This will be the final piece in my series on Kenda Creasy Dean’s fantastic book, Almost Christian. I cannot say enough that all church people — clergy and lay people alike — need to read this book. Suggest it as a small group or Sunday School study. But read this book and talk about it together!
Let’s begin with a sobering quote:
“Since the 17th Century more and more people havediscovered, originally to their surprise, they could ignore God and the church and yet be none the worse for it.”
— David Bosch
The simple truth of our struggle in the church is that we do not teach and model for people how faith is a matter of life and death. I know how extreme that reads, so let me explain myself a bit. The life and death I’m talking about is not necessarily heaven and hell (although it could apply as well). I’m discussing the potential for life we have right now and the fact that we’re all guilty of choosing the comfort and security of things to the contrary. As Americans, we’re consumed with the narrative of success. We’re taught (as Dean notes we then teach our youth) that faith is vital insofar as it helps them get further in life. Faith and church become utilitarian tools to give you a good life. God helps you when you are in need. Church makes you a better person. Attending youth group will look good on a college resume. Come on down! Dean reminds those of us in the church when it comes to thin and immature Christianity, teenagers are not the problem — the church is the problem. And more importantly, the church also has the solution.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is in the DNA of our congregations. We have to admit it and confess it as sin. And yet, as Dean confesses, I too have a certain sympathy for Christians who default to MTD as a way of faith. Somehow it’s become less combative than the religious bigotry that can make the gospel seem like anything but good news. I confess it’s easier to turn to this way of being a Christian whenever I turn on the news and they choose to profile Christianity through the close-minded, hateful, and bigoted voices disguising themselves as Christian pastors and leaders. I don’t blame folks for not wanting any part of that ballgame.
Making Faith Too Easy
So many of our churches set the bar low for faith commitment. When someone joins our church we ask them to affirm vows of membership to the local congregation — “Will you be loyal to this community?” But how often do we ask members, new or veteran, to reaffirm their baptismal vows — “Will you be loyal to Christ and affirm your willingness to die to self?” There’s a lot of baggage attached to the later option so we stick with the former in an effort not to not scare people off. Yet in an age of church shopping, we tend to encourage the heart of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism when we simply ask someone to be loyal to the local church. That “heart” is thinking faith is about us and not God or God’s continuing work of salvation for the world.
Are Young Folks Really Religious Relativists?
Dean makes an interesting point towards the end of her book:
“It may be that young people are not the religious relativists we make them out to be (i.e. you can believe what you want because everything is equal in the end). It may simply be that Christianity — or what passes for Christianity, as teenagers practice it — does not merit a primary commitment.” [p. 193]
Dean reminds us that teenagers are correct to give little priority to the gospel if it means some people are more welcome before God than others. If that’s the case, this fake-gospel should be rejected. The uniqueness of Jesus is precisely why the church cannot be an exclusive club. And the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is precisely the act of God that allows for every human being to equally stand before God.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
Kenda Creasy Dean wraps her book up with 5 major points to take away:
Faith can be vital for young people because others are succeeding at this
To a large extent, we in the church can affect the degree to which our congregations choose to imitate Christ. It’s up to us to be Christ’s witnesses of generosity, hospitality, and sacrifice. It’s also our choice when we practice a self-centered version of faith that avoids risks in favor of self-fulfillment. There are, in fact, traditions (like the Mormons for example) succeeding in forming youth in meaningful ways to that tradition.
Faith formation is not an accident
Faith formation for young people is a part of the legacy of communities that invest time, energy, and love into their youth. And it’s a sign of the religious faith of the adults present insofar as it inspires the children being formed. The culture of our churches should be geared towards one of formation, first and foremost.
The cultural tools needed for making faith vital for young people are a part of every Christian faith community already
Every faith community should have in its DNA a particular vision of God expressed in word and deed through the life of the community. The life of the community should speak to the personal and powerful nature of God, the significance of the faith community for formation, the centrality of Christian calling and service, and the hope that the life of the community is a part of the larger story of God’s salvation for the world.
Vital faith comes with risks
Quite simply, any Christian community that doesn’t teach the love of Christ is a love worthy dying for isn’t teaching about Christ. As the church, we don’t have to be narrow-minded religious zealots intent on brain-washing young prototypes of ourselves. We also don’t have to teach kids that it’s okay to “live and let live” when it comes to choosing their faith. Children and youth are formed in the very image of those teaching and leading them. Faith is vital to life itself and we can model and teach a faith that both forms and allows youth to hear their own unique calling of discipleship.
Our job as the church is to participate in the imagination of a God who sends and transforms, which is different from reinventing the church through our own creativity
This is a big one for United Methodist congregations. A God-shaped mission is bent on the redemption of the world and not just the church. Don’t be mislead into thinking that once we redeem the church the world will magically follow. While church renewal is important we need to hear the temptation that a mission of church renewal can quickly become a mission of serving ourselves and our own ideals. This is a symptom of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The single most important task of the church to cultivate a missional imagination in our children and adults is to reclaim our call to follow Christ into the world as witnesses of God’s self-giving love.
I wanted Kenda Creasy Dean to have the final words on this series because her work has been so influential on me through this book. Besides that, she’s a fantastic writer and she can end this series better than I could:
My role in the faith journeys of young people is embarrassingly small: naming a God-sighting here, inviting them to pray or serve there. Mostly what I do is show up, and get to know them, and respond to them as the incredibly creatures God made them to be, while trying to be a faithful Christian adult alongside them.
…teenagers are still discovering that every one of them are 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 int he divine plan of salvation, their hope lies in the fact Christ has claimed them, and secured a future for them. If we, the church, lived alongside young people as though this were true — if we lived alongside anybody as though this were true — we would be the community Christ calls us to be. That would be more than enough. [p. 197]