John Meunier thinks outloud—and it’s really helpful. He wonders what the best course of action is to shake congregations out of their life-sucking MTD stupor: slow and steady teaching and discipleship, or some kind of ecclesial shock therapy?
After spending nearly a decade of my life immersed in the research that led to the term “moralistic therapeutic deism,” I still don’t know how to fix it short of divine intervention (which may be what God is going for). In answer to John’s question, I’m inclined to say: “Both.”
But then I remember where I go, week after week, to draw life: a 37-member congregation, not counting the young adults who stop by for a month, or a year (or three or four) while they’re students. You might call Kingston United Methodist Church a “raw” church, unprocessed and unpredictable. The pastor is a PhD student who will be moving on in June. The financials are, frankly, unsustainable. The century-old building has three creaky, leaky rooms and a really scary basement.
It’s the best church I’ve ever been part of.
Our family went “off-the-grid,” ecclesially-speaking, three and a half years ago, finding ourselves in a church that has been on the brink of closing for the past 132 years. We came, frankly, because we were losing our kids (and–significantly–ourselves) to MTD in the large program church we had been attending. People like me are supposed to change churches—not change churches—but as a parishioner, I kept waking up in the middle of the night, like Miss Clavell in the Madeleine stories, knowing that “something is not right.” If our daughter was to have a faith home before she graduated (and both words in the phrase “faith home” mattered), we were running out of time. An ocean liner can change course, but it does so slowly. So that’s how we wound up in a rowboat, a skiff that gets tossed around when the weather changes but can also change course pretty fast if you put your back into it. And in a small congregation, if you’re going to get anywhere, you need every single person to row.
Since our pastor is one of my students, he is well aware of MTD (and is really sick of it). He disagrees with significant parts of *Almost Christian*. But he knows the debilitating “meh” of MTD, and while he has thankfully never uttered the phrase “MTD” in church, I give him props for never once caving to an easy portrayal of God, or to a simplistic vision of Christian community, or to a convenient faith. He does this with humility and humor (two underrated pastoral assets), and allows the congregation to be complicated. We lean “liberal” (whatever that means) on things like grace and homosexuality and “conservative” (whatever that means) on things like Jesus and potluck dinners (i.e., we want to conserve them). “Doing church” is pretty straightforward: the people gather, the Word is preached, the sacraments are administered, prayers are asked for, songs are sung–and then everybody goes home to feed some sheep.
And that, as it turns out, is huge. “Feeding sheep” is what a missional imagination looks like in my congregation–and trust me, it had nothing to do with my book (which no one knows exists). The congregation’s mission statement is “Feed More Sheep,” and every single person—the tall and the small—can say it. For a year, every Sunday somebody shared how God had called them to “Feed More Sheep”: parents and children, seminarians and octogenarians, newcomers and old-timers.
Were those testimonies theologically air-tight? Not hardly. Sometimes I cringed. But most of the time, I was awestruck at what God was doing in the “then and there”… amazed by an unexpected servant who mustered up the guts to put into words how he or she tried to love Jesus by feeding his sheep. Is there MTD at Kingston United Methodist Church? Absolutely. But it’s far less pronounced than in the “professional” churches I’ve known. Or (let’s be honest) have helped lead.
MTD is pasteurized Christianity—pasteurized to the point that the nutrients have been cooked right out of it. I wonder how a church like Kingston has avoided boiling down Jesus, since it’s surely not the result of any intentional plan? Is the congregation’s unpolished profile, that tends to discourage processed professionalism? Or is it the leadership of student pastors who have not yet been jaded by mileage, and come with their idealism in full bloom? Is it the uncluttered nearness of God embodied by the sheer proxemics of tiny sanctuary and a preacher who looks you in the eye? Or is it practices that invite people to talk about being Christian in terms that aren’t borrowed from our moralistic, therapeutic culture? If you asked them, people at Kingston wouldn’t tell you that being a Christian means being nice or feeling comfortable. They would tell you it means feeding more sheep.