Learning from Almost Christian 1: Problems & Prescriptions

The hottest book on youth ministry in the fall of 2010 is Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,” by Oxford University Press. If you read David Kinnaman’s earlier book, “UnChristian,” and thought that book captured the attitudes of young people toward organized religion—think again! That book, written from an evangelical perspective, was narrowly focused on young adults’ attitudes toward evangelical churches—essentially, a different approach to a different subject.

Kenda Creasy Dean studied the far more valuable body of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), a massive report on adolescent spirituality across the U.S. If you came away from “UnChristian” thinking that young people hate the church and want nothing to do with it—that’s wrong, “Almost Christian” argues. Young people—and we’re talking in Kenda’s book specifically about teenagers from 13-17—have strong positive associations with organized religion and most of them claim to be affiliated with Christianity.

Scratching your head? This is different than what you expected? It is, indeed.

But the news is not entirely great. Yes, Dean’s book shares some good news: A careful, widespread study of teenagers in America shows a great affection for faith and for the church. The bad news: Those things—faith and the church—aren’t really conveying to these teenagers the historic Christian faith that produced saints, major efforts to help needy people around the world and historic stirrings of faith such as the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.

Instead, teenagers today are picking up a sort of casual, polite, self-centered, Religion Lite.

Dean calls this Religion Lite: “MTD” or “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” That’s a phrase you’re going to hear a lot over the coming year, so you’ll want to know precisely what it means. The best way is to visit Amazon and order your own copy of “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,” by Kenda Creasy Dean and Oxford University Press.

THIS WEEK, we’re going to help as well:
we’re sharing the meaning of MTD and also a quick summary of Kenda’s 3 Prescriptions
AND TODAY, tell us what YOU think about “Almost Christian”: University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is exploring some of the conclusions drawn in “Almost Christian.” Today, Dr. Baker asks if religion really is turning into “soft serve ice cream.” Visit OurValues.Org and tell us what YOU think!
TUESDAY, we’ll introduce you to a very helpful website Kenda is developing.
WEDNESDAY, you’ll meet Kenda in our weekly in-depth interview.

From Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian”
Here Are Beliefs of MTD: Moralistic Theraputic Deism

  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 feel 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.

At first glance, none of this is terrible stuff. It’s close to what we teach in most Christian churches, isn’t it? In fact, Dean argues that it’s a very good summary of what adults in most Christian churches are conveying to young people week after week, year after year. But think about that list for a while and you’ll begin to get very nervous—especially those Number 3 and Number 4 beliefs, right? Is our faith really all about “me” and my own happiness and good feelings? And then Number 4? Ouch! That’s not what religious people are trying to teach the next generation, is it?

Dean’s book reports these troubling conclusions, drawing on a massive amount of data, analysis and interviews with teens she met nationwide, all to say: Yeah. That’s what most teens believe today.

From Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian”
Here Are Recommendations for Youth Ministry

First, here’s an important disclaimer! There is no precise, 1-2-3 formula in Kenda’s book. There is no specific youth curriculum between these covers. In fact, Kenda concludes her book by inviting readers to join her in discerning a new way to engage teenagers. After all: They don’t hate us. They don’t hate church. They want to learn from us. All of us, as adults, need to get connected with the next generation.

Most of the news-media coverage of Kenda’s work doesn’t reach the second half of her book, so this may be the first time you’ve discovered that there is more to this book than just the “good news/bad news” headlines above.


TRANSLATION: We need to figure out new ways to convey a vivid, authentic, mature faith to young people. “Translation” is conveying a message from one form to another. Kenda describes it as taking seriously “the conviction that God employs human beings as vehicles of divine love.” We need ways to transmit faith from one voice to another, from one life to another. Look up the word “translation” in Webster’s and you’ll discover the second definition is this: “a change to a different substance, form or appearance: conversion.” (No kidding. That’s right out of Webster’s.)

TESTIMONY: This is the next logical step, if you think about it carefully. If we are conveying the faith—if translation is happening—then we need to provide lots more opportunities for teenagers to talk about their own faith. The classic term is “testimony.” Kenda writes, “Yet apart from Mormons and some conservative Protestants, the NSYR suggests that most American teenagers … have enormous difficulty putting religious faith into words.”

DECENTERING: After Steps 1 and 2, this third step is pretty obvious, right? If anything, the biggest problem in American religious life today is that it’s so self-centered. Check out our recent interview with John Dominic Crossan on the Lord’s Prayer if you doubt that this is a problem. Kenda’s conclusion is that teenagers are picking up this message from adults: “Religion is all about me.” In contrast, decentering is all about moving our faith away from “me.” And, once we take that step, we’re soon distancing ourselves from the huge array of desires fueled by popular culture. Kenda writes, “Spiritual disentanglement is a necessary and ongoing practice of discipleship, especially for those of us who live in a culture where every desire finds its balm in a flashy but fleeting solution or amusement, usually available for purchase. …Writers like C.S. Lewis observed that even religion can become a distraction from faith.”

C.S. Lewis fans take note

If you’re a Lewis fan, the final months of 2010 are turning into a Lewis celebration! There’s a new Lewis-themed study-Bible coming soon, a new day-by-day “reader” of great Narnia passages to enjoy in 2011 and, of course, there’s a new Narnia movie debuting in December. (ReadTheSpirit will have more news about all of these releases in coming weeks.)

So, the news this fall from Kenda Creasy Dean? It’s bad.

But, the news from Kenda Creasy Dean also is very good if we carefully consider it.

RIGHT NOW, please visit Amazon and order your own copy of “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,” by Kenda Creasy Dean and Oxford University Press.

AND COME BACK for Part 2 and Part 3 of this series on “Almost Christian”!

We want our “national conversation” to continue

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