Short Term Missions and MTD

This is the second article in our series on what the gospel has to say to the cultural trend among today’s teens of viewing Christianity as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”.  Check out the first article here.
I have the opportunity to interact with about 1,600 students from all over the country each summer.  These students are coming to a week of “church camp.”  They’re leaving the luxury of their home, gaming systems, TVs, computers, etc., to spend a week in inner-city Memphis serving economically disadvantaged homeowners.  Unfortunately, the underlying motivation behind many of these students’ decision to come to camp is a set of therapeutic and/or moralistic doctrinal beliefs.  It’s my deep joy to remind them of the truth of the gospel: that they serve not because they have to but because they are set free by the grace of God through Jesus to love and serve others.

Here’s what I mean: when our students’ service fails to flow from a heart that realizes its depravity and takes great joy in the truth of the gospel, their service is moralistic.  At that moment, they’re placing themselves and their good works in the place of the Savior.  They’re attempting to save themselves from spiritual poverty.  They become their own functional savior.

Additionally, when a student places himself and his good works in place of the Savior, whatever “good deed” he is doing is for the honor of his own name.  It’s therapeutic.  His reason for serving is to make himself feel good… To remind himself that he’s okay because of his good works…  To feed the functional savior of self.

However, it’s important that those in youth ministry leadership give their students opportunities to serve others.  Here are a few tips about how to lead service projects with a grace-centered, gospel-saturated mindset (these suggestions are applicable to all areas of youth ministry, not just service-oriented projects):

  • Remind students that they’re not the ones in a high position serving those in a low position.  They’re not the more wealthy people serving the more needy people.  Rather, give them gospel lenses.  Help them see that every human being is impoverished and in need of redemptive grace.  Some people’s poverty is manifested materially.  However, those in material poverty may be much more spiritually full than those who are not materially impoverished!
  • Train students to maintain a humble and eager-to-learn posture.  Students with this attitude will quickly learn that they’re often more blessed as they’re seeking to bless others!
  • Remember the gospel!  Take every opportunity to remind students of their radical depravity and their deep need for Jesus!
  • We as ministry leaders must remember the gospel!  Though we know it, we need to be reminded every day: we are not the professionals.  We are not the spiritual elite.  We desperately need Jesus!  May we run to the cross daily, and may our ministry be an overflow of our love for Jesus.
  • Read When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.  This book presents a much-needed paradigm shift and even indirectly deals with much of the moralistic-therapeutic issues so prevalent in the church today.

Drew Haltom serves as Camp Director at Service Over Self in Memphis, TN.  He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary.  Drew blogs at