Almost Christian 4: Generative Faith

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.

Summing Up

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.


On Campus at Penn State Berks – Unity!

Over my nearly six years at Penn State Berks, CSF has always had a diverse group of Christians.  We have had, and still have today, students from all kinds of backgrounds and denominations: Methodist and Mennonite, Presbyterian and Pentecostal, Catholic and Calvinist (and now I am at a loss for other doublets I can make with the same letter!).  Most of the students who come to CSF on a regular basis fall on the “evangelical” side of the spectrum, though that in itself is a slippery word to define.  My point is that from my perspective, unity among Christians is possible.

This is pertinent, because one of the conversations I have noticed coming out of the debate over Rob Bell’s new book is on whether “evangelicalism” itself is dividing.  Actually, I have noticed people saying the same thing before, but it seems to have hit a new high now.  The two sides that are becoming more polarized are the “young, restless and reformed” and “progressive evangelicals” (or whatever you want to call them).  Internet Monk notes a few places this discussion has occurred, though it seems the best article comes from Rachel Held Evans, “The Future of Evangelicalism“.  She sees a divide happening and while she thinks the next generation of evangelicals can overcome it, she is not too optimistic.

I can only speak to this from my own context, but I am more optimistic.  There is a group of students in CSF this year that are hungry to mature in their faith.  Part of this is a desire for a better understanding of the scripture, and they often have a lot of questions on various theological points.  I see some of the students moving towards Reformed theology with other students moving more towards a Wesleyan/Arminian theology (perhaps even, to use distinctions from above, a progressive evangelical theology).  Yet even in this, they are still working together to do real ministry on campus.

If I wanted to be pessimistic, I would say this is just because they do not yet understand the differences in their theologies.  I could blame the students’ home churches, seeing our unity coming more from their lack of a grasp of anything substantial in their understanding of Christian faith when they get to college (but that would be really arrogant of me!).  I could assume that if they learn and read more, they will become more hardened in whatever camp they choose.

But I doubt this will happen on campus.  The simple reason is, when the majority of people on campus are not supportive of any sort of Christian faith, the Christian students do not have time to spend on too many inter-Christian debates.  This is not to say Christians on campus face active opposition (they don’t, at least not on this campus).  It is simply to say most students find the Christian students kind of irrelevant.  Maybe better to put it, as Kenda Creasy Dean does in Almost Christian, that most see religion as “a very nice thing“: It is good that someone believes, but most of us have more important things to worry about.

With the feeling of being in a minority who desire to take Jesus seriously and live as his disciple, there is no reason to argue about a myriad of issues Christians disagree on.  If we can agree that at its heart the gospel is the affirmation that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, then everything else can fall into place after that.

At least, that is my goal on campus.  I want to see students who love Jesus and want to join God in his mission of reconciliation lay aside their other differences to serve others.

Of course, I am not naive.  I have already had one former student email me to ask what I think of Love Wins, after all, we have used NOOMA videos in the past!  These debates will trickle down.  Perhaps students will come to see CSF as too open…or not open enough.  But I am encouraged my my friendships with pastors and others in the area who have quite a different theological understanding then me (haha, you could say I am a Wesleyan Anabaptist while they are Reformed Calvinists) but we pray with each other as adopted children of God by the grace of Jesus.  With God’s grace, such unity can overcome our disagreements.  A hurting, broken, suffering world does not need Christians who always argue with each other, they need Christians who go forth in the name of Christ to bring hope, love and faith.

Dismantling Hope in the Powers

I grew up in a church that has an American flag right up front each and every Sunday morning.  On national holidays we would sing anthems to the greatness of the US.  The impression was clear: to be a good Christian is to be strong in support of America.

(I should note one thing.  That same church is one of the biggest reasons I am a Christian serving in full time ministry today, so that first paragraph is not an indictment on the whole church.)

I went to seminary and during my second year there took exegesis of Revelation with Dr. Lowery.  This class shattered my worldview in many ways.  We studied Revelation in its original context and the message we got, week in and week out, was that there is a battle going on between the Lamb and the Beast.  The Lamb is Jesus Christ, the one who suffered and died for our sins.  To follow the Lamb is to take the path that may lead to our own suffering.  The Beast is any worldly power that attempts to seduce God’s people.  For John’s first Christians, that was Rome.  Rome had the best military, economy, political system and standard of living.  Further, Rome offered safety and security.  Get on board with Rome, be a good patriotic Roman, and life will be okay.  This was the temptation for the Christians to whom Revelation was addressed: would they get on board with Rome or would they stick to the Lamb?

The question we could not get away from was whether the American church has already compromised, getting on board with the American empire, the “Beast” of our day?

Before I go any farther, I do not want this post to come across as anti-American or anti-any sort of government.  The early Christians held to two truth: Rome’s existence is very good and important for they keep worse things at bay.  Some Christians saw the fall of Rome as to be followed by the rise of the antichrist and the end of the world (such as North African author Tertullian who lived around 200 AD).  Many Christians when accused of being bad citizens responded that they do more good for the empire in their prayers than the armies do.  So Christians are not anarchists; I believe Christians can and should support (for lack of a better term) the government (however that works out practically) wherever they are.  The other truth though was that Rome was persecuting Christians, promoted an anti-Christian way of life and was evil.  Christians lived between these two truths.  Or to put it another way, God is sovereign but (and) Satan is the prince of this world.

I think one of the biggest temptations for Christians in America today is nationalism.  When living in the way of Jesus clashes with living in the way of America, we choose America.  Many Christians find their identity more in their political party then in their faith.  Thus, when wars of ideas  occur whether a person is a “D” or an “R” says more about what they will argue than whether they are a Christian.  Rather than offering a unique, Christ-like perspective, Christians just take the sides defined by he world.

Part of the Christian mission is helping people see that putting their hopes in any political power is ultimately to have a false hope.  No political person, power or ideology cares for you…they care for their own gain.   We see this right now with the attacks on Libya.  Predictably, many who opposed a similar war on Iraq, are now quiet.  When a Republican does something, the Democrats complain…but when a Democrat does the same thing, most Democrats go along (and Republicans are the same way).  To be fair, a very few Democrats will criticize their own but they are nowhere near the majority.

Glenn Greenwald points this out, responding to an article by John Judis in an article titled “The Manipulative Pro-War Argument in Libya“.  If the USA is involved in Libya to help innocents, that leads to a whole host of questions:

my real question for Judis (and those who voice the same accusations against Libya intervention opponents) is this: do you support military intervention to protect protesters in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies from suppression, or to stop the still-horrendous suffering in the Sudan, or to prevent the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast? Did you advocate military intervention to protect protesters in Iran and Egypt, or to stop the Israeli slaughter of hundreds of trapped innocent civilians in Gaza and Lebanon or its brutal and growing occupation of the West Bank?

I would add Congo and Darfur to the list.  But the point is made.  Stephen Walt also has a brilliant article on this, showing how those on the left and on the right agree, more or less, in foreign policy.

The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power — and especially its military power — can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America’s right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.

So if you’re baffled by how Mr. “Change You Can Believe In” morphed into Mr. “More of the Same,” you shouldn’t really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I’m not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn’t really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.

He ends the article by reminding us that, as a country, we are broke: “And who’s the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China’s leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire.”  Jon Stewart, in a much funnier way, points out the same thing in recent episodes of the Daily Show.

The point of this post is not my view on war.  My point is that I see clearly here another instance where national self-interest shines through.  The USA, like every country, may at times speak of high ideals, but in the end we get militarily involved in countries that benefit us while ignoring those (Congo, Darfur) that do not.  In 2012 we will have another election where two people tell us the other guy is the problem and if we vote for them then they will fix everything.  But many things, including the idea that America is the best hope for the world, will not change.

As Christians, our mission is to point people to the true hope of the world, Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ, by the way, was crucified by the best political and religious system the world had ever come up with.  If the powers of this world execute the only innocent person, then why put our trust in them?

Ultimately, I believe Christians should be good citizens, supportive of our countries (whatever that practically looks like) while recognizing that all nations are temporary and no matter the rhetoric, defined by self-interest.  Putting our greatest hope in these powers will lead to disappointment.  Conversely, hope in Jesus Christ, and seeking to live as his disciple, makes us a part of a kingdom that will never disappear.


On Campus at PSU Berks…or should I say Off Campus?

The biggest event CSF at PSU Berks does each year is our spring break trip.  I came on staff the summer when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and because of that CSF went to that region four consecutive years (New Orleans twice, Mississippi twice).  Last year we changed it up, heading to Miami.  Each of these trips began with a twenty-four hour (at least) bus ride.  If for no other reason than not having such a long ride, I was happy that we were going to Tennessee this year.

Going into the trip no one really knew what to expect.   We knew we were working at Sunset Gap Community Center but really had little clue what exactly we would be doing.  Thankfully, the students are always flexible and rolled with it.  We left early Sunday morning, met up with the CSF University Park and Lock Haven in Harrisburg, and ended up arriving in Tennessee Sunday night.  Meeting us in Tennessee were CSF groups from PSU DuBois and University of Pittsburgh.

That points me to one of my favorite things from the week: building a community out of diversity.  It is so easy for students to simply stay in their campus groups.  Usually the student interaction is minimal, with the exception of PSU Berks and UP since so many UP students once went to Berks.  But this year the staff worked hard to integrate the groups.  One way we did this was randomly breaking them into prayer groups.  It was great to see how the students completely bought into these groups, with many asking each day if we would break into our prayer groups at night.  Perhaps my most awkward moment was preparing for the students to make smores over the campfire, getting all the stuff ready, and then watching the students ignore delicious smores so they could pray in their groups for a longer time!

Another thing that made this trip unique was that it combined hard work and great fellowship in a retreat atmosphere.  Every trip basically gets broken down into two areas: work during the day and fellowship at night.  The work is different each year: some years the organization we are working with underestimates us and does not have enough work, some years the work is more physically challenging (such as mudding out houses after the hurricane in New Orleans), other years it is more emotionally challenging (such as working with the homeless in Miami).  The fellowship is always great, but is affected by situations we cannot control.  For example, last year in Miami we spent so much time driving to the work sites and we ate dinner in a different place from where we slept.  This meant there was much traveling even after work and thus less time for deep community.  What I loved about this year was that we were in rural Tennessee, similar to a retreat we might have at a campground in Pennsylvania.  Many of the students worked at the Community Center, so travel from the work site to the bunkroom was a two minute walk!  Put together, the combination of lots of work along with a retreat feel and deep fellowship made this a fantastic trip.

Some of those who did not stay and work at Sunset Gap Community Center drove each day and worked at a local animal shelter.  I was part of this group and I believe those students with me had a blast.  There was lots of work: building shelves, building an extension onto the building, painting, cleaning kennels, and even walking the dogs.  We spent the last day helping them prepare for the “Big Fix”, an event on Saturday that offered free neutering and spaying for animals in the community.  This is an important service, for driving around rural Tennessee we saw many stray animals.  Working at the animal shelter, getting to know the people there and helping them in their service to the community was a blessing.

I do wonder what the reaction of some may be when the students report of their “mission” trip will be that they spent the week working at an animal shelter.  What does this have to do with Jesus, the Bible or spiritual things? But as I worked throughout the week I kept thinking of the “creation mandate” or “cultural mandate” from Genesis 1 where God gives instructions to newly created humanity.  Specifically, Genesis 1:28 shows that part of our whole reason for being created was to care for God’s creation, including the animals.  So working on an animal shelter for a week taps into part of the original reason for why our Creator placed us here.  My prayer would be that the students who worked at the animal shelter would gain a bigger understanding of who God is and what God does: God our Father wants to save humans through Jesus Christ and this is awesome…and this salvation is part of an even grander plan for God to redeem all of creation!

Those are just a few of my reflections on CSF’s Spring Break trip.  Now the students are back on campus for the seven-week blitz to summer!  Pray for them as they come down off of their “mountaintop” experience and return to the “real world.”

Recent Reads

Facebook killed the church? People in previous generations may have complained about the church, but they still went if nothing else to stay connected to people.  Now? “Millennials are in a different social situation. They don’t need physical locations for social affiliation. They can make dinner plans via text, cell phone call or Facebook. In short, the thing that kept young people going to church, despite their irritations, has been effectively replaced. You don’t need to go to church to stay connected or in touch. You have an iPhone.”

I have seen many articles like this, illustrating that the gap between the richest (top 1% make average of 1.1 million per year) and the poorest (lowest 90% make average of 31,000 per year).  This should be an issue for Christians, but I am not sure the left (tax the rich to create government programs to help the poor) nor the right (cut taxes to the rich so they can pay more to workers) offer a solution.  Government programs do not help people in the long run.  And do we really trust people, given tax breaks, to pay their employees more if they do not have to?  How did that work in the medieval period?  Maybe we just need to increase the minimum wage so that if a person works 40 hours a week she will make enough to provide housing, food and health care for her family.  It is not given to her (as on the left) but there are laws in place (minimum wage) to ensure she can get it.  Of course, I make no claim as an economist or to know if this would work.

I also have no problem with increasing gas prices here, since we pay the lowest by far of any industrialized country.  Sticking with economics, what would Jesus cut from the budget? Nice video from Ben, of Ben and Jerry.

I have often heard Christians divorce at same rate as everyone else.  I have also long been skeptical, so I appreciate this article.

Apparently Rob Bell is releasing a book that might hint at universalism.  Even though the book has not come out yet, people online are freaking out: here, here and here.  I think this quote from one commenter hits the nail on the head: “I wonder how many persecuted believers in Palestine, China, or Africa retweeted about this. They most likely had other things going on… like ministry. You know, think of the thousands of LDS missionaries knocking door to door yesterday worldwide spreading their faith while we were yelling at our laptops. Nice work American Evangelicals! No wonder Korea and Africa are sending missionaries to the States…”

I also wonder why it is Reformed Calvinists who are leading the charge here and come off so worrisome.  I mean, I think it is important to teach true theology and there is a place to critique errant teaching.  But in the system of Reformed Calvinism, ultimately, a person is either elect or he is not (God either chose him to be saved, or did not).  If he is not elect, then there is nothing that he can do to change that.  Likewise, if someone does teach false gospel, anyone who buys in is clearly not elect either.

My point is not that false teaching is no big deal.  My point is that those who claim to hold most strongly to the sovereignty of God (I have been urged that if I truly believed in God’s sovereignty, I would be a Calvinist…but that’s another post for another day) seem the most worrisome.  I can’t really think of a better word for it.  Shouldn’t they humbly say, “there but for the grace of God go I”?  If you think people have free will and thus freely could choose to follow a false teaching, then maybe you do have something to worry about.  But such worry does not fit into, at least as I understand it, the Reformed Calvinist view of divine election.  Perhaps I am way off and if such critiques had more confidence (and less worry), I would say they were arrogant and condescending.  At any rate, I am not a Reformed Calvinist, but I do trust in the sovereignty of God, so back to work…

Whatever happens, the lesson is (which I am working on learning): pause before posting something online to think about you really want it out there, because speed kills.

Apparently Mike Huckabee made the mistake of saying what any person who has studied religion knows: Christianity and Islam are very different.  It is things like that which make me like Huckabee.  Then he says things like this which make me remember I am voting for a third party from now on 😉

Bradley Manning has been in prison for months without being charged with anything.  This is a story more people need to learn about: here and here.

Church history in four minutes!