Friday, October 7, 2011

Almost Christian - A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

I recently read Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean, minister and Associate Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. This book is both a dissection and reflection on the findings of the recent National Study of Youth and Religion Survey. Dean outlines several points: most American teens view religion in a positive light but do not think about it often; teens reflect the faith of their parents; most teens do not possess the religious vocabulary to talk about their faith; a small group of teens claim religion is important and they are doing better in a number of areas than most teens; and most teens follow a weak form of faith dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (21). Based on these findings, Dean explains and responds to the data while relating vignettes of certain teens’ stories.

Dean posits that the faith of many American parents, and what is presented in many churches, lacks the depth of a true, lived faith. Instead, churches and parents settle for a weak faith (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) that leads them to be nice in order to advance in society and achieve the American dream. Dean examines Mormon children, one of the exceptions to the rule. They are highly invested in their faith, possess the language to talk about their religious views, and have a high level of investment in their faith community and service on its behalf. While Dean is clear that Mormon views and practices are not ideal for many of us (women are excluded from leadership positions and young adults are encouraged to marry early, among a few views objectionable to moderates and progressives), she tries to determine what we might learn from Mormons that could help mainline traditions.

Dean determines that our churches and parents must have “missional imaginations” that are willing to engage in the mission of God in our communities, not for the churches’ gain, but to further the kingdom of God (89). This involves a justice-filled faith that is active outside the walls of the church. Dean also encourages churches to pair adults with youth going through baptism or confirmation (118). These adults, or catechists, would serve as mentors who walk alongside the youth, share their stories, and show their interest in the youth. This encourages adults to talk about their faith and mature in their walk, as well. Ultimately, we should seek transformation through our teaching in the church (172). Dean illustrates this by showing how one set of lessons paired with a missions project out of middle class suburbia and into a poor Mexican town transformed one teenage girl. The teen was able to give up what was most important to her and obtain a deeper, more authentic faith that allowed her to view the poor through the eyes of Jesus. In this way, certain youth on this trip were able to take the focus off of themselves and onto God and their neighbors, maturing their faith and helping them become better disciples.

Dean’s conclusions are ones in which I can agree: The church is both the problem and the solution (189). When we present a weakened form of our faith that exalts “niceness” over engagement in justice issues, exclude people from our churches who are not like us in the name of Christ, or present the American Dream as Christ’s ideal for us, we fail our youth. Instead, we need to embrace the mission of God and reorient our churches, inspiring our youth to follow Christ out into the world to serve the poor and oppressed. Until we commit to this, we cannot blame our youth for thinking that “being nice” and following the status quo is the same as following Jesus.

Find out more about the book here.

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