Almost Christian

Almost Christian; What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Kenda Creasy Dean; ©2010 by Oxford University Press)

This book has been on my reading list for some time now, but when Prof. Nathan Frambach (Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, IA) recommended it to me in a facebook post just before my Sabbatical, I decided to take it on this Fall. ("Curse you, Red Baron.") This was a difficult book, mostly because it serves as a strong and pointed challenge to those of us who are involved in ministry — especially suburban ministry in mainline churches.

Dean doesn't waste any time warning us that this will be a difficult read. Here are her first three paragraphs:

Let me save you some trouble. Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. One more thing: we’re responsible. If the American church responds, quickly and decisively, to issues raised by studies like the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR)—the massive 2003–05 study on adolescent spirituality in the United States that served as the original impetus for this book—then tending the faith of young people may just be the ticket to reclaiming our own. As the following pages attest, the religiosity of American teenagers must be read primarily as a reflection of their parents’ religious devotion (or lack thereof) and, by extension, that of their congregations. (pages 3-4)
Dean describes what I've long believed, but have never put into words as succinctly as she has. She makes the case that the culture which surrounds us, especially its focus on individuality and self-reliance, not only runs directly counter to Christian faith, but in fact undermines it in ways more powerful than we realize.
After two and a half centuries of shacking up with “the American dream,” churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the “crown of rejoicing” that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, requires the former. (pages 5-6)
In a refrain that will echo throughout the remainder of the book, Dean offers up what she (and the NSYR) believe to be at the root of the problem: Christian faith calls us to a life of loving service, following in the footsteps of our Lord; contemporary society teaches us that life is all about grabbing as much as we can get for ourselves; and most of us are influenced more profoundly by society than by faith.
The faith most teenagers exhibit is a loveless version that the NSYR calls Christianity’s “misbegotten stepcousin,” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is “supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in American churches.” (page 7)
I can't imagine what might offer a stronger contrast to what we Lutherans like to call "The Theology of the Cross" than Moralistic (a law-based system to get us to do what is right) Therapeutic (my faith is primarily about me, and about making my life better) Deism (a bland affirmation of God's existence that has more to do with "spiritual, but not religious" than biblical faith).  And what's worse, Dean doesn't conclude that our young people have been led astray by others, and are only in need of us to "set them straight." No: she claims that the fault is ours. We are the ones who have allowed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to capture our hearts, and our children are following our lead.
The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on “folks like us”—which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all. (Pages 11-12)
Years ago I heard Prof. Rollie Martinson (Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN) say that any congregation wanting to do a good job of youth ministry ought to start with a marriage renewal program. He believes that strong and healthy marriages are a key predictor of strong and healthy faith for our children. This book continues that theme: if we want our kids to have a robust faith —the kind that can keep them close to God, and help them make decisions that honor God's presence in their lives — then we, ourselves, need to have a faith that is worth passing on to them. A faith that is not rooted in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but one that is rooted in a transforming relationship with the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ. This God loves us with a sacrificial love, and calls us to love one another, and the world around us, with the same kind of sacrificial love.
...the God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks, not just for commitment, but for our very lives. The God of the Bible traffics in life and death, not niceness, and calls for sacrificial love, not benign whatever-ism. If the God of Jesus Christ is a missionary God who crosses every boundary—life and death and space and time—to win us, then following Jesus is bound to be anything but convenient. (page 37)
She doesn't say it in as many words, but what it all boils down to is discipleship. We practice habits of discipleship to strengthen our faith, and our commitment to God, but we don't just do it for ourselves. We do it for our children. We do it for our families. We do it for our communities. As our faith becomes stronger, we end up in a better position to share faith with others (which, according to Jesus, is one of our key responsibilities — see Matthew 28:19-20). The net result is not that a good life becomes just a bit better. The net result is that we become motivated to give our lives for the world around us, no matter what the cost.

With that in mind, there are some things we can do to make sure that our homes and our congregations are most likely to be able to share this transforming faith with a new generation. Dean writes:

Highly devoted young people seem adept at using at least four cultural tools in ways that mark them as members of their traditions: (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; and (4) they have hope for the future promised by this story. (page 49).
The challenge here is more significant than this paragraph might first seem to suggest.
(1) We (and our young people) must become more articulate about what we believe — about our creed. We must learn to speak confidently and clearly about the role God plays in our lives. We must integrate our Lutheran theological heritage in a way speaks clearly to our day, and the issues of our time.
(2) Our kids must not come home from mission trips to a congregation that is curious about their experience and supportive of their efforts but lukewarm about its own call to give itself away in service to God. Our experience of God's grace wants to fill our lives, and enthuse our discipleship, to the point where we are as committed to faithfulness as those youth are after returning from a trip. If they come home to a congregation that is on fire about the Gospel, and committed to lives of service, their own commitment to such a life can be sustained.
(3) We (and they) need to understand that our involvement in Christ-like service is the way God continues to be active in this world. God depends on us to make a difference. Our willingness to love and serve is how God transforms the world.
(4) When we know that our lives are rooted in God's grace, and that our service is made possible by God's power, we live with a greater sense of hope in the future. The future holds no fear for us, because God is waiting for us there.

Genuine Christian faith completely transforms our experience of the world. When we are transformed by Christ, we are better able to help our young people experience the same.

Dean is very clear in this book that Christian discipleship calls for a selfless, sacrificial attitude towards life. Our faith must make a difference. We must not be "just like our neighbor." Chrsitian faith sets us off — sets us apart — in a way that causes others to take notice. We can't expect our youth to experience a faith that causes them to follow the beat of a different drummer, unless that is the case for us as well. I've excerpted, below, some additional passages in which the author makes this point.

In contrast to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’s agenda of personal fulfillment, Christian discipleship enacts the inside-out logic of a self-giving God, whose power is weakness, who deems love worthy of suffering and who promises that life will spring from death. (page 64)
Christian scriptures insist that for the church to be true to the story we proclaim, sacrificial love must be part of the equation. [Douglas John] Hall believes that this concept of the church is, unfortunately, “so foreign to the average North American congregation that it is hard for us to appropriate or even to hear.” Yet every teenager recognizes the equation: True love inspires sacrifice. True love is “to die for.” (pages 64-65)
In short, the goal of missional churches is to imitate Christ in context, to participate in anamnesis, a sacramental term that means “remembering” (putting back together something that has come apart). As communities of memory, missional churches seek to re-member God’s overwhelming love by enacting it in human form, whenever the community gathers and wherever God’s people are sent. The model for this re-membering is the Eucharist, the church’s celebration of the One who re-members us by incorporating our lives into the life of God. (page 96)
Mission is not a trip or a youth activity, a silent cousin to evangelism, or an optional model of youth ministry. Mission is the business that congregations are in. Christ views young people as participants in God’s mission rather than as targets of ours. God does not send out a few teenagers in a church van to represent Christ in the world on behalf of the church; God sends the whole church. A missional imagination assumes that young people take part in the church’s mission—that every Christian teenager is a missionary called to translate the gospel across boundaries... (page 97)
When we approach mission trips as opportunities for cross-cultural encounter, when middle-class teenagers sign on as learners instead of “fixers,” and when servant opportunities are shared with and directed by the local community, these cross-cultural experiences can become important ministries—to teenagers. The real gift of the church mission trip is seldom the porch that was built or the gutters that were replaced, though these are often graciously received. The gift of these decentering encounters with “otherness”—the human other and the Divine Other—is faithful reflexivity, a kind of self-awareness that allows us to momentarily view ourselves and others from a new vantage point as we watch God work. (page 159)
You get the point. This is a challenging book. And it calls those of us who are involved in mainline, suburban congregations to take a hard look at the character of our lives and the focus of our congregations. Are we transformed by the grace of God that has claimed us? Does the presence of Christ in our midst make a tangible difference in how we experience life? In the words of Jesus, does our faith cause us to bear fruit that we would otherwise not bear?
So at the end of this project, I find that I have arrived at only two conclusions with any confidence. Here is the first: When it comes to vapid Christianity, teenagers are not the problem—the church is the problem. And the second: the church also has the solution. (page 189)
Dean holds out hope that the church can make a difference: in our lives, and in the lives of our young people. But it won't be convenient. It won't promote our chances of being "successful" in this world. It won't help us to better fit into the social structures that surround us.
Those who want to succeed in American life, and attain high levels of visibility in it, will find that being theologically bland helps immeasurably. Yet the gospel is very clear: God wants to liberate us from being defined by these circumstances, so that we are free follow Jesus regardless of the culture we call home. (page 192)
Will we dare not to be theologically bland? Will we hold fast to our convictions, even if it comes at a cost? Will we take our primary focus on life from our Lord instead of from our context? These are the kinds of questions that Dean suggests our congregation needs to address.
In these pages we have identified two resources that can help us understand how to counter Moralistic Therapeutic Deism with consequential faith: (1) highly devoted teenagers themselves, and (2) highly devoted congregations, in which youth and adults alike teach, tell, and take part in the Christian God-story to cultivate missional imaginations for the church and for the world. (page 193)
There is a core group of highly committed Christians at Saint Peter, and I'd hazard to guess that is true for most churches today. The task at hand is to empower that group for service, and to expand that group by helping others discover the way grace makes it all possible. Our Catechism program is a great place to begin this work with young people. Our C.A.U.T.I.O.N. High School group is a rich resource in helping them live in to what we consider during Catechism. Our Discipleship Team is a key asset in helping adults to join them on this journey.
...religious formation is not an accident. Teenagers reporting high degrees of religious devotion did not get that way on their own; their faith is the legacy of communities that have invested time, energy, and love in them, and where the religious faith of adults (especially parents) inspires the faith of their children. (page 194)
There is much at stake here. God is calling us to transform our way of being together as a congregation, so that it more clearly and more convincingly presents to the world a different way to live. This will not happen by chance. We need to put a shoulder to the wheel and make it happen. In doing so, our lives will be blessed. And so will the lives of those who come into contact with us.
...consequential faith has risks. The love of Christ is love that is worth dying for. Congregations are far more reluctant to ask this kind of faith of teenagers than teenagers are to respond to it. (pages 194-195)
Could it be that our young people are ready and able to receive this call, if we have the courage to extend it to them? And respond to it with them?