The National Study of Youth and Religion has shown that teenagers highly devoted to faith have families and churches that provide support. Specifically, this support reinforces four cultural tools that set young people firmly in their religious tradition (Almost Christian, 49):
1. They 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.
4. They have hope for the future promised by this story.
If we wanted to look at one group who does this extremely well, and Kenda Dean spends an entire chapter on this group in Almost Christian, we should look at Mormons: “Mormons invest heavily in teaching young people to exemplify and promote Mormon beliefs and behaviors. By intentionally reinforcing the significance of Mormonism’ 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).
Dean gives us a glimpse of how this plays out in Mormon subculture. More than half of Mormon teenagers wake up at 5 AM, every school day for four years, to attend “seminary”. During this time various religious practices are emphasized and students are also given advice on planning for their two-year commitment to service and evangelism. This two-year missionary service functions as a premier rite of passage for Mormons. Also, throughout their whole lives, families do devotions together and, at the urging of the church, have weekly family nights.
When it comes to developing highly committed youth, Mormons win! But briefly at the end of the chapter, and setting the stage for coming chapters, Dean turns from sociology to theology. It would be tempting, I think, for Christians to look at how well Mormons do and simply copy them (Mormon parents wake their kids up at 5 AM for an hour of religious study, we should do that too! Mormons require two years missionary service, so should we!) What this leaves out is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and Grace: “Christian formation is less about acquiring cultural tools than surrendering them, placing ourselves – cultural tools and all – at the disposal of a God who transforms them, and us, into means of grace“ (Almost Christian, 60).
What I take away from this chapter is that Christians can learn a lot from Mormons but, like anything else, we should not just uncritically swallow it. Mormonism is a distinctly different religion in their understanding of who Jesus is and how humans are made right with our Creator. It is tempting to say it works for them, let’s do it! In the same way, it is probably tempting to copy off of corporations, other churches or whomever we observe that has been “successful.” To some degree, this may be okay for the simple reason that all truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found. We can learn lessons in surprising places. But at the end of the day, we cannot ignore the distinctives of historic Christian faith: Grace and the Incarnation. In the name of “success” it is tempting to ignore such things that the Scripture itself often calls stumbling blocks. But if we sacrifice these vital truths in order to create devoted young people it begs the question,what exactly are they devoted to?