You have got to love a book that starts like this: “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” (3). That is how Kenda Creasy Dean begins her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. This book is based on the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), a massive study of teenagers (and young adults – see Souls in Transition by Christian Smith…and my blogs on that book.).
I am excited to read this book. One reason is that there are definitely numerous similarities between teenagers in this book and the college students I work with. Also, the faith of teenagers reflects that of their parents and the church as a whole. So this book provides a window into the state of faith in our country. Teenagers have not developed a lackadaisical faith in a vacuum, instead they have learned it from the church.
Dean writes clearly, concisely, and with wonderful imagery. At least based on the first chapter, this book would be a fitting and easy read (not to mention, a must-read) for Christian leaders, parents and many otehrs. She compares the American church to Esau in Genesis, trading his birthright for some stew:
“Like Esau, American Christians tend to think with our stomachs, devouring whatever smells good in order to keep our inner rumblings at bay, oblivious even to our own misgivings. Sociologists paint American Christians as restless people who come to church for the same reasons people once went to diners: for someone to serve us who knows our name, for a filling stew that reminds us of home and makes us feel loved, even while it does a number on our spiritual cholesterol” (8).
She argues that churches offer teenagers a “diner theology” which consists of a religion that is cheap but never satisfying, easy and requiring no sacrifice. The NSYR has described the religion of American teenagers as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:
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 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 (14)
This is the religion teenagers are learning in churches and it is supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in the United States. For the record, when I talk to college students, I see this affirmed. This is how young people think of religion (although as a side-note, this also appears to be the “civil religion” of American life that we hear many politicians and political commentators talk about; a religion that is fine with God but not keen on Jesus). Ironically, churches spend more time ministering to youth then ever before and youth ministers are better educated and stay in churches longer. The NSYR has shown that while youth ministry matters, it cannot be separated from the Church as a whole, or the family of the teenager. One question this book seeks to answer is how the church can better prepare young people, who are steeped in the religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, to develop a vigorous Christian faith (22). The answer is not simply to get more teenagers to come to church. After all, it is church that is practicing MTD. The solution is a more faithful church (23). According to Dean, meeting this challenge is vital:
“If we fail to bear God’s life-altering, world-changing, fear-shattering good news (which, after all, is the reason the church exists in the first place) – if desire for God and devotion to our fellow human beings is replaced by a loveless shell of religiosity – then young people unable to find consequential Christianity in the church absolutely should default to something safer. In fact, that is exactly what they are doing” (24).