I officiate a lot of weddings. I love the adrenaline rush when there are lots of details to get just right. I love to speak words of value on their big day. I also enjoy the counseling sessions that proceed the chaotic event, although I've noticed that the same conversation seems to begin most of our sessions.
“And we wanted a pastor to do the service because we were both raised in the church and, I mean, we are still very spiritual. We definitely believe in God and a higher power and want that represented in the ceremony, but I wouldn’t say we’re actively religious. I guess we haven’t talked much about our spirituality – it’s more of a personal thing – but we are both definitely spiritual.”
Great, I reply. Tell me about your spirituality.
This is the depressing part. It would be one thing if couples consistently convinced me that their personal spirituality is satisfying and shaping their everyday lives in radical ways...but they don’t. They seem apologetic, sheepish or defensive when it comes to articulating what they believe and why. Most try to explain that it’s something they’ve been meaning to get around to, like taking up yoga or cleaning out the garage. This pastor doesn’t buy it, though. Their tone, their ambiguity and the way this conversation about spirituality hangs separately from the rest of their life has me convinced: Moralistic Theraputic Deism is trendy, but it’s not actually workin’ for people.
I’m so glad Christian Smith (author of Soul Searching) came up with a label for this trend within the inactive Christian community. While 75% of Americans identify as Christian, I’m afraid most of them do so because there hasn’t been a name for what they now ascribe to – a watered down, politically correct, individualistic version of modern monotheism. Smith says this creed of beliefs includes:
- Faith in a God who created everything.
- God wants people to be good, nice and fair.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.
- God is not involved in everyday life except when I need God to solve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Moralistic Theraputic Deism (MTD) would be just fine if the people I knew subscribing to it seemed fulfilled by its doctrine or practices. MTD would be just fine if the church were better at proclaiming how Christianity is more radical, grace-filled and life giving than this. MTD would be just fine if we all called it that instead of Christianity because Jesus did not have to die or rise for any of these bullet points above.
It turns out, we’re not a Christian nation anymore. Christendom is over and 30 years from now, I might be serving a church that doesn’t have synods or pensions or global relief funds or buildings because we forgot how to tell the story of Jesus to each other and the stranger. We might look back on 2010 and wonder what we were preaching and teaching if it wasn’t God’s truth, forgiveness and a faith that isn't trendy.
MTD is the hardest thing about weddings, but it is also my greatest motivating factor. If a couple asks me to do their wedding outside or in a public space, they are inviting me to put on my collar and tell the truth. They are giving me 150 of their closest friends and a microphone. And that’s reason enough for me to say yes.
I like to stick around after the ceremony because wedding guests with MTD often prove me right and approach me. They introduce themselves and their faith story. They don't tell me about the last few years of Sunday brunches with friends and the New York Times or finding God in nature on the 18th green. Instead, they tell me what they remember about church and pastors and the Lord’s Prayer and what kind of liturgy has been woven into their being by hymnals, Sunday school, table grace and grandmothers. They thank me for being there and for speaking words that really resonated with them.
And this is the moment that gives me great hope. They cannot articulate their spirituality or their personal creed of wandering, but they can speak fluently and firmly about their memories of faith in the church. They can tell me what it meant to be in Christian community long ago. They light up while they share - suddenly remembering where they come from.
And that’s when I always, always invite them back.