One of the central questions the NSYR gives input on is what factors in a teenager’s life put her on a path to being a committed religious adult? It would be tempting to read a book like Almost Christian looking for the “key” to making teenagers into lifelong people of faith. If that is what a reader looks for, it may be found. The problem is that it may be found by losing grace. It is apt then that Dean begins the next chapter by saying that it is a “delusion” to believe that human effort can generate mature faith.
Dean emphasizes the missionary nature of the church. She says that God is the original missionary, “crossing every boundary imaginable in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ” (64). The God we see in Jesus Christ loves us enough to suffer on our behalf. This God sends us into the world to practice this same self-sacrificial love for others (65).
Such self-giving love counters every human instinct for self-preservation. But it is self-preservation that goes along with Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD), the faith of young people. MTD teaches that there is a God who wants us to be nice and who is there for us if we need help. The conflict is clear: is religion about self-giving or self-preservation?
From this, Dean goes through the four cultural tools that, the evidence shows, do contribute to building strong faith in teenagers.
Confessing Belief in a Creed or God-Story
“Even if I have a warm personal relationship with Jesus, I also need an account of what’s so special about Jesus to understand why my relationship with him is so important. If I think about dedicating my life to following him, I need an idea about why he’s worth following. Without such accounts and ideas, Christian feeling and Christian behavior start to fade to generalized warm fuzziness and social conventions” (Theologian William Placher, quoted on p. 70)
Dean argues that teenagers have creeds, seen in what they think and say about God, even if these creeds are not formally summarized.
Teens who are adherents to MTD see God as a cosmic lifeguard, ready to save them if needed but otherwise will leave them alone. Highly devoted Christian teens see God as a swim teacher, right there in the water with them.
Adherents to MTD see God as a sort of divine butler or cosmic therapist who is there, again, to help them if needed. Highly devoted Christian teens more often see God as a divine parent, walking through life with them.
Belonging to a Community that Enacts this Story
These creeds are not formed in a vacuum. Sociologists consider a young person’s sense of belonging in a religious community as more an accurate predictor of his adult religious involvement than merely church attendance. Such communities provide young people with available adults, mutual regard, boundaries and shared long-term objectives
Peer relationships do matter, and religious teens closest friends tend to be other religious teens (which is not surprising, for non-religious teens tend to be friends with other non-religious teens). More important are adults who befriend teenagers. Young people who attend church regularly are far more likely to have adults in their lives with whom they enjoy talking and who encourage them. Even the role of a pastor plays a part. Most teenagers (81%) have not talked to a pastor or youth pastor about personal issues, but when we look at just highly devoted teens, most of them have.
Called to a Purpose or Mission
This builds off of the first two, as such a community does not just reinforce the creed by teaching or talking about it, but by doing it. Thus, highly devoted teenagers recognize that their decisions have consequences for others and that the church has a responsibility for others’ well being. They actively look for ways to respond to Christ’s mandate to sacrifice for others.
What is ironic is that such highly devoted teens usually come from more conservative or evangelical churches. Yet it is mainline Protestant and Catholic churches that are historically characterized by their zeal for the “social gospel”, meeting people’s physical needs. This zeal is absent in young people from those communities. I do not want to read too much into that, but it does show you cannot separate the two. You cannot just tell people to self-sacrificially love and serve others absent a vigorous theology of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, his death, resurrection and future return.
Hope for the Future
Here is a big difference: teenagers who adhere to MTD are worried that God will fail them, they are more cynical about the future. Highly devoted teens, with a deeper trust in God’s presence, are more confident in the world and their own lives. This is not because they believe in the imminent return of Jesus; it simply means they trust that God is leading them in their lives.
Ultimately, if we see the faith of young people as shallow it is because they have copied the faith they learned from their parents and teachers. Churches that portray God as present and active, that explain how their church’s mission is inspired by the mission of Jesus Christ, that promote outreach and mission are the churches that grow self-sacrificial teens. Or as Dean says, “Teenagers in faith-supporting congregations do not describe God as a Pez dispenser, delivering goodfeelings on demand, but as a ‘living and active presence’ in their lives” (83).
But again, this is not to say that here is a four-step formula to ensure your teens will be Christians in college and beyond. I visited a church a few months ago where after talking about the importance of campus ministry, I encouraged the church to invest in their youth. My point was that it is a myth that most young people go to college and lose faith, instead they are already on their way out before they get to college. Afterwards a couple came up and told me to pray for their child, now at college, who has turned from the faith. I turned red in fear they heard in my challenge a rebuke as if it were there fault their child has turned away. Thankfully, they knew that was not what I was saying. I share that story to say that I enjoy reading books like Almost Christian and I think all who work with youth in churches should read it. But no method takes away the free will of people to reject the gospel, nor does it take away the work of the Holy Spirit required in people’s lives.