Author’s note: This is the first article in a mini-series of articles reviewing Almost Christian by Princeton professor Kenda Creasy Dean. All quotes without direct links are directly from the book’s first few chapters. To hear Dr. Brown’s review of this book, click here.
A large-scale departure from a biblical understanding of what living as a follower of Jesus looks like in the lives of modern adults has brought about an epidemic of young people whose basic concept of religion is centered around a sense of enhancing their own, and others’ emotional well-being, which has almost created a new religion, though its “followers” still outwardly identify with the name of an existing religion. Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton’s theological seminary, published a book called Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church that explores the emerging ramifications of the lack of passion and faith in God in previous generations. This book is based on the National Study of Youth and Religion by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton which gave this new religion the name of moralistic therapeutic deism:
As described by Smith and his team, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of beliefs like these:
1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human 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 does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
These recent studies testify to the fruit that decades of a consumer-driven, therapy mentality have brought into our churches. Dr. Michael Brown’s books, How Saved Are We and The End of the American Gospel Enterprise, point to a very similar attitude that was already entrenched in the American Church over twenty years ago:
The American Church at the end of the twentieth century is experiencing a crisis. For years we have preached a cheap gospel and peddled a soft Savior. We have taught salvation without self-denial and the crown without the cross. We have catered to the unsaved and compromised with the world. Now we are paying the price. (How Saved Are We.)
Our contemporary gospel has bred complacency instead of compassion, success instead of sacrifice, prestige instead of Prayer. We no longer ask what we can do for Him, but rather what He can do for us. (American Gospel Enterprise.)
Dean says there are four things that deeply religious teenagers, whose faith affects their day to day lives have in common:
Dean says committed Christian teens share four traits: They have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose and a sense of hope about their future.
Recapturing a passionate, articulate faith in teenagers and young people requires not simply a new “method” to reach them, but rather a revitalization of faith and devotion in the day-to-day living of adults. According to Dean,
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 issues, but yours… So we must assume that solution lies…in modeling the kind of mature, passionate faith we say we want young people to have… We have successfully convinced teenagers that religious participation is important for moral formation and for making nice people… Yet these young people possess no real commitment to or excitement about religious faith.
What is the one thing that truly differentiates faith from religion? Dean says this:
Faith is a matter of desire, a desire for God and and a desire to love others in Christ’s name…Love gives Christianity its purpose and meaning. Religion functions as an organized expression of belief… Yet Christianity has always been more of a trust-walk than a belief system…Faith depends on who we follow, and that depends on who we love.
John Wesley, whom Dean quotes, experienced in his own life a time when he called himself “almost a Christian,” while living with the same kind of approach many do today:
I did…good to all men; constantly and carefully using all the public and all the private means of grace…and…doing all this in sincerity… Yet my own conscience beareth me witness in the Holy Ghost, that all this time I was but almost a Christian... The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All”?… Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing?
Another crucial question is this: how can we experience this passionate love of God if we have not seen the man Jesus tortured, bleeding, dying, and abandoned because of the depths of sin in our own hearts? The only true knowledge of the incredible love of God that evokes such devotion can come through a changed heart which has been wrung by a deep conviction of sin and repentance, and has seen the cost God afflicted on Himself in order to rescue us from the power of sin and bring us into fellowship with Himself.
Dr. Michael Brown reviewed the first few chapters of Almost Christian on his Line of Fire Radio show, and here is a quote from his closing remarks:
We are fundamentally off: with much of our preaching, with much of our emphasis…we’ve been in the wrong direction for years. We have soft-peddled the gospel, we have by-passed the cross. We haven’t preached a faith which is glorious and wonderful, and a savior who is so extraordinary, who delivers us from a wrath which is so terrible, that we JOYFULLY give up everything to have Him!
Changed hearts in the church as a whole is the only way to see the transformation that so many adults in the church have said they desire to see in their children, as Dr. Brown stated in The Jesus Manifesto:
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The dawning of the 21st century finds the church of America in a moral and spiritual crisis. Decades of self-centered living and worldliness have taken their toll. Years of compromise and toothless gospel preaching have had their effect. And now we have reached the moment of truth: Either we wake up, stand up, speak up, and act up, or we run the risk of becoming a mere historic curiosity, an irrelevant religious sideshow, an entertaining, harmless spectacle. Something must change, and it must change now. There is no other choice.