In the trenches with teens

In the trenches with teens November 15, 2010

Editor’s note: I asked a gal who is raising teens to review Kenda Dean’s Almost Christian book. Jennifer’s review folos.

Almost Christian, by Kenda Creasy Dean

Image of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church

Reviewed by Jennifer Pursley

Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian is a response to a longitudinal study by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton at Notre Dame University.  Dean helped with this National Study of Youth and Religion, and being a youth minister herself (in the Methodist Church), she was given the task of putting the vast amount of information into laymen’s terms, for the benefit of parents and pastors of teens.  Being a parent of two teens myself, I was both looking forward to and dreading what I might find in its pages.

I am a wife and homeschooling mother to 3 children, ages 15, 13, and 8.  I am a voracious reader but I will admit to a hesitation about picking up this book. A homeschooling mother of 3 doesn’t have a lot of time to go looking for new things to worry about or implement or check off.  Parental guilt is never ending.  I wondered how I would feel when I closed the book for the last time.  Heavy?  Motivated?  Confused?  Like any other parent, what I need daily is a dose of hope.  What Kenda Dean does in this book is take us to hope the long way around. 

I am also a Christian, a member of the Presbyterian Church of America.  We are a “reformed” people, by which we mean to say that we follow the teachings of the Reformation, a time when the gospel was retrieved from the teachings of Scripture out of a corrupted Church where Law and moral code was used like a weapon. Here is my only caveat to the book: For me the word “missional” carries with it the connotation of people who think the church is dispensable – people who “do church” but don’t “go to church.”  I don’t lump Kenda Dean there but she undoubtedly is “missional-minded” and I struggled sometimes to grasp how to be gospel-driven & missional-minded at the same time.

I will admit right here I tend to favor law over grace. I always find it easier to pick up a “how-to” book with 12 steps to guarantee success than I do a book like Almost Christian (or the only other “parenting” book on my shelf, Age of Opportunity by Paul David Tripp). It’s always easier to me to “do something” than to “be something.  But Almost Christian is not a book with any sort of easy answers. Nobody likes to be needy, but Dean points out that if we fail to recognize our need, we will also fail to recognize our hope.  And it is Jesus Christ that is our only sure hope as parents – or people.  This goes much deeper than a 12 step program:  it requires honesty, discernment, and most of all, humility on the part of the parent or youth worker.      

The title, Almost Christian, comes from a sermon by John Wesley who once preached a message about how easy it is for any of us to wear the garments of a Christian – to talk like Christians – to experience the blessings of a church family – and yet never be a true Christian.  To be an “almost Christian” is to not be a Christian at all, and the task of a discipler is to study your disciple (be that a youth ministry member or a child) and lead them into the process of being “reflexive,” as Dean says – helping them to see their own need of Christ as we are open about our own. This requires all of us to be honest about why we do what we do.  It requires intentionality.  I think for many Americans, this has become a lost art, because we often live in the tyranny of the urgent, with no “margins” of time to think through important matters such as our faith and how we pass down our values to those we love most.  Dean makes the point that we send our kids to algebra class and piano lessons because we know that these things don’t get “caught,” they get “taught…” yet we fail to see that the same holds true for faith matters.  It is the only subject that we feel free to assume that “empty space” will get filled up with the right information, and our children will somehow stumble upon vibrant, passionate faith.

This is where it gets sticky because when we study our children in order to intentionally teach, there is always a temptation to measure them as well.  And who can measure hearts or maturity or spiritual progress?  I thought Dean was very careful with this problem, very hospitable and gracious towards these young people who for the most part have had no opportunities yet, no “crises of faith,” to catapult them into a living faith of their own.  Her critiques are not critiques of THE TEENS themselves, but rather of the people who are supposed to be leading them. 

“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is the name that the NSYR gives to the form of religion that has taken hold in America in recent years.  Moralistic:  God wants us to BE good.  Therapeutic:  God wants us to FEEL good.  Deism:  God is distantly watching, not directly involved in our lives.  It is up to us to make it or break it.   This type of religion is empty of the good news of the gospel, and it is nothing like orthodox Christianity, but…

Nobody seems to notice.  It’s “working for us,” or so the church has been lulled into thinking.  And yet we see chinks in the wall and wonder, “what’s going on?  And how can we fix it?”  Many of the attempts to “fix” the problem only address the symptoms.  The cancer underneath, according to the NSYR, is not that our kids have become detached from the faith of their parents and elders, but rather they are swallowing it whole.  Dean goes a long way to clarify this assertion.   

Dean believes that especially in America, our churches (as well as the parents in these churches) have found a way to use Christianity to promote behaviors that help people function better in society – Christians are nice, they obey, the don’t lie cheat or steal.  They make good citizens.  But Dean’s point is this:  That is not the definition of a Christian.  It’s “almost Christian.”   But this is only part of the story, and it ignores the part about being “salty” and “full of light” in a dark world.  That means conspicuousness, not blandness.  It’s also more law without gospel, lacking the power of real Christianity.  It’s kind of a caricature of a Christian, an idea that has somehow taken hold in this comfortable society of ours, one that would probably be unrecognizable in countries where faith in Christ is still a death sentence. 

Even a quick look at the New Testament is enough to convince us that Christianity is something altogether different than a way to create well-liked, useful citizens.  In fact, it often ends up creating the opposite – people that operate on the fringe, with passion and unpopular opinions.  People that speak the truth with conviction are rarely received with open arms by a society that promotes “tolerance” as its highest virtue.  As a parent, to instill in my children a living faith like this is a risky move. Do I truly believe that to be a Christ-follower really does bring all the blessing that God promises – or am I afraid?  Am I aiming for “a bird in the hand?”  Something safe, something “normal?”  Or am I willing to go out on the limb – and allow my children to go out on a limb of their own – for the double portion? 

To add to the “fear factor” there is the question:  Do I trust God to do this for my children?  Dean ends her book with the big black arrow pointing to God Himself, the One who “began the work, and also will complete it.”  We as parents and youth workers learn to trust God as we are faced with the impossible task of raising Christians for the Kingdom of God.  Can we measure hearts and progress and judge the maturity level (or even the faith of) our teens?  Can we guarantee outcomes?  NO.  We are never responsible for the harvest, we are only responsible for the sowing.  We have to do this with loving care – fertilizing the soil, watering it in, and observing carefully. 

My spiritual life before God matters, and it matters generationally.  It is not a private thing, and I take the call of Deuteronomy to heart, especially after reading this book. Faith must be talked about constantly, with daily casual references and a willingness to be engaged. It must be lived out within community, it depends upon the sacraments and the grace of God.  I have to live my life with Christ with my children.  This is how they learn – from us.  The question is, will they learn Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:  another form of law?  Or will they learn the incredible grace of an unpredictable God? 

This book is not an indictment against teenagers in the church.  It is a warning to “comfortable” adults who are failing to give teenagers what they apparently desire, according to the NSYR:  a living, vibrant, informed faith. Specifically, a faith in Jesus Christ that is based not upon any of the good works any of us do, but rather on the final act of God Himself on our behalf in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son.

My favorite quote in the book was found in the last chapter: “If American churches are thinking small, there is a reason:  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism sets our sights on ourselves, not the stars.  Yet a missional imagination inspired by the gospel requires the church, above all, to think big, to lash our ambitions to the cross, and set our hopes on Jesus Christ, who established the church for the world, and nothing less… which means that we are not here, any of us, for ourselves.”

An ancient king once wrote these words before facing an enemy horde: “Lord, we do not know what to do, but our eyes look to you.”  (2 Chron. 20:12)  I think this is exactly the stance Kenda Creasy Dean leaves us in with her book, as she exposes reality and offers us a hope that is unlike anything the world has to offer.  It has left me feeling like Jesus’ own mother, “pondering these things” in my heart.

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