Book Review: Almost Christian
Posted December 18, 2010on:
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean, Oxford University Press, 2010, 254 pp.
This book seriously knocked my socks off. I was expecting a sociological look at youth ministry based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, filled with statistics about how our youth are falling away and the church is threatened with greater decline. I also expected some of the traditional suggestions about revamping our church style to attract the next generation. This book was none of those things. Instead, what Kenda Creasy Dean offers here is a prophetic indictment of American Christianity, based on the perspectives of our young people and solidly grounded in theology and biblical perspective. I read it once, and anticipate reading it again.
The core of the book centers on an interpretation of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which was a massive research study from 2003-2005 into the spiritual and religious lives of youth, including surveys and extensive interviews of young people across the United States. The book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers published the initial results and introduced the concept of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as the true faith practice of most teens. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a pseudo-religious belief system that emphasizes being good and nice, feeling happy and good about oneself. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism created the world and watches over it and helps out when we have problems, but is otherwise uninvolved in our lives and makes no demands of us other than being good, nice and fair. Soul Searching talked about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a displacing substantive religious faith with “personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.” (Almost Christian, 14)
Kenda Creasy Dean does not take issue with the research of Soul Searching, since she herself was a researcher in the NYSR. What she does, however, is shift the burden (and blame) away from youth and squarely on to the shoulders of the church, parents and the example we have set. She argues that, in the interest of making Christianity appealing, we have failed to make it anything of consequence. Youth in the study generally have positive feelings about religion, because they don’t think it matters very much. We have not shown them, by the example of our lives and the missional imagination of our churches, that Christian faith makes any difference at all.
I have seen Moralistic Therapeutic Deism at work in the lives of the youth in my congregation, and I have struggled to break through it in my conversations with them. I also recognize my complicity in the problem. I have shied away from the hard truths of sin and sacrifice in an attempt to make Christianity appeal to young people. I have downplayed the reality that the God of Jesus Christ demands we give up everything to follow, that we take up our cross and abandon our possessions, in fear that such a high price might scare them away altogether.
The good news is that it’s not too late, and the church already has everything needed to invite our young people into consequential faith. Dean names the arts of “translation, testimony and detachment”–practices that help us understand our story as part of God’s story, that help us articulate our faith for others to hear, and help us let go of the things of this world and see with God’s perspective. The way to teach people that kind of faith is by example—the example of parents and church members living lives of sacrifice and service in God’s name, sharing their faith with the next generation.
Anyone who cares about youth and youth ministry should read this book. So should anyone who cares about the future and the vitality of the church. There is much more substance and sophistication than I can convey in this short review. It is a rich and compelling read. Dean’s convincing argument is that the faith of our teenagers is the faith of their parents, and the faith the church has been teaching. We all find ourselves co-opted by the power of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The power of this book is the depth of analysis Dean offers, steeped in theological, biblical and spiritual insight. Like all good prophets, she offers a scathing conviction, and then she tells us how God is going to redeem us and sets us on the path toward righteousness.