Almost Christian, What The Faith of our Teenagers is Telling The American Church

This is a strategically important book. It follows in the line of thought of a book, Soul Searching, reviewed earlier in Equip to Disciple by Dr. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame University, formerly from University of North Carolina. It is built around the largest study to date on the American teenager from 13-17 years of age.

You will remember that Smith concluded that the religion of the American teenager could best be described as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” Dean, as a part of that earlier study, builds on that theme and concludes that teen religion is all about being nice and good.

In spite of some claims that teenagers are not able to talk coherently or deeply about much, Dean says her research begs to differ. They have much to say especially about money, sex, and family relationships. They are not “naturally inarticulate,” says Dean. However, the research shows that among those teens, the Mormons and the evangelical Christians are the most articulate.

Dean says that teenagers share four things: a personal story about God, a deep connection to a community of faith, a sense of purpose, and a sense of hope about the future. Religious teens tend to do better in school, have a better relationship with their parents, and engage in less high risk behavior. Smith said they would even wear their seat belts, as a case in point.

Dean underscores it is a religion of “niceness.” God is a nice God, they say, and wants us to be nice. Nice people go to heaven. That’s the backdrop of Dean’s title Almost Christian. What teens are getting, especially from home and the church, is “almost Christian.” And she concludes that what needs to be done, in order for the teenagers not to be almost but fully Christian, is for the church to recover its sense of mission and model ways of being Christians that go beyond self-serving spiritualities by embodying God’s self-giving love for others.

One might be tempted to say, that doesn’t sound too badly; however, Dean points out at the beginning of the book, “Here’s the gist of what you are about to read: 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.” And do the facts ever bear that out! But sounding the same reminder as did Smith, she is quite clear where they get this “almost Christian,” or “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” The answer is from their parents and other adults who in turn are given an almost Christian message on a regular basis. But listen to her challenging conclusion:

“What Christian adults know that teenagers are still discovering is that every one of them is an amazing child of God. Their humanity is embedded in their souls as well as their DNA. Their family is the church, their vocation is a grateful response for the chance to participate in the divine plan of salvation, their hope lies in the fact Christ has claimed them, and secured a future home for them. If we, the church, lived alongside young people as though this were true-we would be the community Christ calls us to be. That would be more than enough.”

Now you see why I call this a timely strategic book to read and take to heart.

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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