Book Review: Almost Christian

Book Review: Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dean, a professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, wastes no time getting to the point of this bracing book. She opens chapter one by writing:

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.

Dean is not speaking idly. Drawing on serious and careful research, she shows that American Christianity is currently in crisis, although it may not be the crisis we think we have. Faced with ever bolder and more vocal atheism, many churches assume that our problem is that teens are rejecting faith due to pernicious outside influence. The reality is this: teens are not rejecting faith; they never truly had it to begin with. And the cause is not a determined hostile world; it is a weak and listless church. The sad irony of this moment is that, on the surface, American churches are devoting more resources to young people than ever before: dedicated youth ministers, consistent Bible class programs, vibrant summer camps, and global mission trips. It certainly seems as though we are doing all we can—no previous generation of young Christians has been given this level of supposedly spiritually formative resources. Yet we are reaping a harvest of mediocre faith that often doesn’t last more than a few months after high school graduation. What is going wrong?

The primary problem is that even young people who regularly attend worship tend to think of church as a valuable extracurricular activity, like their school’s band or sport teams—and churches haven’t given them much reason to think differently. While teens are inwardly longing for a purpose to which they can devote their lives, many churches fail them by offering “a kind of ‘diner theology’: a bargain religion, cheap but satisfying, whose gods require little in the way of fidelity or sacrifice.” The ski trips and youth hangouts offer fun for while, but they aren’t acquainting teenagers with a holy God who calls them to lives of radical service. Worse, the things that churches do to try to build faith often harm the spiritual formation process by replacing traditional structures that were more effective at creating disciples. Faith is formed best in multigenerational communities where young and old serve, pray, and study together, yet most American teens have almost no opportunity to bond with faithful adults: their Bible classes, camps, and mission trips are often filled with nothing but young people and one youth minister, with perhaps a few adults sponsors present. They have almost no opportunity to see how mature Christians integrate their faith and their life, and so they struggle to see how Christianity speaks to their world. Lacking both clear theology and faithful examples, the religious framework of many young people consists of what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton call “Therapeutic Moral Deism,” which says, in essence, that God wants people to be nice; the goal of life is to be happy and feel good; nice people go to heaven when they die; and God isn’t involved in my life except to help when I have a problem

If you have spoken about faith with many teenagers in the last decade or two, these beliefs probably sound familiar. They have taken root among American youth and shoved aside the core principles of authentic Christianity: that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, that his life modeled how we should live, that he died to cleanse our sins, that the work of the Spirit empowers us to continue in the divine work to which Jesus calls us. Rather than seeking daily to imitate the servant spirit of Christ through the Spirit’s power, teens are content to be “nice” and only call in God in a moment of crisis.

How does the church respond to this crisis? Dean calls for vigorous formative rituals: daily encounters with the divine through prayer and study, intergenerational work and reflection, a renewed sense of mission in the world, which makes demands of all church members, from oldest to youngest. Give teens a purpose and a calling and they will rise to the occasion. Show them through tangible behaviors what Christ has meant to us, and Christ will come to mean more to them.

Yet the most significant factor, by far, is not the sort of faith formation practices found in a teenager’s church, but those found in a teenager’s home. While there are always some young people who build a mature faith in spite of their parents’ indifference, and some who lose it in spite of their parents’ devotion, the number one predictor of enduring faith in a teenager is enduring faith in his or her parents. In her terms: “You get what you are.” The chief difference between an uncommitted teen and her parents is often that the lukewarm teen no longer feels the need to engage in the pretense of church attendance. “In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.”

Almost Christian is one of the most important books I have encountered. At turns disheartening, pragmatic, and hopeful, it lays out clearly the spiritual crisis before us and, in its own prophetic way, call for revival—not among the teenagers whose fate so deeply concerns us, but within the parents and church leaders whose own shortcomings are being reflected in our youth. This book is a clarion call. May it not fall on deaf ears.

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“It Doesn’t Matter Who is President, Jesus is Lord”

The wording varies from writer to writer, but the sentiment is the same: “No matter who is in the Oval Office, God is still on the throne of heaven.” “Regardless of who is president, what matters is that Jesus is Lord.” Amen; true enough.

And yet…

We need to be clear what we mean when we say this. I am afraid that for many people, the claim that “Jesus is Lord” leads them to the conclusion that “nothing bad can happen.” But Jesus was Lord when Hitler led the Holocaust. Christ was reigning when Stalin initiated the Great Purge. The Son held all authority in heaven and on earth when America stole the labor of black families and the lands and lives of native families. “Jesus is Lord” doesn’t mean “everything is okay.” It doesn’t mean “God approves of what is happening here.”

For others, “God is still on his throne” seems to mean “Things may be bad, but we don’t need to respond. God will take care of it in his way.” But God’s way has always been to enter into the hearts and hands of his people. When God chose to liberate the Israelite slaves, he called on Moses to find his courage and his voice. When God chose to rebuke the foul deeds of evil kings, he raised up the prophets. When God chose to stand against the abuses of institutional religion and the idolatries of empire, he raised up apostles, elders, deacons….and martyrs.

God will change the world. God will stand against evil. He will do it through your courage, your deeds, your voice, your service, and–if needed–your death.

Jesus is Lord…therefore we must not passively assume that everything that happens is good. We must learn to see right and wrong through his eyes. Jesus is Lord….therefore we must not quietly wait for God to set the world right. He has called us to take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus is Lord…therefore we take our orders from him, not Jerusalem, Rome, or Washington. Because he is Lord we are compelled to act, to speak, to move, to love. To answer the call of Christ is to kindle within yourself a love so pure that you will willingly give your life in service to your neighbors. It is to find within yourself a courage so deep that you will defy the king. Our tribe will not bend our knees to the golden statue, no matter how loud the music plays, how hot the furnace is stoked.

Because Jesus is Lord.

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A Lament

One of the students at our college recently suffered a truly heart-breaking loss, and I’ve been thinking about her all week, grieving with her as I grade papers and prepare lectures.  My life goes on; hers will never be the same.  I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to receive horrible news on a Saturday night, and go to some upbeat, seeker-sensitive attractional church Sunday morning.  I started to write an essay, but that wasn’t quite right, so I tried again as a homily, which was closer, but still not there.  It eventually wound up as a poem.  I don’t write poetry–not for years now, anyway–and I have a deep conviction that almost all amateur poets are awful.  This is probably awful, too.  But it’s the closest I can come right now to painting the picture I see in my mind.

A Lament

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.

The polished plaque is crisp brass,
with letters tall and even:
Sanctuary This Way
Around these words I see my reflected face:
unshaven, dark
I scrape down the hall, clad in
yesterday’s shirt, Friday’s pants.

Sunbeams stretch through stained glass,
making bold the jigsaw shapes of
wine and bread, sheep and shepherd
casting kaleidoscopes on a cool teal carpet.
I sit in the shadows, among the shades.

The drummer keeps a steady rhythm
Guitarists smile and strum.
And Jim, who I once knew in school,
Nearly laughs as he lifts his hands
“Let’s give the Lord a praise offering!”

I am stone.

Around me are the winners of the world,
The beautiful, the well-dressed
And they sing

God is so good
God is so good
God is so good
He’s so good to me.

They sing

You’re altogether worthy
Altogether lovely
Altogether wonderful to me

They clap and shout.
I clench my teeth.

The pastor is telling a football story.
A marriage story.
An old, old joke.
He recounts a scene from a sitcom,
The one about the pretty girl
“But not as pretty as my wife!”
And the lucky guys
“But not as lucky as we are!”

Laughter spills down the aisles.

I shut my eyes.

I wander inside myself
Meditating on horrible, hallowed images.
Twisted metal
Jagged wounds
The ventilator keeps a steady rhythm.

Amen, someone says.

The lucky ones clasp hands, slap backs.
In the lobby, there are coffee and donuts

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.
Not today.

I don’t have a praise offering.
I don’t have a testimony.

What I have is mismatched socks
A little whiskey on my breath
And a broken son on a hospital bed
A headstrong, rebel boy who vexes me
And who is more dear to me than my soul
A bruised and battered boy

A boy who can not wake.

But where can I go where someone else knows
What it is like to lose a son?


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To Aidan, Who Is Three Years Old

Hey, kid–

I started this right after your birthday, but it took me more than a month to get it finished.  Sorry for the delay.  Life is busy with the three of you right now.  Plus, I never felt that this quite captured everything I want to say to you.  But it’s close, and sometimes close is the best we can do.  Whatever I say in here about what you mean to me, quadruple that and you’ll be starting to get the idea.

Dad

——-

Dear Aidan,

We are back home in Laredo after a busy Spring Break trip to celebrate your third birthday.  We went up to Cleburne for a few days, where Uncle Kasey hosted your party, which was cowboy-themed.  You decided some weeks ago that you wanted a cowboy hat cake, a choice influenced partially by Woody from Toy Story, but largely by the cowboy-themed episodes of Dora the Explorer, which is still your favorite TV show.  So we made you a cowboy hat cake, and bought you a black hat of your own, and Uncle Kasey provided a big cowboy boot piñata filled with candy.  You might also see some pictures of a badly formed cowboy boot cake, which was a spontaneous creation built from the leftover pieces when we cut the hat shape out of the main cake.  It looks less like a boot than an out-of-fashion stocking, or some kind of orthopedic device, and we never brought it out of the kitchen.  It was worth a shot, but things don’t always work out.

The things you liked most about the party were your new hat, which you absolutely refused to take off, and the rock climbing wall on the playset in Kasey’s backyard.  You had never tried scaling it before, and after making it up a few times with some help, you mastered your technique and climbed it over and over, probably a dozen times all together.  It was the big accomplishment of your day, and really an impressive demonstration of skill and balance from a kid who just turned three. As far as presents go, you were appreciative of everything, but seemed most delighted with the Toy Story car Uncle Kasey and Tia Maria gave you, the toy drill from me and your mom, and the new Chuggington story for your V Reader from Grammy and Granddaddy.  (I hope you remember the V Reader when you are grown–it’s been your bedtime companion every night for a long, long time now.  Like Aletheia, you call it your Kindle, because you read stories on it, like I do with my Kindle.)

Rock Climbing on his Third Birthday
It is difficult on your birthday to avoid thinking about your rough start, your two weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and the weekly physical therapy sessions after your release to overcome your hypotonia.  No one who sees you today–the feisty, fearless, and remarkably nimble Climber of Barriers and Jumper from Furniture Although It Has Been Forbidden–no one would ever guess how fragile you were at the start.  I wish I had known back then, looking at you through the transparent shield of the oxygen tent, your pale skin illuminated by the red blinking lights of the sensors and alarms all around you, that just three years later my biggest worry for you would be that we will have to rush you to the emergency room to heal a broken bone if your play becomes a little too vigorous.

I know that someday you won’t be able to remember these years–strange thought that our three years together will be, at most, a vague impression in your adult mind!–so I want to record a few things about the three-year-old Aidan that the grown up version might like to know.   First, the simple things: in addition to being a very athletic child, you are a very quick learner.  Already you know all your colors, shapes, letters and letter sounds.  You can count to ten well and to twenty with a mistake or two along the way.  I’m pretty sure you have some sight words as well.  For the past several months, you have occasionally insisted on reading your own bedtime stories.  You are and always have been a healthy eater, and even though you have a horrible sweet tooth, you usually ask for nutritious snacks–especially apples.  You have eaten hundreds and hundreds of apples. Your favorite food is probably macaroni and hot dogs, although you also have shown great fondness for pizza, hamburgers, and spaghetti.  At the moment, your favorite movie is Puss N Boots, which you have easily watched twenty times in the last two weeks.  Your favorite books are the collections of Dora stories you inherited from your big sister. It’s hard to say what your favorite toy is, outside of the V Reader.  You love to play “restaurant” with Aletheia, using her kitchen and food toys as you take our food orders, ask for money, and then bring us what we asked for.  You like the little blue scooter you have, also a hand-me-down, and you like to color.  You are also very fond of the toy dinosaurs you have.  In fact, you just knocked on your bedroom door (it’s nighttime as I write this) to ask me to bring you your “T. Rex and ‘Ceratops.” I couldn’t find them, but you took the bad news pretty well.

Now, for the harder things to describe.

You are a natural optimist and encourager.  When someone else starts to get frustrated with a task, you chime in quickly and say “You can do it!” You especially do that for Aletheia–we must have heard “You can do it, sister!” dozens and dozens of times by now.  And you are very quick to smile and laugh.  Last night your mommy was reading you a story with a sad scene in it, and she asked you to make a sad face.  “I can’t do it, Mommy!” you said.  “I’m Aidan! I’m always happy!”  I find it fascinating that perpetual happiness is already a part of your self-image, and you’re pretty much right.  Aidan is always happy.

Maybe because of Aletheia’s interest in space, you are interested, too.  You often point to the wallpaper on my computer, the galaxy background that is the default setting for the current Macintoshes, and say “That’s the Milky Way!”  And there’s a bit of imaginative play that you and I and Aletheia do where we pretend to be going into space.  As it has developed, we start by choosing the colors of our space suits, and you will often come to me and say “Daddy! I’m going into space.  I have a yellow space suit.”  And then you’ll choose the colors for everyone else in the family, even Tessa.

Speaking of Tessa, you are very sweet to her, but I do wish you’d be a little more careful!  That baby has shed a lot of tears because you didn’t notice that she was in the way–but you are usually quick to try to make it up to her.  And I am glad that you never seemed to resent having a younger kid in the house, the way some children do, but have always been very welcoming to her.  You are unusually confident of your own place in the universe, though.  I don’t think something like an extra baby or two would ever throw you off kilter.  And maybe one advantage of being the only boy is a sense that your place in the family is unrivalled. 

I always wanted a sister and never got one, so I’m interested in seeing how you respond to being surrounded by girls in your family.  I always tell people that I think you’re lucky: you have a big sister to give you advice about girls, and a younger sister whose friends you can date.  At the very least, girls won’t be the weird, mysterious creatures that they always seemed like to me.  At worse, they’ll be weird and familiar, which should be of some benefit to you.

But beyond all that, I think what I wanted to say most–the thing I wanted to get down in words before these early childhood years become relegated to faulty, flickering memory–is how much I treasure the boisterous, intensely bonded relationship we have right now.  I wasn’t expecting that.  We especially enjoy rough play–tickle fights and pretend boxing and me swinging you upside down or throwing you through the air onto your bed.  It’s a different kind of play than I did with Aletheia at the same age, and is rewarding in a different kind of way.  You’ve brought a lot of energy into the family, which more than makes up for things like coating your bedroom door in black crayon last week.  Cleaning up some crayon graffiti is a small price to pay for the chance to share a home with a high-energy, endlessly optimistic, bold and daring encouragement machine. 

Your third year of life was a blast, kiddo.  Here’s looking forward to the rest of year four.

I love you.

Dad

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“Need is Not Belief”

A friend sent me this poem by Anne Sexton.  I’m adding it to my contemporary psalter for the doubting hearts. “Need is not belief.” Amen.

 

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Anger in the Church

Good stuff here by Debra Dean Murphy, especially this quote from Garrett Keizer: I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables.

I know well the pressure the be perennially nice in church–and the fear that if I wasn’t always nice, I would jeopardize my ministry career.  Looking back, I have too lengthy a list of times that I wanted to stand up and fight for some righteous cause, or do some much-needed rebuking, but smiled and nodded and said, “well, there’s another way to see that.” On rare occasions, “there’s another way to see that” does the job, but sometimes I failed to do what I was called to do by not knocking over any tables.

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The Church and Singles

Hey, guys:

There’s a lot that I’ve been wanting to blog about, but as the father of a five-year-old, an almost-three-year-old and a nine-month-old who is currently teaching an overload at the college (um, I’m doing the teaching, not the the baby), spare minutes to write are getting hard to find.  But I was in an email discussion among some preaching friends about what the church should preach on Valentine’s Day, and I said:

I’ll just add this: whenever I paid specific attention to married life and romance in my preaching, I spent equal time on singleness, and emphasized the unmarried lives of Jesus and Paul.  Married people tend to get a lot of attention and positive affirmation in churches, and that can leave singles feeling like they aren’t real people yet.  That’s unscriptural and damaging, especially in a culture where most people don’t marry until their late 20’s, and many are between marriages.

On the other hand, depending on the background of your congregation, you might want to make the affirmative case for marriage, given how many secular people don’t see the point of it anymore.  Have to get the secular folks to value commitment and get the churchy folks to honor singleness.

I was asked what it would look like if I were invited to preach a sermon honoring singleness, and my attempt to answer that turned into a rant I thought I would share here.  Disclaimer: this rant is ranty.

__________________________

Well, to be honest, my primary impulse is to tear down the idol of “family” which is often used as a synonym for “Christian” or “responsible.”  The biggest place you see this is in the term “family values,” which when used in conversation means “Christian values as I understand them” 90% of the time and means nothing at all the other 10%.  Or, I remember being at a pastors’ prayer breakfast with mayor once when the mayor said he didn’t like all the focus on “the Almighty dollar” in our town and wanted to replace it with “the Almighty family.”  I nearly fell out of my chair, since I was expecting his last word to be “God,” and I think I did drop down a few inches when assembled pastors burst into applause.  But most of them had been focusing on the family and promoting family values for so long that it might not have been a big stretch to just declare the family almighty and worship it.

I think I preached a sermon once called “Can Single People Have Family Values?” that tried to kick some of the stones out of the family altar the modern evangelical church has created.  What I’m afraid this does is create an expectation that real  Christians have spouses and kids, and if you don’t, you are either defective or in a sort of holding pattern while you’re waiting for your real life to begin.  Too many larger churches have singles’ classes that are functionally either “Youth Group 2.0” or not-so-thinly veiled elder-sponsored match-making services.  As someone who was single until 29 and hated that dynamic, I can attest that if you insist on showing up to just a normal adult class, there will be some people who try to gently steer you toward the kiddie table where you belong.  Or, consider this: if you have knowledge of biggish churches, you’ll find a lot of singles’ classes sponsored by a married couple, which is, again, a not-too-subtle hint that either (1) you guys can’t govern yourselves and need a real adult around here or (2) you would benefit from a living example of someone who has successfully gotten married, since that either is or should be your goal.  But how often do you hear about a couples’ class taught or sponsored by a single person?  “Never” is the answer in my experience.  Churches will choose someone who was married at 19 to lead a class of singles in their 20’s and 30’s even though that person has no experience in long-term singleness because we don’t value the experience of long-term singleness.  We value marriage, and they have proven they can get married.  We think long-term singles can learn from long-term married people–and, sure, they can–but we almost never reverse that.  And the fact that married people and single people are on such unequal footing in many churches, with the former always teachers and the latter always students, shows you how far we are from Biblical teaching.

And, as any unmarried preacher knows, you aren’t going to get very in a ministry career until there is a ring on your finger, in spite of the fact that almost all of the New Testament is either about an unmarried preacher (Jesus) or written by one (Paul).

Matthew 19 is one of the primary texts in this regard:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

I think it’s worth pointing out to the church that when the disciples say “Sounds like maybe it’s better not to marry!” Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t go that far!”  He says, “Yeah, for some people it is–and single living can be done for the sake of heaven,which means it is something that heaven honors and finds valuable, even if earth doesn’t.”  In fact, for several hundred years of the early church, it would have made a lot more sense to name an organization “Focus on the Singles” or to talk about “Single Values.”

A few quotes from a paper I once wrote about this topic:
Jerome, writing to Eustochium, a celibate woman of aristocratic heritage, encouraged her to realize her superiority over married women: “Learn from me a holy arrogance: know that you are better than they are!” Ambrose provided the corollary: “Those who decide to marry…must of necessity confess that they are inferior to virgins.”

We should also remember that the Lord also taught, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 24.26). In its haste to point out that Jesus did not literally mean “hate,” the contemporary church has neglected to teach that Jesus certainly did mean that family matters are subservient to kingdom concerns, and his disciples may be called upon to leave all those attachments behind. Certainly that was true of those he called during his earthly ministry.

The fact that Jesus taught both that that some are called to be eunuchs for the kingdom and that whoever comes to him must hate his family, and the church has still managed to make an idol of family life shows how powerful this dynamic is.  I think we’ve basically given into the impulse to take what is the norm in our society and declare it the standard that all should strive for.  It’s very reassuring for our married folk to be told they’ve done it the right way.  But the Bible at the very least, presents both married and single life as valued paths, and, honestly, by the time you really absorb Matthew 19, Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 7, it’s pretty easy to make the case that celibate singleness is the standard and marriage is a concession for people who can’t handle the higher calling.  This is a message most of the evangelical church is unable or unwilling to hear, even though it is right there in the Bible. And when a single person reads those passages and notices that they are either (1) never preached or (2) preached with so many disclaimers and caveats that there’s no message left by the end of the sermon, they see what’s going on.  We are going to do what it takes to continue honoring married people above singles even if we have to tape up the mouths and Jesus and Paul to do it.

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