Almost Christian: An Interview with Kenda Creasy Dean

{Kenda Creasy Dean. Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. Oxford University Press 2010. 264 pages. $24.95}

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. Patheos’ Deborah Arca Mooney 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.

You refer to this “moralistic therapeutic deism” quite a bit in your book. Can you unpack this term for us?

That’s the name the NSYR came up with to describe the “belief system” of the majority of teens surveyed. The shorthand of moralistic therapeutic deism is that religion helps you feel good and do good, but God pretty much stays out of the way. Now, you can call on God if you need God to solve a problem, but God’s track record on solving problems is pretty bad. So the primary God-images that the kids had were either as the “cosmic therapist” or the “divine butler.” The therapist serves as the one who helps you feel good about yourself; the guidance counselor image comes to mind here when working with teenagers. The divine butler is somebody who comes when called upon but otherwise stays away. Those images were identified in the study as being dominant among teenagers. And that was very true with the teens I talked to as well. They believe that:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to Heaven when they die.

And yet, I imagine a lot of people would look at this and say, “Well, those aren’t terribly bad things for a teenager to associate Christian identity with — being nice to everyone, a God they can call on when in need, and a God who helps them feel good about themselves.” But you assert that for Christians, there is something fundamentally disturbing about this kind of faith. How would you answer those people who say these aren’t bad things for teens to believe in?

I think the bottom line is that it’s a very acculturated and self-serving view of religious faith. And at least in the historic teaching of the church, you can’t get away with having it be all “about me.” That’s contrary to what Christianity has stood for historically. So for the church to have a self-serving spirituality winds up really undercutting what the central understanding of the church’s purpose has been since the beginning of the church itself.

Now you’re right, it’s true, there are worse heresies out there. It’s a good thing that kids aren’t killing each other. We should be glad about that! But if the church settles for that as being all that we stand for, then I think we’ve missed the mark. There are a lot of cultures that would say we shouldn’t kill each other, but they would not call themselves Christian.

So my view is that the self-centered nature of moralistic therapeutic deism is simply contrary to what the purpose of the church is. Theologically, the church is supposed to exist for the world. We don’t exist to perpetuate ourselves or to make ourselves happy. It’s nice if that can happen, but that’s not the purpose. If anything, that might be a fringe benefit. The Gospel story that animates the church is about self-giving love and dying in order to live.

This seems to be one of your most important points, the difference between a belief in the God of “niceness,” which dominates most teens’ understanding of religion, and the God of sacrificial love. And that difference can be found in the unique claim that Christianity makes in our lives and our world. You contend that the church has not done a very good job of passing on this claim to our young people, and is in fact, passing on a “watered-down version” of Christianity. That seems like a pretty important wake-up call for the church.

Well, you asked earlier about the most significant findings of this study. One is that moralistic therapeutic deism isn’t just about kids. It’s about the faith of their parents as well, and by extension, the faith of their congregations. There are a number of other kinds of studies that have shown that if you want to assess the health of a culture, look at what’s going on with young people. Youth are barometers of what’s happening in the larger system. And the findings of the NSYR would be an example of that. So, I think what it tells us is that we’ve gotten off-message. The message we have bought into is one that is very closely tied to American civil religion or American civic values. Those may be values we want to uphold, but there are places where they are at odds with the Gospel.  Sacrificial love, for example, goes against the grain of can-do American individualism.

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.

I found that very compelling, and the implicit call then, to us as adults, to ask ourselves, “What do we love? What do we find compelling about this faith we say we believe in?” I actually see this as an exciting opportunity for all of us to re-engage our faith journey and rediscover a vocabulary of faith. You mention in your book that one of the characteristics of the most highly devoted youth in the NYSR study was that they were from families where religious language was an organic part of family life (the Mormon Church and the black church are two examples you cite). For those of us who aren’t so confident in our own faith vocabulary, what would you recommend?

The most obvious way to learn a language is to hang around somebody who speaks it. There are people in our congregations who speak a faith language. So we need to identify who they are and hang out with them! I’m thinking of a couple in a church my husband and I attended when we lived in Pennsylvania who were at least 25 years older than us, and they’d die if they knew we thought of them as spiritual directors — they don’t’ even know what that term means — but in fact they functioned that way for our family. And part of the reason was that they had a very explicit language of prayer. They spoke about prayer as though it were just a normal part of their lives, because for them, it was! By spending time with Bud and Norma, we learned to talk about our lives in those terms too, because they created this framework in which that was possible. As Peter Berger says, talking about something makes it real to us. My own background is in conferences and camping ministries. Christian camps would be one example of a microcosm where teenagers can practice this language of faith.

Do you think our uneasiness with religious language stems from living in a multi-religious country and world, where we are trying to be conscious of not offending the other, as well as our reluctance as mainline Christians to be associated with the Religious Right?

That’s one of the most recent versions of it, but I think there’s been ambivalence about religious language for a long time, even before we realized how multicultural we are. I think it can be traced back to the medieval university, when theology first sought credibility in a university system. That required a different kind of language than the language of piety that had been what the church offered. And so these two streams of theological discourse developed throughout the Enlightenment:  the official church language, which was trying to be conversant with the sciences, and then there was the language of piety and mystery and power, found in the hymns, the liturgy, the prayers — stuff that doesn’t make any sense to people outside the church, but for those on the inside, this language is life-giving. I think every generation has a version of that struggle. If you take the Gospel seriously, you can’t get away with offending other people for their faith; that would be denying what we say we believe. So how do you deal with that? An increasingly common answer seems to be just not to talk about it. That’s kind of where we land.

You also make an interesting comparison in your book between the religious pluralism of our time and that of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. You suggest there is something we can learn from Christians living in that time whose identity was so radically focused on Jesus.

Christianity was a tiny religious minority then and what made people notice the church was their distinctive way of life. People said:  See how they love each other? See how they take care of each other? See how they are giving alms to the poor and hospitality to strangers? See how they welcome people into their homes? It was so startlingly different from the way the general culture lived that it was noticeable, even with this little tiny group of people. Everyone wanted to know:  what gave these people their dignity? Their courage? Their hope? Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder talks about being a witness to the waiting world. By being ourselves, the church, that’s the witness.

You also talk about other practices that are important in nurturing the faith formation in young people. You refer to these as “liminal experiences,” those places where kids can, as another youth ministry teacher Mark Yaconelli says, have their hearts broken open. Can you say more about these practices and why they’re important?

The two experiences I talk about in the book are mission trips and prayer. Mission trips have all sorts of problems with them and it behooves us to go into them cautiously. The biggest problem is that we think they’re for other people. But what makes the heart break open is the sense of being removed from our previous self-definitions and allowing ourselves to be claimed by another human being, another perspective on the world. I actually think that it’s this encounter with the other which is the non-negotiable part of the way we live our lives. By other I mean both the “little o” (the other human being), and the big “O,” God. So, yes, in going across a boundary to encounter people who see the world differently than we do — it might be on a mission trip, or it might be in the cafeteria — the other makes a claim on us, not because we have something to give them, but because they have something to give us.

The encounter with God as “the Other” is what prayer offers. That’s a different kind of liminality, but it’s still the encounter with otherness that prayer opens us up to. It requires us to go into this in-between space and take risks.

How do you hope this book will be of help to youth ministers and the church?

I’m not sure I know the answer to this question. Nobody I know who is a youth minister is surprised about the results of the study. It would be great if it helped churches take a good, honest look in the mirror and begin to do some serious self-reflection about who we’re called to be in the world, and the message that sends young people. What I really want parents and congregations to do is one radical thing because of their faith, and do it in front of their children, and let children know that it’s because you’re a follower of Christ that this radical thing matters. Christian Smith (NSYR lead researcher) suggests giving away 20% of our income, but I think it could also mean changing jobs, changing neighborhoods, changing friends. It might mean sharing your home with a foreign exchange student, or going to a struggling church instead of a successful one. Doing one radical thing because of our faith would speak volumes.

So that a young person would “catch” the passion of this faith . . .

Or at the very least they could look at their parents or someone in their church and say, “Wow, that‘s what faith does to people, that’s what Christianity makes you do!  You can live no other way.” Unfortunately, the example we give them is that you can live the American dream just fine and still call yourself Christian and it doesn’t really seem to make a difference. So what do they learn? They learn that Christianity doesn’t seem to make a difference, so why would they be sold out for that?

At the conclusion of your book you say that while the findings of this study deeply disturb you, you leave this project “strangely hopeful.” What makes you able to say that?

I think the most hopeful thing for me is that young people, even though they adhere to moralistic therapeutic deism, are not giving their lives to it. It’s not big enough, it doesn’t matter enough, it’s not substantial enough, it doesn’t have enough teeth for them to give their lives to it. So what are they giving their lives to? Well, all sorts of things that are problematic. But I believe with everything in me that kids want something to live for that’s worth dying for. And if Christianity isn’t it, they’ll go find something else. Unfortunately, a lot of the things that kids are giving their lives to are pretty flimsy gods and pretty short-lived ways of being in the world. So I actually do think Christianity has a better story than what most of them are going after.

But if we don’t tell a story that’s worth going to the mat for, then I don’t know why you would necessarily give yourself over to it. So I actually think it’s a good thing teenagers are ho-hum about what they think of Christianity — because that’s not Christianity. It’s a distorted vestige of what Christianity once was. But if the Gospel is presented in full — and by presented I don’t mean just verbally, but lived, in all of its radical implications — I think that will get young people’s attention in ways that moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t.

The other thing that gives me hope is all of the people who are committed to kids in the church. Youth ministers are an irrationally hopeful breed. I have the privilege of working with youth ministers all the time, and they are constantly ignoring what’s impossible and doing it anyway, and that’s the “one radical thing” that keeps the church alive. God shows up under conditions like that — and not so often in sermons about being a good citizen.

About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.


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