Almost Christian is one of the best books on youth culture that has come out for some time. The author, Kenda Creasy Dean, begins the book by saying, “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” (p. 3)
I could not agree more.
And yet Dean does not leave us without hope. She specifically says towards the end of the book, “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” (p. 189). Yes! The church does have the solution and we can move into the future with confidence and hope.
There has been a lot of talk recently about why kids are leaving the faith (and if they are leaving the faith in droves). Rather than focusing on how we can keep young people in the faith, she says the central question should be, “Does the church matter?” (p. 9). The problem, she says, is that kids approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity, which may be helpful and interesting, but certainly not necessary for an integrated life. Young people are particularly inarticulate about matters of their faith. She says:
“Time and time again in our interviews, we met young people who called themselves Christians, who grew up with Christian parents, who were regular participants in Christian congregations, yet who had no readily available faith vocabulary, few recognizable faith practices, and little ability to reflect on their lives religiously” (p. 16). Young people who have a hard time articulating what they believe about God, she says, have a hard time forming a significant connection to God.
So, how do we proceed? How do we help young people genuinely connect with God? Dean gives a few words of advice that are particularly helpful.
First, the solution is not in “beefing” up our programs or making worship more “cool” and attractive. Rather, we need to model the kind of mature, passionate faith we say we want young people to have. She asks a penetrating question, “Do we practice the kind of faith that we want our children to have?” (p. 39). My dad often told me that we are only able to take young people as far as we’ve gone ourselves. We need to begin by looking in the mirror.
Second, relationships are the medium through which convictions are built. Real faith is most likely to develop in the rich relational soil of families, congregations, and in mentoring relationships where young people see faith lived out and practiced.
Third, beliefs matter. It was refreshing to hear Dean mention the importance of developing a governing ideology (beliefs). She has a great quote on page 15, “We ‘teach’ young people baseball, but we ‘expose’ them to faith.” We need to actively teach young people how to think biblically and to put those beliefs into action. It won’t happen by accident.
Fourth, young people need practice talking about their faith. One of the reasons young people are so inarticulate about religion is that they spend little time in communities where a language of faith is spoken. Rarely are teens given an opportunity to practice using faith vocabulary. This year I am giving my students “Case Study” assignments where they have to teach their parents basic theological lessons. Not only have the parents been deeply appreciative; it provides a natural platform for students to talk theologically, thus making their beliefs real.
Mormons outperform all other religious groups in terms of being articulate about their faith. They were overwhelmingly more likely to talk about God, the Scriptures, prayer, or other religious or spiritual things with family and friends (74% compared to 46% for evangelical teens). Mormons actually apply Deuteronomy 6:4-7 to their families. Why don’t we Christians do the same?
Fifth, raise the bar. Dean says, “Afraid of being branded as religious zealots, many American churches have overcompensated, setting the bar low for religious commitment of any kind, tending God’s garden with forks and spoons when tractors and backhoes are in order.” Again, Yes! I could not have said it better myself. Too many people have lowered the bar for this generation, focusing on quantity instead of quality. The more I raise the bar for students the more they respond. Students are capable of great things if we’ll prepare them.
There is much reason for concern with this generation. But as Dean points out, the solution lies with the church and with each one of us. I am hopeful that we can make a significant difference if we follow the pattern Dean has laid out. For those who care about the next generation, “Almost Christian” is worth the investment.