I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, “Mothers Of Teenagers Know Why Animals Eat Their Young.” Teenagers have always confounded adults. We wonder, “Why are they like that?” More specifically, “Why aren’t they more like us?” Actually, teens are too much like us, contends Kenda Creasy Dean, professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton, in her just-released book “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church”. Dean’s book grew out of the comprehensive 2008 National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) report. The study revealed, among other things, that while three out of four American teens claim to be Christian, only half of that number consider it important, and fewer than half actually practice their faith as a regular part of their lives.
Teenagers, it appears, are hazy copies of their parents, created in their image but only dimly mirroring their faith. The product of what Dean claims is a mutated “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD) form of Christianity, a “tacit religious outlook that is quite distinct from Christianity.” This religious outlook is propagated by parents (as well as many churches) and holds to the idea that life’s primary goal is to be happy and feel good about oneself and that, while God watches over us and wants us to be good, he is not really involved in life except when we need him. God is ultimate absent father. And Jesus? Well, he is more like the “embarrassing relative we introduce to others with apologies to alleviate their (or our) discomfort.” This, it appears, is what the prevailing American brand of Christianity has become.
Youth surveyed in the NSYR study ranged from 8% Devoted to 12% Disengaged, with the largest majority in-between as either Regular or Sporadic in their involvement in religious faith. Among them, the feel-good MTD approach to religion has devolved into a lackluster “imposter faith that poses as Christianity” but which has abandoned “the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship.” According to the study, contemporary youth largely view Christianity as “a very nice thing” but without any real significance in their lives. As products of the Information Age, they can talk about almost everything except their faith. The majority are “incredibly inarticulate” about religion and “lack a theological language to express their faith.” This, too, may be something they have inherited from MTD parents and churches.
That’s the diagnosis. So, what is the cure? Well, it’s not youth ministries alone, although they can be a great source of guidance and help, but rather it’s “the rich relational soil of families, congregations, and mentor relationships” that foster a reverential and missional (i.e., others oriented) approach to faith. Dean lists these four things teens need: a personal encounter with God, a strong church or youth group, a sense of being called to duty, and a hope for the future. These things the church can supply when and if it decides to actually be The Church.
Almost Christian Kenda Creasy Dean (Oxford Press, 264pgs, $25h)