I’ve recently begun reading Almost Christian: What The Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean. I got turned on to it by Tony Jones who is blogging through the book. Even though I’m not too far into the book, I can tell that Dean is addressing the issue in a thoughtful and balanced way so I’m looking forward to reading more.
The main point of the book seems to be that the faith of teenagers is in crisis. American teens don’t seem to be able to successfully articulate their what their faith means to them or what they believe. And Dean believes this trend is most likely due to the fact that American Christian adults are doing a poor job of exposing teens to classic, orthodox, traditional Christianity. She writes:
“What if the blase religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all? What if the church models a way of life that asks, no passionate surrender to ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith, and a hands-off God instead of a decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter in creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today? If this is the case–if theological malpractice explains teenagers’ half-hearted religious identities–then perhaps most young people practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism not because they reject Christianity, but because this is the only “Christianity” they know.
And if you are unclear on what Dean means by “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” she outlines five guiding beliefs of MTD:
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 to fell 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.
And this is all taking place, according to Dean, primarily because adults don’t do a good enough job talking about and practicing their faith in front of their children. For all I know, that may be true to some extent. I’m not that up on the history of polling teens in this country on matters of faith but I wonder if this isn’t such a new development. Is it possible that with current day fixation on polling, data, focus groups especially in the American Church, we’re just finding out what has more or less always been the case? It’s like people who are freaking out that autism is on the rise when it’s much more probable that autism is relatively static but that it’s being diagnosed much more successfully with benefit of today’s medical advances. Again, I’m not an expert and to some degree I’ll take Dean at her word, but this is something that I thought of while reading the book.
Ultimately, Dean, along with everyone else who fixates on why teens don’t seem all that interested in American Christianity, is attempting to untangle a very complicated web of intricate and inter-related factors. It’s certainly worthwhile and I’m glad the work is being done. But I wonder if we are missing a key point in all of this.
Imagine you were an alien visiting earth. You have no previous religious practice and you have no previous knowledge of the various world religions practiced on earth. You arrive and someone tells you about two Gods. One God created the world and everything in it. If you believe in that God and love that God, you will be spared eternal conscious punishment in a place called Hell. And because a vast majority of the world don’t believe this God in the right way, they will go to hell forever, even though God loves them all very much. And then the other God, the God of MTD, created the world and watches from above, wants everyone to be nice and happy. This God will help you when you need help and if you’re a good person, you’ll be rewarded with being with God in heaven.
What religion makes more sense? What God would you place your bet on if you were that alien? Personally, I don’t blame American teens for believing what they do. Given the choice between the classic, traditional depiction of the Gospel, I’d choose the God of MTD every day of the week. I’m not saying that I’m a proponent of the MTD message and I’m not saying that the prescriptions Dean makes are totally off base. So far she brings up valid concerns and offers helpful suggestions, but are we missing the bigger picture? What is the gospel are we sharing to our kids and is that gospel compelling? For me, I believe an entirely different gospel today compared to the gospel I was offered as a youth. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t teach me or that I didn’t have awesome youth workers at the church I was raised in. The gospel I was offered didn’t work for me. It was the prime suspect. Everything else was pretty awesome. Great parents, great people at the church I grew up in but I needed a way to connect to God that made sense to me. Doubling down on teaching kids a message that doesn’t compel them doesn’t seem like a great solution.