Book Review – Almost Christian
The results of the National Study of Youth and Religion, which is the largest ever on teenagers and faith, were first summarized in 2005 with Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton. In 2010, Kenda Creasy Dean released a book which also deals with the study’s results called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. I have not read Soul Searching (this is a review of Almost Christian only), but I think its purpose was to summarize the findings while the purpose of Dean’s volume is to culturally and theologically interpret the findings, as well as to give the church practical suggestions on what to do about them.
In Dean’s words, the National Study of Youth and Religion “reveals a theological fault line running underneath American churches: an adherence to a do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow him into the world” (p. 4). She provides an overview of American teenage faith in the first two, and best, chapters of her book. Even if this book isn’t your cup of tea, I would recommend getting your hands on these opening chapters. I was gripped from the opening lines: “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 high school. One more thing: we’re responsible” (p. 1).
The “we’re responsible” conclusion is developed throughout the book. Dean strongly contends that teenagers are embracing this “do-good, feel-good” spirituality not because of their culture alone, but because that’s what they’re learning in church! Christians have inadvertently embraced this watered-down gospel which proclaims that “God requires little and the church is a helpful social institution (p. 12)” and this, in turn, is what we are teaching our youth. If the church is to foster faith in young people, then it must itself be faithful to the distinct claims of the gospel (p. 23).
In her research, Dean discovers that the most devoted Christian young people in the United States share four traits: (1) they have a personal and powerful God-story that they can articulate; (2) they belong to a community of faith; (3) they have a sense of call to live for a larger purpose; and (4) they have hope for the future promised by their faith (pp. 49, 70-78). I shared these with my teens and told them that I wanted to help them move in the direction of each.
So how are we to guide our youth into this kind of devoted faith, found in only a handful of teenagers? Dean offers some suggestions. For starters, the church must once again embrace a missional focus (chapter 5). We are far too self-focused and self-centered and this emphasis is at the root of the “imposter religion” to which so many young people adhere. If the church is to be relevant again, we must look outward instead of inward. Listen to her impassioned plea: “Tradition calls the church the Bride of Christ because, at our missional best, the church acts like a smitten lover: overwhelmed with awe at being loved in this way, our words and actions overflow with gratitude that Christ has bound himself to us and invited us—us!—to bear God’s fruit in the world” (p. 88).
Dean’s further suggestions to the church on how to engender a deeper Christian faith in young people take up a chapter a piece near the close of the book. First, youth need people to translate the Christian faith with them. This suggestion arises from the Incarnation of Jesus who “makes his home among us, accepting us as we are, becoming ‘one of us’ (p. 99).” Adults, and especially parents, are called to do the same. Second, youth need people to help them learn how to talk about their faith. Dean says, “If Jesus (the Holy spirit, sin, redemption, or a variety of other Christian non-negotiables) does not get talked about, he soon fades from teenagers’ awareness, and therefore vanishes from their structures of meaning” (p. 140). Third, youth need experiences where they are “detached,” or disentangled, from whatever distracts from Jesus Christ so that they can catch a glimpse of who He really is (pp. 159, 183). I found this chapter to contain some especially insightful thoughts on short-term mission trips.
Books like this one, based on studies like this one, often lead those of us who work with young people to be down and out over the state of contemporary youth. That’s why I appreciate the title of Dean’s closing chapter: “Make No Small Plans, A Case for Hope.” The title does not keep her from offering a sobering assessment, however: “The contemporary church has strayed, often badly, from the course set before us by the earliest followers of Jesus, who believed in his messianic mission and that God raised him from the dead—and who understood themselves to be sent, as Christ was sent, into the world as instruments of divine love” (p. 191). But she believes that if the church can learn from this survey and its mistakes, as well as re-submit to the missional focus of Jesus Christ, it can get back on track in fostering a robust Christian faith in our youth.
This book has opened my eyes to the way I do youth ministry, and convicted me to re-assess some things. To say that this book should be required reading for all those who work with youth sounds cliché, but it sure comes close to that. I’ll be bold enough to say this: if you only read one book on youth culture this year, make it this one. I will admit that I could have predicted many of the survey’s findings from my own experience, and I’m confident you will be able to do the same. However, what I found indispensable, and what I could not have gotten from my experience alone, is the fine interpretation and theological reflection on these findings from Kenda Creasy Dean. In reading the book, I was intellectually stirred and practically challenged but, most importantly, I was inspired and encouraged by what the church and youth ministry are still capable of accomplishing in the 21st century.