I recently finished reading Kenda Dean’s new book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. As I said in a previous post that recommended several books I have recently read, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in youth ministry, young people, or the state of the American Church.
To put it differently, if the beginning of Dean’s book doesn’t make you want to read more, then you may not want to read it:
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… 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. (3-4)
As Dean says a few paragraphs later, “lackadaisical faith is not young people’s issue, but ours.” (4)
In other words, this book is as much about the current state of the American church as it is about the state of youth ministry or the faith of youth themselves. Dean sees the faith of teenagers as a mirror that shows the American church the faith that it is teaching to them. Part of Dean’s argument is that the church is doing a decent job of forming young people in the faith that they are practicing. The problem is that this faith is “an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship” (6)
Here is the question that should cause American Christians to do some serious soul-searching: “What if the church models a way of life that asks, not passionate surrender but ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith, and a hands-off God instead of the decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today?” (12)
Dean’s work moves beyond Christian Smith and Melinda Denton in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenages and the National Study of Youth and Religion (NYSR), which was the research that informed the book. Here is the central question that Dean explores in Almost Christian: “How can the twenty-first-century church better prepare young people steeped in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for the trust-walk of Christian faith?” (22)
The argument of the book, then, contains a detailed description of the problem of the “parasite” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, several positive examples of what it looks like to “claim a peculiar God-story,” and several descriptive chapters that outline suggestions for “cultivating consequential faith.”
Almost Christian has gained attention in many venues. An article about the book on CNN.com even stirred up some controversy. As of this writing, there are more than 5,000 comments to the article. This is an important book that raises some serious questions, not just about ministry to youth and young adults, but about the contemporary state of Christianity in America.
After reading the book, the question I am left with is: What tools or insights does an intentionally Wesleyan approach to Christian formation offer? Admittedly, this is a question beyond the scope of Dean’s book, but I believe the Wesleyan tradition has a rich contribution to make to attempts to “cultivate consequential faith” in Christians both young and old(er)!