Beckett: Review – Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church

Author: Kenda Creasy Dean
Publisher: Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Rating: 4/5 stars

Review

As one reads Almost Christian that’s based on the 2003-2005 National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) study, I would be remiss not to discuss at least in part Kenda Creasy Dean’s indictment against the American Church: we adults are to blame for the “theological fault line running underneath American churches: an adherence to a do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow him into the world” (4) that has resulted in what we now call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a bastard offspring of Christianity.

For those unfamiliar with MTD, the basic tenets are:

  1. “A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over 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 is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  5. “Good people go to heaven when they die” (13-14).

Some or all of this might sound fine to you, but there are inherent problems with this false religion. While #1 is true, it is not entirely true. It is not merely god but the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). And this God is, in fact, personally involved with creation and His creatures.

#2 is also not entirely true. While kindness is one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), Christians are also called to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12), which is the world is prone to call “unkind” or “not nice/fair.”

#3 is an outright lie. While Scripture speaks much on the joy of the Lord (e.g. Psalm 94:19; Nehemiah 8:10), Jesus did not come to “make you happy.” Jesus came not to “call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). We are perfectly happy as we are in our sins, yet Jesus comes to call us away from this “happiness” and into a sanctified (holy) way of living, which will not make you happy all the time. I might want to consume an entire party-sized bag of Smartfood popcorn, but the Law that condemns gluttony reminds me I shouldn’t do this, thus upsetting my happiness.

#4 is also an outright lie. This tenet of MTD is the part that treats God like a therapist or a vending machine. This tenet is also not congruent with both the Old and the New Testaments’ testimony to God’s relationship with His people. God literally does not leave His people alone; He is an active participant in the life of His people, especially as our Father. MTD treats God as an absent Father rather than as one who disciplines and chastens His children whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6), which will also upset our “happy” experience.

Lastly, #5 is an outright works righteousness theology and entirely antithetical to the Gospel. Good works do not get us to “heaven.” St. Paul says this most clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Not only do good works colossally fail to get us into Heaven, but there’s also the unhappy fact that no one is good (Romans 3:10-12; Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Luke 18:19). #sorrynotsorry

Moving on, Dean’s allegation that the invention of this counterfeit Christianity is our fault has grand potential to offend the reader because in most academic and ecclesial conversations about the dearth of youth attendance and participation in the church, we often blame the youth and/or their culture. Yet according to Dean and the research her book is based on, it is actually our fault.

This brings cause for some serious self-reflection: “Are we to blame? Am to blame? How have we as a church contributed to the ‘do-good, feel-good spirituality’ of faith in youth? How have contributed to it?”

This pervasive problem, which I agree with, has less to do with the content of our teaching and more to do with the practice of our teaching. As Dean writes, “The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but 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” (11).

In other words, while we might be teaching orthodoxy, in practice the way we live teaches youth that what we teach doesn’t really matter. In our behaviour, we teach that what matters is not the transformative power of Jesus as you pick up your cross daily and follow Him in the real world, but simply being a “nice person” who doesn’t offend anybody with the church functioning as the waiting room while you wait for your therapist to show up who is some enigmatic guy named “God.” To make it worse, we make this false version of Christianity into a social club.

To put it another way, at issue is not what we confess (the content of our orthodoxy and pedagogy), but how we confess (our practice/behaviour). The content of our teaching does not match the cruciform behaviour (i.e. sanctified living) we’re supposed to have as Christians.

The reason why this is highly vital for us to consider is that “[m]ost U.S. teenagers mirror their parents’ religious faith… to a very high degree” (18). Children spend significantly more time with their parents than they do with their pastor(s) and other adults in the congregation and the world. Therefore, the people who have the most influence over their children’s faith and how they live out their faith in the world is their parents. Furthermore, the church herself is not only to blame, but especially the parents.

While some may consider anecdotal evidence a form of fallacy, this was my own experience in my teenage years. At the time this study was taken (2003-2005), I would’ve been one of those teenagers the study aimed to survey (being 13- 15-years-old). Although both my parents were raised in the church in their childhoods (in fact, they met in church), they seldom took my siblings and I to church and there was exceedingly little to no talk of God in the home (thus, the parents modeling faith is not only vital, but so is faith conversation, which Dean deals with extensively throughout the book).

I have no memory of having faith conversations with my parents or my parents talking about faith with each other. Any talk of God literally boiled down to my dad saying a prayer before dinner every night. God was left as the “elf on the shelf” who watched you for any error you’d take—the eminent judge who was not there for you but against you.

As a result, faith, church, and God (and Jesus) did not matter much to me at all. (I was aware of this guy named Jesus who died on the cross, but I was never taught—in the church or at home—why this was so important, let alone for me.) Not only was I among the teenagers who was unable to articulate my faith (which was minimal to non-existent to begin with), but God (let alone Jesus) was also unimportant to how I live.

Therefore, I agree with the NSYR’s findings not only based on their empirical data, but also because much of what it describes matches my own childhood and teenage experience with church as well as faith in the home.

However, “To be sure,” Dean pointedly says, “churches neither intend nor acknowledge this religious position,” referring to MTD (30). Our (poor) behaviour of teaching MTD to youth is due to our wilful ignorance significantly more than active pedagogical methods that aim to teach an impersonal God and cheap grace.

Whether or not someone agrees with Dean and the NSYR as I do, the question every adult and parent should ask themselves is, “Do we practice the kind of faith that we want our children to have” (39)? If we answer this question honestly, we will say, “‘Yes, we do.’ The simple truth seems to be that young people practice an imposter faith because we do—and because this is the faith we want them to have. It’s that not-too-religious, ‘decent’ kind of Christianity that allows our teenagers to do well while doing good, makes them successful adults without turning them into religious zealots, [and] teaches them to notice others without actually laying their lives down for any of them” (39).

Ouch.

This might seem critical, but it’s a well-earned criticism. However, there are, of course, exceptions to this rule. There exists few congregations and parents who model well for their children how to live as Christians in the world.

What I Learnt

So, we know what the problem is. The problem is us. Now how do we resolve it? Surprisingly (I say this facetiously), the answer comes down to catechesis, which we can also call Christian formation. Yet what was genuinely surprising to me was learning from Mormons, a body of heretics!

According to the NSYR’s findings, Mormons “topped the charts” in religious devotion among their youth (47). Why is this the case? Dean notes, “[T]heir cultural toolkits include a creed, a community, a call, and a hope that reinforce what Mormons believe, who they belong to, why they are here, and how they should live” (48). From the empirical evidence, it appears they take sanctification—or what we’d call the third use of the Law—more seriously than we Lutherans do!

So, what can we learn from them? Perhaps that they take our doctrine of vocation more seriously than we do. What would happen if we began teaching our youth that their vocational interests are first article gifts from God Himself? What would happen if the things that mattered to them actually mattered to us? Even things like as science, service, YouTube, Reddit, video games, and other seemingly unimportant cultural things?

Learning from the Mormons, Dean provides “four cultural tools” as follows: “(1) they [young people] confess their tradition’s creed, or God-story; (2) they belong to a community that enacts the God-story; (3) they feel called by this story to contribute to a larger purpose; and (4) they have hope for the future promised by this story” (49). To put this into Lutheran terms, how do we help youth incorporate the Story of Everything—God’s Story—into our youths’ creed, community, calling (vocations), and hope (both practical and eschatological)?

Even more, how do we help and encourage our youth to move from head knowledge to corporeal living? For example, besides the goal being to memorise the Creed (or the entire Small Catechism), how do we teach that this Confession and its content actually matters and shapes how they live in the world according to their community, vocation, and hope for the future?

An important caveat before we move on, “the mere presence of such cultural tools does not guarantee faith” (49). The Holy Spirit creates faith, not ecclesial “toolkits.” Dean is wise to note this throughout her book. Still, the easiest way to begin such corporeal living in the catechesis of youth is via their parents, especially the father, just as Luther intended in the Small Catechism, “As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.” What Dean intimates is instrumental to how we conduct future Christ-centred catechesis:

Cultural tools, therefore, are not “magic bullets” for faith formation. The “form” implied in Christian formation is Jesus Christ. Christian communities employ cultural tools in order to imitate Christ, believing that the Holy Spirit’s presence in human communities can alter these human tools into vehicles of divine grace and transformation. Still, because faith does take shape in human communities, we cannot ignore the sociological dimensions of religious identity. Before mature faith can emerge, young people must learn what the cultural tools available in their faith communities mean, how to employ them, and why they are significant for “people like us.” And that requires the people nearest to teenagers—parents, youth leaders, pastors, congregations, interested adults—to use these cultural tools as well. (pp. 49-50; emphasis mine)

Thus, what we learn from Mormons is, “By intentionally reinforcing the significance of Mormonism’s particular God-story, by immersing young people in a community of belonging, by preparing them for a vocation and by modeling a forward-looking hope, Mormons intentionally and consistently create the conditions for consequential faith—so much so that Mormon teenagers are more likely than teenagers from any other group to fall in the category of young people the NSYR called highly devoted” (50).

The question is, of course, how we can take what we’ve learnt from the Mormons’ focus on sanctified living to a Lutheran practice that is focused through the lens of the cross (a theology of the cross) while still maintaining the importance of sanctification.

Despite being heretical, Mormons take sanctification more seriously than we Lutherans do, sadly. We are rather passive, or lazy, about it rather than what our theology actually says: that sanctification is active in the world (active righteousness). We often confuse our active/sanctified righteousness with our passive/justified righteousness, thinking we don’t have to do anything in the world since we are justified by grace through faith.

Yet this is precisely the lazy living that has led to the counterfeit Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that many youth practise because that’s what we ourselves do with such law-gospel reductionism. To put it another way, we heighten Ephesians 2:8-9 while ignoring verse 10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Instead of walking in them, we are couch potatoes in our justification.

Criticisms

Instead of her being a female “pastor,” one rather simple criticism I have is Dean’s propagation of “feeling very close to God” as a mark of devout faith among youth (e.g. page 46). I’m cautious about feelings of closeness to God being a factour we should seriously consider because feelings are unreliable. Feelings do not always necessarily convey truthful reality.

For example, in teaching justification by faith, you are pardoned from all your sins because your faith in Christ does not depend on whether you “feel” this is true or even if you “feel close to God.” Even when you don’t feel close to God—whatever that means—the reality that you are saved by grace through faith alone is not based on whether you feel this is true but merely on the sole factour that God’s efficacious Word has declared it true and real (hence Ephesians 2:8-9). God has determined your salvation already in Christ; your feelings have nothing to do with it.

To consider a teenager’s feelings of closeness to God as a factour for devout faith inevitably supplants the efficacy of God’s Word and Christ’s work done for you with erratic teenage hormones. However, if “feeling close to God” is how a teenager is able to articulate the importance of their faith to them, just go with it as they continue to be catechised.

Another important criticism I have is Dean’s heightened emphasis on youth pastors throughout the book. For example, she writes, “Among other things, [churches where young people exhibit highly devoted faith] are more likely to have full time youth ministers, a variety of programs for teenagers, and opportunities for youth to participate in religious practice and leadership” (83). A quick note on programs: Very early in her book, Dean writes, “So we must assume that the solution lies not in beefing up congregational youth programs or making worship more ‘cool’ and attractive, but in modeling the kind of mature, passionate faith we say we want young people to have” (4; emphasis mine). So, just how seriously should I take programs for youth in the church?

Yet my main criticism is not with the veracity of this statement but its practicality. As our own church body can attest to, not every congregation can afford full-time youth pastors. In fact, in many small congregations a youth pastor is irrelevant because there simply aren’t enough youth! So, just how valuable is this insistence on the presence of youth pastors in congregations when the large majority of congregations in the United States—not just in Lutheranism—are small?

This is great for congregations that can afford a youth pastor, or even several, but what about the silent majority? What about sole pastors who have a small amount of youth present? How can he and the congregation work with their youth together, few as there may be?

In fact, Dean later admits a fault in youth ministry, “Most youth ministries—even those with strong missional leadership—capitulate to the culture of the sponsoring congregation over time (between the high percentage of short-term volunteers, the high turnover of youth ministers, and the graduation rates of teenagers themselves, pastoral continuity is extremely difficult to maintain in youth ministry” (93). By her own admittance, albeit indirect and unintentional, we should heighten our focus on the sole pastor who has a much lower turnover rate and a much higher pastoral continuity than youth pastors.

Recommendation

Overall, would I recommend this book to pastors, leaders in the congregation, and interested laypeople? Yes, but to take it with a grain of salt. The NSYR study is 15-years-old, so the information provided in the book is definitely outdated. However, I believe the remnants of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are still present within many of our congregations. If anything, this book would be a great conversation starter for the pastor to begin with the adults in his flock.

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