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.