I’ve been reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s fascinating book Almost Christian: What The Faith Of Our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church.
The book deals with the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) conducted in 2003-05. The study examined adolescent spirituality in the United States.
Dean helpfully tells us the point of her book right up front:
Let me save you some trouble. Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith – but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survivie long after they graduate from high school.
One more thing: we’re responsible.
On the surface this is certainly nothing new. The American Church has known, for quite some time, that our young people, by and large, leave the church the first chance they get, which is usually college. This is not anything new. But what makes Dean’s book worth reading is her indictment of the American church at large. In response to our leaking churches, our response has often been to beef up youth ministries, re-train youth ministers and re-examine our books of engaging-but-fun-that-leads-to-meaningful-conversations activities. We seem to have operated under the assumption that our young people just don’t get it and that’s why their leaving. If only we could find that better way to communicate Christianity, they wouldn’t leave. But Dean turns this assumption on its head by asking:
What if the blasé religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all? What if the church models a way of life that asks, not passionate surrender but ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith, and a hands-off God instead of the decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today? If this is the case – if theological malpractice explains teenagers’ half-hearted religious identitites – then perhaps most young people practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism not because they reject Christianity, but because it is the only “Christianity they know.
One brief word of explanation if you’re not familiar with the phrase “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This is the belief that religion exists to make us “nice people” and better citizens and that God is there when we need Him but hands-off all other times. Faith is important to make us nice and God is there as our Therapist but aside from that, faith matters little in actual, day-to-day life. Dean and others argue that this is has become the dominant mutation of American Christianity and that young people leave the faith, not because they reject it but primarily because they’ve never been convinced that it matters.
This indictment must at least be considered. What if we have simply watered-down the Gospel message to the point where we think that God’s love for us means we deserve good parking spots and all He really asks of us is that we be “nice.” What if the problem is not that we haven’t communicated well to our young people but that we have taught them exactly what we believe? Dean asserts that:
we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on “folks like us” – which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all.
When Joel Osteen sells millions of books promising us our best life now, when sermons are reduced to pragmatic steps towards a better ______, should we really be surprised that our young people don’t believe that Christianity is a “big deal”? After all, do we really believe it ourselves?
• Read Almost Christian