Growing up I worried about sin — a lot.

I was taught by the church that anything that “missed the mark” or fell short of God’s will was a sin. This thought haunted me.

I distinctly remember a Sunday school teacher telling me that every time I sin, a black mark is carved into my heart, and when I die, I must stand before God and answer for each of those marks.

I’m sure this teacher was just doing what she thought was best. She was probably an untrained, overworked volunteer who’s just trying to give her time and talents to the church. But she did a number on me.

As a kid, I would draw pictures of myself with black marks on my heart. Think about that.

When I got a little older, it didn’t get much better. I was told by a camp pastor that my sins were the cause of my grandmother dying of cancer. Think about that.

I grew up worrying every decision, every thought, every fear, every unknown could potentially be displeasing to God in which would cause God to be mad at the world because of me. This mindset forced me into living as if morality achieved salvation. Think about that.

Choosing right over wrong is a fine way to live, but when we assume right decisions equate reward and bad decisions equate eternal damnation then perhaps our framework is what has missed the mark.

This sadistic teaching of sin was not only traumatizing for me, but flat wrong. Sadly, though, it has contributed to what I believe to be the greatest sin of our generation: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

This phrase is not something I’ve coined but rather what scholars use when referring to a theological framework that substitutes a ‘grace-based theology of an immanent God’ for a merit-based one. God, in this framework, becomes like a Coke machine. You put the right amount of change in the slot, hit the button, and you receive that which you pay for — a simple transaction and nothing more.

In other words, you do the right thing (coins); this puts you in right relationship with a cold, punitive machine of a God (button); and you receive that which you transacted to acquire (Coke). If you have enough of the right thing, you can receive that which you pay to get. Otherwise, the machine takes your money and your reward remains cold and distant.

This sounds simple enough, but it’s wrong. The world in which God crafted is not built on a quid pro quo. You cannot earn your way into God’s good graces. We do not get set the parameters on the variables as well as the controls. Yet, that’s exactly what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism believes and what a lot of churches teach.

If you ask me, this is our greatest sin. We’ve tricked ourselves into believing God can be earned and that our morality is transactional. This has caused a huge rift in the church.

Young adults are leaving organized religion in droves. Generation X and Baby Boomers are slipping away at an all-time rate too. Why? The answers are complex, but I believe somewhere in the middle of all of the ‘lost loyalty’ and ‘lack of enthusiasm for church’ sits the wrestling with what exactly the church is teaching. I believe people leave the church because the church is funneling Moralistic Therapeutic Deism down everyone’s throat and those looking for mystery and transcendence aren’t finding any of that at church.

A lot more needs to be said about this, and I want to spend my subsequent articles wrestling publicly with these thoughts. The energy of this conversation comes from my time away on Sabbatical this summer where I studied the “why,” “how,” and “what” of faith formation. What I’m discovering is the church has failed in recent years on it’s deliverables (the ‘what’) because it forgot “why” it was delivering in the first place.

As long as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the leading teaching strategy for the church, the longer we will remain in sin and the longer we will raise up generations who turn away from church.

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The Rev. Barrett Owen, pastor of

First Baptist Waynesboro in Waynesboro, is a

columnist for The News Virginian. His column is

published the first Friday of the month.

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