Almost Christian: An Interview with Kenda Creasy Dean
You spend a significant portion of your book encouraging the church to reclaim its central identity as a missional community. How have we veered from that and why is it so critical to the future of the church that we rediscover a missional imagination?
As I understand the church, if you lack a missional imagination, then you're not really a church. I think we've lost track of this! I grew up this way, too; it's very common for people to sit around saying, "We're a church, now what's our mission going to be?" It should be the other way around: mission calls the church into being. If you don't have a mission, you're probably not a church, you're probably a club!
Part of the problem is just the natural inertia that happens with human organizations. But we also have redefined what the church is supposed to be about, especially youth ministry. What many parents really want most from youth ministers is to keep their children safe, keep them off drugs, out of trouble and out of bed with another person. As long as youth are not doing those things, then youth ministry has succeeded. Obviously what's missing from that is any sense of identity that has to do with the Christian story.
Somehow we've shrink-wrapped what Christian identity is; we tend to think about it in terms of having this cluster of beliefs. Even the NSYR errs in that direction; the way they define who is highly devoted among the teens has to do with what they believe. There is a philosopher named James Smith who critiques this study for being too cognitive, and I think he's right. The missional imagination implies that this is a way of being in the world, this is a way you relate to other people, this is a relational way of defining ourselves and yes, there are beliefs that are a part of that, but they take a back seat to the relational call of the Gospel. Identifying with Christ is identifying yourself with a community that relates to people in a distinctive way.
So what kinds of teachings and practices are necessary to seed this missional imagination in young people? What is necessary for us to move beyond a faith that is based on beliefs to a way of being in the world?
I'm persuaded that you have to tell your story. The story that defines the community is not incidental. Telling your story is a little different than adhering to a certain set of doctrines.
Part of why I'm persuaded that telling the story is a good idea, is that because it's been largely homogenized into the gospel of niceness. And that's an understandable homogenization; there is a seed of that you can trace back to the Gospel, because the Gospel does want us to treat people well! But it's been drained of all the passion that gives rise to that, and by passion I mean loving something enough to suffer for it. That's the way God love us, and that's how God calls us to love others and to love God in return. That, in a nutshell, is what the Christian story is about.
I also want to help parents understand the distinction between passing on beliefs versus passing on what you love. That's a fundamental misunderstanding that many parents (and adults) have. They say, "I don't know enough to talk to youth." But sharing your faith is not about sharing what you know! It's sharing what -- and who -- you love that is compelling to kids. What you know or don't know is kind of second order.
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.