Almost Christian: Becoming Christian-ish

Almost Christian: Becoming Christian-ish July 12, 2010

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

In chapter one, Kenda lays out her thesis: the reason that youth ministry is failing to make disciples is because churches suck.  She puts it a bit more softly:

Since the religious and spiritual choices of American teenagers echo, with astonishing clarity, the religious and spiritual choices of the adults who love them, lackadaisical faith is not young people’s issue, but ours. (4)

What she’s doing here is contradicting the common sociological interpretation of the National Study of Youth and Religion (and similar studies), which is that teenage religiosity is a reflection of teenagers, not a reflection of religion.  That is, adolescence is a time in which commitment to a religious system is virtually impossible.

Kenda disagrees, and she points the finger at the American church, which has,

perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. (5)

So, my question is this: Is Kenda right, that the NSYR is a “wake-up call for the church”(15)?  Or are the results simply indicative of the nature of teenage religion, regardless of the epoch in which we live?

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  • I think BOTH the church and home are to blame for the way teens view God. It starts at home, as it should, with the family. WE are all too passive in our ways and that leaves us with a view of a god who say, “keep doing things the way they have always been done” instead of the One who tells us to love ALL.

    If you point the finger at the church, you see society reflected right back. The church doesn’t look like Christ. And neither do most families that retain a place in the institutional model of church.
    This comes from my experience both in and out of the IC.

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  • NSYR is a “wake-up call for the church”
    Very basic family systems dynamic, right? We go to family therapy because the kids need help. Reality? Any youthworker worth their salt knows 9/10 times, it’s the parents that need the therapy. They also know you can determine the health of a congregation by looking at the youth ministry.

  • Nathan

    Even a “healthy” youth ministry (I am not conceding that very many even exist) cannot keep a church healthy: cancers spread. Something must change. I agree with Steven that both church and family contribute to the problem. Individualism and pragmatism are everywhere. But dumping “institutional church” isn’t necessarily going to help: too often it’s just another way to remake the church in our own cultural image, according to our own cultural preference (even if that happens to be counter-cultural).

    Market-based ecclesiology is proving to be destructive, it’s just taken a few generations to really bear some fruit. Until churches get some deep ecclesiological thinking into their members (and leadership!) I don’t think we’re going to see any lasting progress.

  • Blaming the church for a kid’s view of God is like blaming schools because kids play too many video games. This stuff starts at home. My kids spend three hours a week (if that) at church and in youth group. How can a youth minister expect to make a dramatic impact with what amounts to 1/56 of their entire week?

    No, our kids have a strong commitment to God because my wife and I taught them that. The church has reinforced it, and brought them into a group of other kids who also have a commitment to God.

    Blaming the church and teenagers is too easy. If you want to point a finger, point it at where they started 13 – 17 years ago.

  • Individuals exist in a social context that shapes how they understand themselves in relation to others and the world around them. When we focus responsibility for religious understanding solely on the individual, we miss the significance of this wider environment of influence. We also shift responsibility away from the religious community to communicate about faith in language and action that is effective and inviting. When it’s left to the individual to accept or reject, it removes the religious community from responsibility to be relevant to the context that shapes individuals. This is the great challenge confronting religious communities today–to be relevant in a new century that is bringing with it new forms of community, behaviors, desires, language and expressions of human fulfillment and purpose.

  • Paul Clifford

    My wife and I both saw church as a place where lives and eternities should change when we were teens. Now that we’re in our 30’s we’re part of a church where it actually happens. I think Dean is right. If the church doesn’t call the teens up to something God-sized that’s bigger than what they can accomplish, most won’t step into it.


  • The NSYR might be indicative of the nature of western teen religion. I’m thinking here about Epstein’s Teen 2.0 and how he says that we are infantilizing teens in all realms of society. Perhaps the NSYR is a reflection of the infantilization of teen faith.

    Of course, that is also the problem of the church, too. Can teens have “mature” faith? I think so, but I’m not sure if it is possible in our current cultural context. Maybe we need to fight infantilization broadly before we can expect teens to take their faith seriously.

  • @Erik – I don’t think the church can throw up their hands because of the actions of parents. Where do parents learn about the faith? Where are parents formed in faith? Where do parents learn how to parent their children in the faith? Where do parents learn to take their kids to a program for 3 hours a week in hopes they will become mature Christians? The church.

    The church is ontologically prior to the family. Yes, the family is the primary place where faith formation might take place, but the family learns the faith from the church. The church is not off the hook.

  • @Matt, you raise a good point, and I don’t think the church should throw their hands up. But rather, the church shouldn’t have the only finger pointed at it because they don’t reach teenagers.

    I can just as easily answer each of your questions with “the parents.” Parents learn about faith from THEIR parents, learn how to parent their kids in faith from the way they were taught at home, and learned to take their kids to a 3-hour program from the way they were raised.

    So, I’m not saying it’s all the parents fault, or that the church is not at fault, but rather, that the church needs to share the blame and credit with the parents. The church could be the most awesome place on earth, but if the parents don’t take their kids there, they’ll never learn about it in the first place. Conversely, if the parents take their kids to church, but church just sucks, then kids won’t learn how to worship.

    It’s a cycle of teaching and faith, rather than a linear cause-and-effect.

  • Tony I take issue with your assessment that Kenda is contradicting the sociological interpretation of the NSYR. My reading of the NSYR and Soul Searching is that it is absolutely saying that youth are NOT radical, but rather follow in their parents footsteps to an unbelievably high degree. Kenda isn’t saying anything that Christian Smith hasn’t already.

    oh and personally, from working with youth, the answer is an obvious YES that our kids are lackluster because their parents are lackluster. Being a youth pastor is exponentially harder than being a lead pastor because parents work out their own issues through their kids….plus the kids issues. And I’ve been both a lead and youth pastor, btw.

  • It’s complicated. There are more variables than just the church and the families. It is hard for me to sit back and blame teens for what appears to lacksidaisical faith, however. Peter Benson at the Search Institute would say that parents are doing a lousy job at noticing what is great about their adolescent children and nurturing that greatness while I would add that churches and youth ministries are likely guilty of the same thing.

    There might be a clue within Timmy’s abilities and interests and what lights Timmy up as to how faith might be expressed best in Timmy’s life. But Timmy needs a multi-level social system of faith with eyes to see and ears to hear how Timmy can be great. As it stands, Timmy likely has a social system which sees him as a number to be counter, a problem to be solved, a consumer to be branded, an object over which to worry etc.

    If Timmy is treated as a means to an (denominational, economic, family social status etc) end in his social system, how can he develop faith?

    In sum, if Timmy is objectified, his faith is likely to be developmentally delayed or just flat out quit unless he has a faith-filled defiance and willingness to risk rejection from everything that claims to love him. There are a few Timmys like that. However, if Timmy is treated as a subject within a social system that seeks to bring out the depth and nuance of Timmy, he may have a fighting chance.

  • yes

  • I think it’s intriguing how quickly you all turned on the parents of teenagers, blaming them for the insipidness of teenage faith in America. But Kenda doesn’t talk about parents in chapter one. And I wrote, “churches suck,” not “parents suck.” Are we professional Christians a bit timid to take the blame for this failure?

    And, Alan, regarding teenage religiosity, Kenda herself notes that many in the sociological world find the NSYR positive. American teens who are even vaguely religious are more likely to stay out of trouble, not get pregnant, and wear their seatbelts. Even in Soul Searching, Smith and Denton are relatively positive about this, even if teens are unable to articulate what they believe.

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  • @Tony – Not all of us blamed the parents and let the church off the hook.

    Furthermore, other research indicates that mature faith is developed in teens in three spheres: the home, the congregation, and age-specific ministry. Interestingly, “activity in two of the three spheres results in the development of a ‘sweet spot’ promoting greater levels of faith maturity.” So, teens who have disconnected parents are not automatically relegated to a life without mature faith. The church can make up for deficiencies in parental faith.

  • @Tony, ahhhhh, I smell what your steppin’ in now. I think I misread what you were saying. Yea I would definitely agree with you about the assessment that religious teens have better outcomes (pregnancy, seatbelts etc..). I guess my thoughts, and reading of Soul Searching, had to do with their assessment that Religious parents have basically religious kids. Likewise, atheist parents basically have atheist kids. There isn’t a radical break in kids behavior as compared to the parents behavior. Which leads to the key extrapolation being that:

    If kids are a reflection of their parents, and parents are a reflection of the church/religion, then kids are a reflection of the church/religion.

    Also, Tony, have you read through the follow up to Soul Searching titled Souls in Transition? I haven’t plowed through it yet but it’s the 5 year follow-up study to the NSYR. Especially in relation to your question “Is the NSYR a reflection of religion or ‘teenagerism’?” this could provide a helpful insight. Thanks again for your thoughts, btw.

    Oh, and for the record, I don’t think parents suck. Or the church for that matter. In the ways that we’ve all seen the pressures and responsibilities that kids face increasing rapidly, many of those same pressures and responsibilities are increasing for parents as well. Life is just incredibly full and things like religious education, family time, and the centrality of church life and activities are being pushed to the side. There are lots of factors that go into the cultural changes in our churches and society. Yes parents and the church have a part to play, but they certainly are not the only ones to blame.

  • God is not surprised by anything, and certainly not by our society’s drastic mess. We talk as modern western culture invented weak, powerless religious institutions, and self-seeking self-centeredness. This is the way of the world.

    Brothers and sisters, where is the Word of God, spoken with power and authority? In endless blogs and websites, on social media sites, in thousands of books, and in conversation, we discuss and discuss and forum and forum to death, yet nary a Scripture is to be found in this blast of noise.

    The still, small voice of God is found in His Word, and comes to those who wait upon Him. If you would find Christ in all this babble, you must seek Him and His Kingdom first, and leave behind all the trappings and noise of worldly religion and media.

    There is an ekklesia of God, those ‘called out to be together’ people who love Him. Yet they are found not in The Parade, but in the Narrow Roads of the highways and byways, where the lame, the sick, the weary, the blind, and the desperately poor in spirit wander.
    Forsake the Parade today, and seek Christ, and He will find you.

    It is His power that counts, and His wisdom. Read 1 Cor. 1:10-4:21 for God’s take on this matter. He is waiting for us to see that our brilliant intellectual arguments make no difference. He is waiting for we Greeks to stop debating about worldly ideas, and we Jews to stop inventing religious methodologies, and for all of us to see that it is the foolishness of the Cross that will, in the end, shut all mouths
    in amazement. We have Scripture, and we have the Spirit of God, and thus, we have the answers!

  • Why just stop with parents and youth ministry? I’m sure both of those reasons make sense, but there are many reasons that we are in the pickle we are in. The rise of consumeristic, needs driven church models, parachurch ministries, and the ever present philosophy of do whatever it takes to get them inside the building, also known as the bait and switch, has played just as much a part of the fragmented church we have today. And I wonder how this even helps. Many youth ministers I know have known better ways to do ministry for years, but have not been able to, because of the expectations of leaders and church paradigms.

    I applaud the efforts of this book to help us see what happened and understand how it helps, but I would much rather hear how we can move forward.