Almost Christian: An Interview with Kenda Creasy Dean
By Deborah Arca Mooney
From 2003-2005, researchers conducted the most ambitious study of adolescent spirituality to date in the U.S. Among the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), it was found that while three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, only half consider it very important, and fewer than half actually practice their faith as a regular part of their lives. Additionally, the study found the vast majority of teenagers to be "incredibly inarticulate about their faith and its meaning for their lives," with mainline Protestant teenagers ranking among the least religiously articulate of all.
Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary and a longtime youth minister in the United Methodist Church, was one of the study's interviewers and spent a summer talking to teenagers about their faith lives and views on religion. Her experience was the impetus for her compelling new book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, an investigation into -- and an impassioned response to -- the results of the NSYR study, results that she and many others in the church found quite disturbing.
Dean uses the study's findings to deliver a challenging wake-up call to the mainline church, which she believes is passing off a mutant form of Christianity to its young people. We spoke with Dean recently about the study's findings on teen faith, the "watered-down version of Christianity" prevalent in mainline churches, why and how the church must rediscover its sense of mission and faith language, and ultimately where hope lies for the future of the mainline church and young people longing for a faith worth living -- and dying -- for.
How did you get involved in this project, and why are its findings are so significant?
My buy-in to the project was that it was the largest study of American teenagers and religion to date, involving extensive interviews of more than 3,300 American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 (including telephone surveys of these teenagers' parents), followed by face-to-face follow-up interviews with 267 of these teenagers. There is also an important longitudinal component to the project that revisits more than 2,500 of the teens as they enter adulthood. And the project was conducted by very credible people, so that was in its favor as well. I figured it was something I was going to have to be dealing with for the next twenty years of my life anyway, so I might as well get in on the ground floor with it.
So, you spent many hours over the course of a summer interviewing teens, which you call "one of the most depressing summers of your life." Why do you say that?
Well, I had just finished a book about passion and now, as I was interviewing these kids for this study, I found it quite worrisome that kids again and again -- kids who were raised in the church -- fell into what we call a "moralistic therapeutic deist" category. They went to church a lot, but weren't really affected by it. That was the thing that was really shocking to me.
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team in 2009, after more than ten years of managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of music/theatre programs for children, and a music minister.