO NOT allow for their students to dialogue about God. It’s the whole “No God in school” thing, to use a very general label.

    I have some students who are in the International Baccalaureate programs here in Virginia Beach. These students are the brightest of the bright and handle classes like “Theory of Knowledge” and such. Yet, they feel EXTREMELY isolated in their beliefs, being Christians, and have a difficult time expressing those beliefs in their classrooms. Most of the other students are not Christians that are in these programs.

    Atheists’ tend to see themselves as being well educated, or at the very least, well “thought”, and view Christians as drones and dullards. However, a lot of students are seeking to be able to speak what they believe clearly and rationally. But, they aren’t provided the opportunity. Not that the Christian view should be the only view in the classroom, but it should be valued and considered valid by teachers and students alike. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

  4. Matt Hauger’s critique of this experiment is right on. I’m not surprised at all that atheists would respond as they did to questions that explicitly mention God. And without more detail on the responses of the Christian students, I’m not sure what we can really make of their answers. The research methodology of the NSYR is solid and doesn’t seem in any way challenged by asking just 30 students to comment on the conclusions of the study.

    My experience is that Dean’s analysis is accurate for many (if not most) youth and adults in our churches. Neither NSYR nor Dean are suggesting that there are youth or adults out there proclaiming MTD as a creed. The point is that this is what people effectively believe, regardless of what they claim to profess.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the findings of the NSYR or Dean’s analysis.

    • John I wanted to simply get youth workers (who were in the trenches) to test the statements.

      I wasn’t trying to prove anyone wrong or challenge the data. In fact, I loved Dean’s book. I just wanted to know what the teens thought about what the research was telling us (the professional youth worker).

      Things are always changing in the teenager world. I just wanted to take a small sample size and see what 30 students said. I think any youth ministry practicer should keep testing what the research is saying. Would you agree or disagree with that?

      I can be wrong on this one…. but if an adult has a pretty great relationship with a student, the student will eventually open up and tell the truth. If a student genuinely thinks the adults cares, he/she will disclose a lot of info. That is why I love working with students. Chap Clark in his book: HURT clearly relies on this reality and the amount of info he gets from students is amazing.

      There is no way of telling if a student is telling the truth or over dramatizing it but this response to statement #4 seems to be somewhat real:
      “Ehhh….I’m on the fence about that one. Based on personal experience, God hasn’t always been there for me. I was younger then though. I mean, I went to the cardiologist a couple of weeks ago because they feared that my ribs were too concave that it’d affect my heart and/or lungs. My friend’s family and many of my friends prayed for me, and it turned out that I was okay. Does that mean God helped me when people asked Him to help me, or was I just fine the whole time?”

      Why do you think there is a stark difference in belief and claim to profess? Should those two ideas be independent or dependent upon one another?

      • I agree that this sounds like an authentic response, though I wouldn’t necessarily have labeled it as disagreeing with #4. Rather, it is an appropriately gray answer to a black and white question. That may be part of the problem with this approach–asking students to agree or disagree with statements like this is only going to reveal so much.

        When I think about testing this out with youth, I tend to think more about asking open ended questions. For example, when I talked about this book with my youth ministry committee, I suggested they ask their children why they go on our summer mission trips. My guess is that most honest answers would be 1) it’s good to help people (a MTD answers); 2) it’s fun (a realistic teen answer); 3) I need a bunch of service points for school (a pragmatic teen answer). I’m not sure how many of my kids would talk about mission, the body of Christ, and selfless service, though we stress these things each time.

        Of course, this is hypothetical. You’ve actually asked some questions. Maybe I should test this out myself. :)

        • You are completely right! I wouldn’t have labeled it as disagreeing to #4 but she did. So she was operating on an assumption that God is never involved in her life although she is starting to realize how might always be at work…..

          I agree…. but measuring opened up ended question is very tough to manage. Since I was trying to detect spiritual matters, it is always difficult to fit every answer in a box.
          I like how you contextualized the MTD statements into a practical youth ministry event. I think these statements are so general and students may answer them differently depending on what filter they are answering them through.
          I was just really curious about what the gut reaction was from students who youth workers were interacting with.
          Honestly I think the MTD research and statements gave youth workers parameters to measure their students’ spiritual health and maturity. I think youth ministry has progressed past these statements and dealing with different symptoms – namely why do I need to go to church to find God and the missional lifestyle. Dean addressed these issues in her book, which I am very thankful for. However I still want some really great practical and contextual advice on how to keep moving and evolving from the MTD syndrome.

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