Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Gospel-Centered Preaching

This is a guest post from David Putman.

Sociologist Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist introduced us to the term moralistic therapeutic deism. They came up with this term as a result of a study funded by the Lilly Endowment called “National Study of Youth and Religion” to describe the spiritually of today’s youth. You can learn more about their study in their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005).

You may wonder why I would begin a short blog on preaching by introducing this concept. Unfortunately much of our preaching or at least my preaching has reflected this, or perhaps our youth reflect our preaching. The essence of moralistic therapeutic deism preaching is that we give them a little morality. It’s therapeutic in that it makes them feel better, and we back it up with a little God or little god.

Can you relate? Let’s get confessional! Let me suggest an alternative to this approach when it comes to our preaching.

Why not preach the gospel-centered messages?

First, let me suggest that gospel-centered preaching isn’t talking about relevant stuff and making a beeline to a gospel invitation. That may have gospel in it, but it’s not what I’m referring to when I suggest that we should take a gospel-centered approach to our preaching.

Second, gospel-centered preaching begins with a basic understanding of the gospel. I hear people ask all the time, “Isn’t this elementary?” The answer is no! This is fundamental and foundational. The gospel at its core is an announcement of what God has already done. Much of our preaching outside of the gospel offers some good or sage advice, but it’s not the gospel. It’s not an announcement that God has redeemed us, he is renewing us, and he will ultimately restore all things.

Third, the gospel is the story of God from Genesis to Revelation. It’s the meta-narrative of creation, rebellion, rescue, redemption, renewal and restoration. When we preach a text it should always be taught in the context of the gospel or it is ultimately being taken out of context. When this happens we always revert to either moralism or relevance.

Finally, the gospel is all we need. For years I understood I was saved by grace. I understood that I had nothing to add to God rescuing me from sin. However, I thought that once I was saved by grace I had to work really hard to grow. I had a grace plus works mentality. Since then I have discovered that I’m not simply saved by grace, but I grow by grace as well. In other words the gospel is all I need. If this is indeed true then this alone should shape the way we approach the responsibility of preaching. If I don’t give you the gospel I don’t have nothing to give you, regardless of how eloquent I sound or dapper I look. Is this not what Jesus is telling us in the following parable, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29, NIV).

David Putman is founder of Planting the Gospel – a gospel-centered ministry committed to taking the whole gospel to the whole world. Through Planting the Gospel David leads churches to form micro-church planting networks committed to planting disciple making gospel-centered churches. He is the author of Breaking the Missional Code (with Ed Stetzer), Breaking the Discipleship Code, and Detox for the Overly Religious.