xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: January 2015

Monday, January 26, 2015

Being Haunted by a Heresy, Part 1

January 27, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

I feel like I am being haunted.  And it is not a lot of fun.

What haunts me emerges from a book titled Almost Christian:  What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church by Princeton professor and United Methodist minister Kenda Creasy Dean.  I first learned about it from a clergy colleague a few years ago, and subsequently heard Dr. Dean speak at a conference in 2012. It is based on the work of the National Survey of Youth and Religion, a ten-year survey led by noted sociologist Christian Smith, covering over 3,300 teenagers regarding aspects of their religious belief and behavior. It is the largest, most comprehensive study of its kind.  Its conclusions have since resurfaced in my consciousness, prompting my re-reading of it last week. 

I cannot seem to shake its indictment of the contemporary American Christian church.

First, the good news.  One of its conclusions is that the typical American teenager is not “losing faith.”  They are not walking away from religious identities, or even denominational attachments.  They still readily and willingly identify themselves as belonging to one faith tribe or another, most commonly the same as their parents.  Second, the typical American teenager cannot be accurately described as “spiritual, but not religious,” which has become the catch phrase often used to describe disaffected, non-religious people.  The survey concluded that this label simply does not apply to teenagers today.  They are not walking away from the faith.

So what’s the bad news?  Well, there’s plenty.  It turns out that while they have not left the Christian faith, the faith that they do claim is a watered down, anesthetized shadow of traditional Christianity.  It is a form of Christianity so vastly different from that of the historic creeds that one scholar has termed it a modern heresy, clearly outside the bounds of the Christian faith, on the same scale as the heresies of the ancient church. [1]

This heresy is called Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.  That’s a long, complicated sequence of words, so I really like Kenda Creasy Dean’s quick and portable way to describe what Moralist Therapeutic Deism (henceforth “MTD”) claims:

·      My faith tells me to be nice.  (“Moralistic”)
·      My faith is nice to me when I need it. (“Therapeutic”)
·      God exists, but doesn’t really interact with me in any vivid, personal way.  (“Deism”)

That’s the simple version, but there are actually five tenets of MTD, outlined by Christian Smith:

1.     A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2.     God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3.     The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4.     God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5.     Good people go to heaven when they die.

Now, you might think to yourself, “Wait a minute.  What is particularly wrong about any of that?  Doesn’t our faith say that God created the world?  (Of course.)  Doesn’t God want us to live holy lives, and be righteous in our relationships with others?  (Sure.) And don’t we believe in a God who wants to alleviate our suffering and help us with our problems?  (Certainly.)  And don’t we believe in heaven?  (Yes.)

So what’s wrong with that? 

Well, Kenda Creasy Dean uses the following exercise to illustrate what exactly is wrong with that.  She invites her audiences first to consider the Apostles’ Creed, the traditional standard of Christian belief and teaching.  (I won’t restate it here, since you ought to know it by heart.)  What is the common feature in the Creed?  Well, it’s all about who God is.  It’s about the Trinity, and how the three persons of God have been uniquely expressed in the past, readily revealed in the present, and faithful into the future.  It is about the nature of this mysterious and mighty God. 

What does Moralistic Therapeutic Deism teach?  Well, let me take the five points stated above and see if I can construct a “creed” based on those beliefs:

I believe in a God who is real, but is basically uninvolved in my daily life.  I believe that I need to be nice to other people, treat people fairly, and work to make the world a better place to live.  I believe that my faith is here to give me comfort when I’m hurting, and helps other people cope with the struggles of their lives.  And I believe that at the end, things will all work out all right for those who do good.

Do you see the difference?  The Apostles’ Creed is all about God.  The MTD Creed is all about us.  That’s what makes it so heretical.

But here’s the real kicker.  Teenagers today did not construct this “creed” on their own.  They didn’t consciously go out to water down the Christian faith to little more than self-soothing pablum.  Do you want to know where they got it?

According to the Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean, they got it from us. 

·      They got it from their parents, who have consistently demonstrated with their lack of zeal and passion for the faith that Christianity really need not make much of a difference in their lives. 
·      They got it from churches that tend to only pray for things like illness and death, thereby portraying a God who is little more than a doctor in a M.A.S.H. unit. 
·      They got it from hearing repeatedly that it is permissible to use their reason and intellect at church – which, of course, is not only permissible, but encouraged – but do so to the point that they have lost their ability to wonder, to be in awe of God, to leave room for mystery, and even allow for the possibility of miracles.

And here’s the part that has been haunting me the most:  they get it from preachers like me, who consistently preach sermons that focus more on “how to live the best life” and “how to be comforted in times of trial” rather than challenging people to live a passionate, risk-taking, costly kind of faith.  They get it from one to many sermon series that are designed to be more like marketing ploys to get people into the pews, but wind up doing very little to change them while they are sitting there.  They get it from messages that closely resemble books they could just as easily find in the popular psychology section of the bookstore.  And they wind up hearing about a life that is virtually indistinguishable from a secular life of activism and do-goodism, tempting them to simply live a decent life apart from religious attachments.

No, they are not walking away from the Christian faith.  But they are clinging to a form of the Christian faith that is a pitiful shadow of its former self. 

That’s what’s haunting me. 

It’s haunting me because I can see that it is true.  I can see it in the lives of people I interact with regularly, in the secular world’s portrayal of religion, and in the way that many people – teenagers and adults alike – take a look at what the Christian church has to offer today and respond with the one word that summarizes it all:


So, there you go.  That’s where I am right now, and I know it’s not where God wants us to be.  There has to be a way out of it.  There has to be a means through which God is leading the church to reclaiming a vital faith, but still uniquely expressed to be relevant to today’s culture.  Maybe what I’m talking about is some kind of rejuvenating energy from the Spirit, the kind that our ancestors used to experience when they talked about “revival.”

And, do you know what?  Maybe John Wesley and the United Methodist Church have the keys to leading that charge.

I believe there is, and I believe there is something at the heart of the Wesleyan faith that holds the keys to just such a revival.  Not just of our denomination, but of the American church.

Want to know what I think that is?  Well, here’s a cliffhanger.  Stay tuned.  I’ll share it with you in next week’s Mid-Week Message

Grace and Peace,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

[1] The scholar I reference here just wrote a book on church heresies, which I have been asked to review and for which I have been asked to write a supplemental study guide.  Because it is not yet out for publication, I have been asked by the publisher not to disclose the author or the work.

Monday, January 19, 2015

To Everything There is a Season

January 19, 2015

Dear St. Paul's Family,

Yesterday, I shared this statement with the congregation, and would like to share it with you now:


January 18, 2015

The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  For nearly eight years, our season together has been among the most richly rewarding of my life and ministry, and I must share with you today that it is drawing to a close. 

This summer, my Bishop in Florida, Kenneth Carter, will be reappointing me to serve another congregation.

I share this news with an intensely mixed array of emotions.  On the one hand, it means that my daughters and I will be back in our hometown, where I grew up and where they were born, serving among colleagues that guided and clarified my ministry.  But I am also saddened to have to say good-bye to a congregation, and a community, that I have grown to love dearly and deeply.

We have much to remember and celebrate over the course of our eight years together.  But with any contribution I have made to your lives and this community, you have given to me and my family an equal share of yours.  It is no understatement to suggest that if I had to go through the kind of personal drama I have experienced over the past four years, I can think of no kinder, more nurturing, and more generous community than the one I have been privileged to serve here.  Even in my darkest, most difficult moments, Sunday mornings with you never failed to be as uplifting and encouraging to my spirits as I hope I have been to yours.

Bishop Carter is appointing me to serve as the senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida, which he has described as one of the one hundred largest congregations in the world.  More importantly than its size, Hyde Park is the place where I served as an associate pastor for seven years, under the tutelage of my friend and senior pastor Jim Harnish, honing the skills which I employed in service to you.  It is where Madelyn was baptized, where the girls grew up, and in a city where I have dozens of relatives within a thirty minute drive, including my parents, brothers, and their families.

In making this announcement, part of my sorrow is tempered by my strong belief in the connectional system of the United Methodist Church, which follows a process to find the best pastor for the right churches at the right time.  That same process that brought me to you will inevitably bring you the best pastor to succeed me.  It will be done in consultation with your Staff-Parish Committee, led by John Chalstrom.  Our itinerant system, which moves pastors around from church to church, might be seen by some as a burden when pastors have to leave, but it does ensure that I will always have a church to serve, and that this church will always have a pastor.  Because you are a United Methodist congregation, you don’t ever have to worry about going out and finding a pastor to serve you. 

As for the immediate future, I intend to serve among you until the end of June, until my term in Tampa begins on July 1.  The girls, under a new visitation arrangement with their mother, will stay with her from July until Mid-August, when they will come down to join me to begin our new life together.  And because they will be making frequent trips to Sioux City to see their mother, don’t be surprised if I tag along and make an occasional side trip to Cherokee to reconnect with many of you.

In the meantime, we still have six months together, and I look forward to what still lies in store.  We have a Pancake Race next month, along with Holy Week and Easter morning, Confirmation Sunday, Graduation Sunday, and one final Vacation Bible School.  There are many more laughs, joys, and poignant moments to share.

Ultimately, I want you to hear how incredibly grateful and humbled I am to have been your pastor for this length of time.  It has been, and will continue to be, a transformative experience in my life and ministry.  Every church I serve from now on, including the one I go to serve this summer, will be impacted by your imprint on my life. 

You have put God’s love into action in me. Now you will put God’s love into action through me.  And I will always thank God for you. 

Grace and Peace,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955


Dear Friends in Christ of the St Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cherokee,

Today I share with you the wide range of emotions that come with an announcement such as the one that Pastor Magrey has made.  But along with the sadness of coming “good byes” is the hope of a new chapter in the life of Pastor Magrey and St Paul’s.

I look forward to working with your Staff Parish Relations Committee in the coming days to provide for the ongoing pastoral leadership of this congregation. While this means that there will be a change in pastors this summer, the ministry of St Paul’s United Methodist Church will continue as it has for 157 years since its founding in 1858.  

In the coming months we will want to give Pastor Magrey, Grace and Madelyn our prayers and support as we all prepare together for this time of change. The good news is that God’s guidance will be there to help us grow through this season of transition.

Your fellow servant in Christ, 

Tom Carver

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Harry Potter and the Imaginative Incarnation

January 13, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Among the many highlights from our recent trip to Florida was a stop at the Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando, where my daughters and I visited the new “Diagon Alley” section of the Harry Potter theme park. The experience was everything we were expecting it to be: immersive, meticulously detailed, and crowded.  The butter beer was sweet but not sickeningly so, the ride through Gringott’s Bank was a thrill, and the store fronts were lifted straight from the pages of the books:  Wiseacres Wizarding Equipment, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.  Add to that an amazing ride on the Hogwart’s Express (complete with Station 9 and ¾), and it was like the written words of J.K. Rowling had leapt to life.

The original Harry Potter “Hogsmeade” park opened in 2007, to much fanfare and excitement among rabid fans called “Potterheads,” among whom my daughters and I count ourselves.  However, I do remember hearing comments from several die hard fans, including a few of my friends, who were dismayed that this beloved story had been turned into a theme park. 

Their concern was not so much that the books would become over commercialized, or that they were turning them into a profit-making machine.  Rather, they believed that this theme park would undermine the imaginary world that readers like them had constructed in their own minds.  They had developed such an intimate relationship with the story that they had their own sensory impressions of the look of the stores, the taste of the food, and the sounds of the streets.  They felt that inevitably, a theme park would offer a concrete contradiction to their own convictions about the story. The same complaint could be made about each of the eight films, as they not only departed from the books on several key points, but undermined the one gift that great books afford the reader: the unleashing of imagination.

I’ll admit those friends have a good point.  It’s hard for me to re-read the Harry Potter books with my daughters without picturing the face of Daniel Radcliffe as the lead.  And when Rowling describes the Great Hall of Hogwarts Castle, or the darkened streets of Knockturn Alley, or the unpredictable tastes of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, I can say to myself, “Seen it, done it, tasted it.” When there is little left to the imagination, there is little reason left to imagine. 

But then I took it one step further.  As we walked through the park, I remembered that just a week prior, we had observed together the greatest example of a story coming to life.

When John wrote the prelude to his gospel, he described the coming of Jesus with precise, poetic language.  He called Jesus “the Word,” which essentially named him as the chief expression of God’s saving activity in the world. Jesus was the pinnacle of the salvation story that God wanted to tell the world. 

And how did this Story come to life?  Not through a theme park or a film, but through something so imaginative that it could only come from the mind of a creative God.  The second person of the trinity, who was fully divine, became fully human.  It was a mystery for the ages, that no human mind could conceive.  One plus one became one.  The Word became flesh. 

The incarnation of Jesus was a most imaginative solution to the problem of sin.  And when he came to earth, he unleashed that imagination onto his followers.  He spoke in parables and performed miracles, upending conventional wisdom, and challenging predisposed behaviors. He expanded people’s worldviews, enlightened them to hidden truths, and introduced them to a whole realm of reality so fantastical that he preached about it more than any other subject:  The Kingdom of God. 

Then take it one final step further.  If the church is the body of Christ, then we are called to that same imaginative storytelling to the world.  Not through building theme park experiences, where worship and programming become mere avenues for entertainment and consumerist tendencies.  Not through catering to popular culture, by reducing sacred language and ancient doctrines down to the ideologies and terminologies of the street.  But by embodying the very same inspired impulses that characterized Jesus himself.  Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.  Seeking to serve, rather than be served.  Seeking sight for the blind and setting the captives free.  Building our lives on rock, rather than sand.  Believing that the last will be first and the first will be last.

You and I are called to be living expressions of God’s ongoing salvation story.  We can offer to others an immersive encounter with Jesus, better than any thrill ride, more realistic than any theme park.  We can show people the living Word, then watch their imaginations run wild. 

Grace and Peace,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955