As part of his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Ministry to Emerging Generations (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Tom’s written a number of book responses and given several short presentations (personal and group). In this series he not only “shares the wealth,” but also looks forward to your feedback as he refines his project: An argument for vocational discernment for graduate studies in the context of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Stay tuned to learn more!). Earlier posts on the program: Ministry to Emerging Generations and The Big Picture of Ministry to Emerging Generations.
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church
Kenda Creasy Dean begins Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010):
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 survive long after they graduate from high school.
One more thing: we’re responsible.
If the American church responds, quickly and decisively, to issues raised by studies like the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR)—the massive 2003-05 study on adolescent spirituality in the United States that served as the original impetus for this book—then tending the faith of young people may just be the ticket to reclaiming our own (3).
In her reflective and research-filled work, Dean disturbingly explores how the religiosity of American teenagers reflects “their parents’ religious devotion (or lack thereof) and, by extension, that of their congregations” (3-4). As one raised in a context all too sympathetic to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) and who encountered the love of Jesus the Christ at Grove City College through a community of students and faculty, I connected not only with Dean’s concerns, but also her faith journey (196-197). Furthermore, for almost two decades I have confronted the “semireligious” “imposter faith” of the “nice” “almost Christian” dependent upon the American Dream brought to college by many students. This is clearly at odds with the “altogether Christian” desiring the Kingdom of God (6, 5). Truly, “[a]t issue is our ability, and our willingness, to remember our identity as the Body of Christ, and to heed Christ’s call to love him and love others as his representatives in the world” (6).
I confess blaming youth ministries, as “the de facto research and development branch of American Christianity,” for the bargain “diner theology” (10) of MDT. I considered youth ministry as the host for the symbiote (12-15), “supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in American churches” (7) in “the rich relational soil of families, congregations, and mentor relationships where young people can see what faithful lives look like, and encounter the people who love them enacting a larger story of divine care and hope” (11). It was not until recent years that I sought to engage parents in “conversational Christianity” in the midst of their family’s “trust walk” and “pilgrim journey” besieged by a number of worldly pressures (139-156, 7).
Dean’s central interest is to address how the twenty-first-century church can “better prepare young people steeped in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for the trust-walk of Christian faith” (22). Does she deliver with confidence on this theme lacking in the NSYR? Not exactly, “When it comes to vapid Christianity, teenagers are not the problem—the church is the problem. . . . the church also has the solution” (189). Her greatest hope appears to be the model of creed, community, call, and missional imagination offered by the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). I concur that conservative Protestants can improve by the development of a radically particular Christian creedal catechesis including intergenerational mentoring, translation, testimony, and detachment. I am encouraged that the Spirit renews Dean in her labors through walking with youth “into God’s plans for them,” her testimony, and the “mileage” not only of God’s walk with her, but also many adults in “the community Christ calls us to be” (197). Becoming “little Christs” part of a Body of Christ where religious formation is not by accident, cultural tools are harnessed, the love of Christ (extended by one who died for us) is known to be worth dying for, and there is a participation in the imagination of a sending God is “more than enough” to resist Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (195-197).
As a campus minister, a parent of four children, and an active member of a local congregation, I resonate with Dean’s wrestlings. But I find her portrayal of LDS too positive. The glue of their internal community goes beyond proper Christian faith relationships and they have an inappropriate plausibility structure for their celestial reward for their labors on earth. I recommend researching the Brethren in Christ, Mennonites, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and PCA for alternative structures.