November 2nd, 2010 by Bethany French

Author’s note:  This is the second article of a mini-series reviewing Princeton professor Kenda Creasy Dean’s book, Almost Christian. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from the first few chapters of this book.  To read the first article in the series, click here.

Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian covers five major findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion that may perhaps bring about a major change in the way many mainstream churches and/or parents  approach youth ministry or parenting:

1.  Most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise don’t give it much thought.

2.  Most U.S. teenagers mirror their parents’ religious faith.

3. Teenagers lack a theological language with which to express their faith or interpret their experience of the world.

4.  A minority of American teenagers–but a significant minority–say religious faith is important, and that it makes a difference in their lives.  These teenagers are doing better in life on a number of scales, compared to their less religious peers.

5.  Many teenagers enact/espouse a religious outlook that is distinct from traditional teachings of most world religions–an outlook called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Some of my conclusions from reading these first few chapters in conjunction with my own personal experience are as follows:  The problems that exist now are direct results of a culture of self-indulgence; a culture that equates physical, emotional, and spiritual discomfort as something to be avoided at all costs.  Christian vocabulary has been perverted:  the word “Love” does not mean anything more than an exalted version of “Warm fuzzies all around,” “salvation” means that “all generally nice people go to heaven,” and the biggest “sin” is to hurt anyone’s feelings or cause discomfort any way, for any reason. A version of the larger American culture, which holds all of these views, has been adopted by many parents and churches (consciously or not).

Dean clearly highlights the source of the problem as a breakdown of the parents’ and congregations intentionally modeling radical faith in God and demonstration of the gospel to their children, and the failure to recognize that the goal of the gospel is beyond the individual.

We ‘teach’ young people baseball, but we ‘expose’ them to faith…we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging ‘when youth are ready’ (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to, say, algebra).  We simply have not given teenagers the soul-strength to recognize, wrestle, and resist the symbiotes in our midst, probably because we lack [it] ourselves… Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them…

By and large, Smith and Denton concluded, parents ‘get what they are’ religiously…Parents matter most when it comes to the religious formation of their children.

Although the child is still responsible for his/her own response to the gospel, and even in the cases where the parents are truly living radical lives and teaching their children to do the same may choose to diverge to the path of least resistance, families and communities that adopt an intentional way of living and teaching spiritual precepts will raise children who are much more able to talk articulately about what their faith means to them in their daily lives.  It may be that many parents in their own lives, as well as the lives of their children, have bought into one of the central precepts of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is that the main goal in life is to avoid interpersonal friction.  And, as Dean writes,

Spiritually sensitive youth often cause trouble in their communities (religious or secular) because of their alertness to the sacred.  It is hard to imagine researchers, interviewing Jesus after he turned over the tables in the temple, ascribing the act to religious maturity–but in Christian theology it is a story of righteousness and divine purgation.”

Which of the prophets, including Jesus as the Son of God, was not hated and persecuted, even killed for following the Spirit of God, laying down their lives as their sacrifice of love and obedience to God, and out of desperate concern and passionate desire for the restoration of those who were opposing the will of God?  How often did God send His prophets not to the ‘pagan’ nations, but to His own people, who were following Him with their lips, and not with their hearts?  How is that different than today, where so many in our churches say, “I am a Christian,” and yet they do not have the transforming love of God gripping their hearts to lay down their lives in obedience to Christ?  As Dean says,

It is in following Jesus that we learn to love Him; it is in participating in the mission of God that God decisively changes us into disciples.”

Let us awaken our hearts to experience the living God, as in Dr. Michael Brown’s Rhyme of the Modern Parishioner:

Pour your life out for broken lives –
Let God your heart break too.
Take up the cross, deny yourself;
Just live His will to do!

Wake up, be brave, be honest;
Today — oh hear His voice!
Be ruthless with your schedule;
Seek GOD. Make that your choice.

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September 2nd, 2010 by Bethany French

Author’s note:  This is the first article in a mini-series of articles reviewing Almost Christian by Princeton professor Kenda Creasy DeanAll 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:

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.

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