What We’re Reading: Almost Christian

BY 30 HOUR FAMINE TEAM

Hi. My name is Micah Boyce, and I work with the 30 Hour Famine in Chicago. Since joining the Famine team, I’ve met many amazing youth leaders. One of them is Joe Wittmer, pastor of student ministries at Calvary Church in Valparaiso, Indiana. Joe has an incredible passion for students, caring for the poor, and bridging the gap between the two. As a result, Joe and his students have raised over $65,000 for hungry children all over the world. There are 3 things I know about Joe:

1) He can put down some buffalo wings

2) He can drop a good word

3) He knows a lot about youth ministry.

So, I asked Joe to write a review of one of his favorite books on youth ministry – Almost Christian.

“American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith – but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.  One more thing; we’re (the church) responsible.”

(pg. 3) italics mine.

In the pages that follow, Almost Christian author Kendra Creasy Dean unpacks the “massive 2003-05 study on adolescent spirituality in the United States” (pg. 3) conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) and couples that with other findings, implications, and a hopeful call for the church to provide the solution to the problem it may have unwittingly caused in the faith development of teens. She breaks this up into 3 parts.

Let’s quickly go through these three parts and extrapolate some of the findings and implications of each.

PART 1: Worshipping at the Church of Benign Whatever-ism

Dean proposes that “the religiosity of American teenagers must be read primarily as a reflection of their parents’ religious devotion (or lack thereof) and, by extension, that of their congregations” and that “the solution lies not in beefing up congregational youth programs or making worship more ‘cool’ and attractive, but in modeling the kind of mature, passionate faith we say we want young people to have.” (pg. 3-4)  In short, teens are becoming spiritually what their parents and churches model for them and this is leading them into a kind of imposter faith that looks somewhat like Christianity but lacks “holy desire” and “missional clarity.” (pg.5)  We are enabling teens to approach religious participation like an extracurricular activity…..like it’s a good thing, but not needed for an integrated life.

This imposter faith has been named Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD), which Dean says is “a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all.”(pg. 12)

MTD is characterized by 5 fairly simple beliefs.

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

These findings culminate in a wake up call to the church with its alarm clock ringing the message that “Exposing adolescents to faith… is no substitute for teaching it to them.”(pg. 16)  If we continue to simply expose them only, we will find teens that call themselves Christians but have no faith vocabulary, few faith practices, and little ability to reflect on their lives religiously. After the sobering news of what MTD is and how it is subversively shifting our students from holy to nice and from under grace to good enough, Dean implicates 4 theological accents teens need (pg. 42):

  1. Creed to believe
  2. Community to belong to
  3. Call to live out
  4. Hope to hold onto

PART 2: Claiming a Peculiar God-Story

In the second part of her book, Dean looks closely at the top 8% of the NSYR study, known as “The Devoted.” She then lands on what she calls “Missional Imagination” which says that “If the gospel is to be understood…..if it is to be received as something which communicates the truth about the real human situation, if it is as we say ‘to make sense,’ it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and it has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them.” (pg.90)

This includes ideas like mission as incarnation (embraces the idea of “God-made-flesh sent into the world.”), mission as translation (the idea of how we hand on faith to others….across cultures, generations, etc.), and mission not being a trip. It also breaks down a few missional practices for youth ministry as well.  “A missional imagination assumes that young people take part in the church’s mission–that every Christian teenager is a missionary called to translate the gospel across boundaries.”(pg. 97).

PART 3: Cultivating Consequential Faith

This is the meat and potatoes of Almost Christian. The final part of Dean’s book explores how parents, churches, and faith communities and begin to foster faith in teen’s lives that actually makes a difference.  Here’s what she says:

  1. Model Christian Faith. This is why Dean would place the blame for the state of teen faith on the church and parents.  “Teenagers’ ability to imitate Christ depends, to a daunting degree, on whether we do.” (pg. 112)
  2. Provide a True Testimony. Chapter 7 is about developing the ability to talk about, tell others, and witness to the faith that the student is claiming.
  3. Detaching & De-centering. Finally, a call to take the focus off self, take the power out of MTD, and return to a focus on God’s calling on our lives and what He is doing in the world.  Involving our students in service, hospitality, mercy, and prayer help to fight the idea that it’s all about them and pave the way for experiences where they glimpse who Christ really is, and what loving him really costs.

Overall, Almost Christian is a serious call to take a look at the youth of today, the genuineness of their faith, and how adults and churches are aiding or fighting the development of said faith.  This book helps us to identify the dangers and success we can expect as we look to making much of God in our teens lives.

Joe Wittmer