Almost Christian: Going Viral for Jesus

I’m blogging through Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book, Almost Christian, a theological follow up to Christian Smith’s Soul Searching. I hope you’ll join me. Find all the posts here.

In chapter 7, “Going Viral for Jesus: The Art of Testimony,” Kenda begins by tackling three of the questions that I heard voiced after Soul Searching came out.

First: Maybe the teens interviewed by the NYSR were just uncomfortable talking to adults about their faith.

Second: Maybe teens are deeply religious but just talk about it differently than the adult researchers wanted them to.

And third: Maybe teens are just generally inarticulate, but still deeply religious.

Kenda acknowledges that any of these is potentially valid (even devastating) criticism of the NSYR.  However, she counters that there were, in fact, many teens in the NSYR who could clearly articulate what they believed and why.  So, she writes, it is possible for a teen to be deeply religious and articulate about religious matters.

Then she gets down to brass tacks: For teens who are about to speak articulately about their faith, why are they?  The heart of Kenda’s argument in this chapter is simple: It’s because the parents and other adults in these teens’ lives talk openly about God.  The epigraph to this chapter gets at that truth:

“If I have achieved anything in my life, it has been because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” –Dorothy Day

But Kenda takes it one step further than Dorothy Day.  The teenagers who hold a “consequential faith,” according to the NYSR, are rife with adults in their lives who talk about — not religion or faith or even God — but Jesus.  In other words, generalities and facile talk about a vague God do adolescents no good.  It’s the particularities and uniquenesses of Christianity — namely, Jesus Christ — that give teenagers handles onto which they can hang as the vagaries of adolescence shake their faith.  Kenda writes,

“Teenagers who have trouble articulating what they believe about God also seem to have trouble forging a significant connection to God — and youth who do not have a language for Christ are unlikely to imagine and identity in Christ.”

It reminds me of a time, years ago, when I was on a church staff and our senior pastor went to a week-long conference hosted by pollster George Gallup.  Upon his return, we asked him what he’d learned, and he said, “Well, it all boils down to this: If you want a healthy and growing church, be sure that everyone in the congregation is personally asked, twice a year, ‘How are you doing with Jesus?'”

Kenda goes deeper on this point when she discusses legitimate peripheral participation, the learning theory that states that one becomes integrated into a new linguistic community primarily by participating in that community (not by learning about that community).  Here, again, Kenda is covering some of the same ground that I did in PMYM, in which I argued that many teenagers come to faith by being immersed in a youth ministry — I used the examples of a mission trip and the 30-Hour Famine — as opposed to becoming a Christian before being allowed into the “inner sanctum.”

Finally, Kenda advocates for several youth ministry practices that help teenagers learn the particular language of Christianity.  Among them are “apprenticeships” and “faith immersions.”

My question about this chapter goes back to the top, and that is, Was the NSYR fair in having adults ask teenagers to articulate their faith?

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  • The above are Kenda’s better points. Only because her points here confirm my quasi-Quaker bias against hifalutin theology (blah, blah) and against creedal blathering as a surrogate for Inner Light. As an aside, I don’t think Kenda or anyone else can “top” Dorothy Day for action (I know the point in Tony’s notes concerned Jesus-speak, and not action, but still).

    The still better read of criticisms of the NYSR is that all three of the three-point criticisms above act cumulatively together (non-linearly, that is, dynamically) in combination in youth studies – so that Kenda’s happy data about Jesus-speak testimony by youth is still really just ad-hoc and anecdotal evidence of data-mining just the right smart-youth articulate testimonies which you already want to hear – it’s the data you want – the same criticism I voiced several posts ago about the procustean-bed nature of it all.

    Which is maybe all we have anyway – the anecdotes of adult expectations of religiosity dropped as adult cookie-cutters onto the dough of youth.

    Or maybe the parable of the sower and the seed with its variable results reflects a simple but powerful divine wisdom about the catch-as-catch can nature of replicating the “virus” of the gospel. Not that the attempts to mathematize the viral nature of any other mimetic reproduction (gospel or non-gospel mimesis) have made any progress – all metrics and mathematics of mimesis are stumped. Suck it up and deal with it.

    So why not data-mine away? And be about the business of sowing and catching to the Wind …

    Kenda, take a break from academe. And join Wesley preaching with Whitfield in an open field.



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