This wonderful book is based on the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted from 2002 to 2005. It is a fascinating analysis of teen religious practice, which is a bellwether of the faith of us all. Teenagers are practicing the faith that we are teaching them, not what we say we believe, but what we actually believe as evidenced by our actions. All of this could be dry and boring, but in "Almost Christian" it is not! This is a truly fascinating exploration of what makes faith vibrant, what makes faith "consequential". As such it is important for everyone to read, not just those interested in teens and youth ministry. Much of the book describes real faith--a faith rich in holy desire and missional clarity--and explores ways that we as a church can experience and model this in our lives.
Most teenagers today practice an "imposter faith" what the author calls "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism"--"the new mainstream American religious faith" in which God is seen as a butler or a therapist rather than (as the approximately 8% of youth that are "highly devoted" do) as a "divine swimming instructor" who is down in the water with them, leading and instructing them. The book also explores the faith of these "highly devoted" youth and what makes them different from their peers.
The scope of this book is limited to Christian ministry and formation and does not include Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other faiths. There are helpful appendices and an index, and the book is written in a somewhat intellectual style and at the same time a very moving style---very readable and pragmatic--not academic.
I read this book not because I had any interest in youth ministry or teenagers in particular, but because of the title--"Almost Christian"--something in it resonated with me, and I'm so glad I gave it a chance. This book made my life richer, and gave me an appreciation both for young people and for my faith that I did not have before. It's really important to me to not be an Americanized Christian with a watered-down faith, but rather, someone who reflects the love of Jesus Christ and real faith in all I do. I found myself enlightened, inspired, and encouraged.
on November 23, 2011
Kendra Creasy Dean (Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary) has written a disturbing yet thought-provoking book on the current religious state of America's teenagers. The background research for this book was the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). One of the largest studies ever of the religious views of teenagers, the original research was conducted from 2002 to 2005 and consisted of extensive interviews with 3,300 American teenagers (13 to 17 years old) and face-to-face follow-up interviews with 267 teenagers. The study also continues on with a longitudinal study of 2,500 of these teenagers. The overall summary of the findings (and the basic theme of the book) is "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" (3). The most condemning part for us as the parents and grandparents of this generations is that Dean rightly associates the lukewarm nature of our children's faith as a "barometer of the religious inclinations of the culture that surrounds them, giving parents, pastors, teachers, campus ministers, youth pastors, and anyone else who works closely with teenagers fifty-yard-line seats from which to watch America's religious future take shape" (9).
Dean summarizes the NSYR findings under five general headings. First, most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise do not give it much thought. So while teenagers are not hostile towards religion, neither do they care much about it. Dean believers that most teenagers equate Christian identity with "niceness" but do not think religion has any influence on one's decisions, choice of friends, or behaviors. Second, most American teenagers (for good or for bad) mirror their parents' religious faith. Dean strongly states, "[The] religiosity of American teenagers must be read primarily as a reflection of their parents' religious devotion (or lack thereof) and , by extension, that our their congregations. . . . Lackadaisical faith is not young people's issue, but ours. . . . 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" (3-4). This theme is elaborated on later in the book.
Third, most American teenagers lack a theological language with which to express their faith or interpret their experience of the world. These teenagers call themselves Christian yet did not have a readily accessible faith vocabulary, few recognizable faith practices, and little ability to reflect on their lives religiously. Fourth, there is a minority of American teenagers - but a significant minority - that say religious faith is important and that it makes a difference in their lives. According to the NSYR numbers, approximately 8 percent of American teenagers were classified as "devoted." This designation meant that these teenagers attended religious services weekly, believed that faith is very important in everyday life, felt close to God, were involved in a religious youth group, prayed a few times a week, and read scripture once or twice a week. While not too much confidence can be place in exterior actions of faith (and could even lead to legalism), it is at least one means of assessment. It is interesting to note though that Mormon teenagers actually did well in the NSYR study, so it should be noted that adherence to orthodox Christian theology was not taken into consideration in the study. As an evangelical, this would be the only shortcoming of this study overall.
Finally (but the most insightful), many American teenagers enact and espouse a religious outlook that is distinct from traditional teachings of most world religions. Dean calls this codependent outlook Moral Therapeutic Deism and is convinced that it is supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in the United States. The guiding beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are as follows: 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, and 5) good people go to heaven when they die. Instead of God being active in the lives of His people, Dean sees the primary role of God in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as passive - "stand back and approvingly watch us evolve" (39).
After painting a very bleak religious landscape for American teenagers, Dean devotes the rest of the book to providing ways for parents and churches to engage the mission field of America's youth. One way is by providing a "cultural toolbox" to make faith consequential. The items in this toolbox would include a creed (an articulated God-story and belief), a community (a sense of belonging with peers and adults), a calling (a sense of purpose and significance), and a hope (the belief that God is moving the world somewhere). The goal is to move teenagers towards spiritual maturity; marked by seeking spiritual growth, being keenly aware of God, acting out a commitment of faith, making faith a way of life, living lives of service ("ethic of giving"), reaching out to others, exercising moral responsibility, speaking publically about one's faith, and possessing a positive and hopeful spirit. Adults in faith-supporting congregations can help to cultivate consequential faith in teenagers by modeling the transforming presence of God in life and in engaging in conversations, prayer, Bible reading, and service that nurture faith and life.
Just as a missionary in a foreign land, adults need to engage in several mission practices to reach and retain this next generation. First, adults must help translate the faith by handing down the catechesis, language, and practices of Christianity in tangible and understandable ways. Parents especially can no longer abdicate their role ("let the experts do it") in articulating their faith to their children. Adults (and parents in particular) must become incarnational in walking alongside teenagers, demonstrating acts of love and allowing their love of Christ to show in others.
Second, adults must help teenagers in articulating their own faith. Faith communities must encourage public conversation about faith to help teenagers develop their own religious articulacy. Adults must give teenagers opportunities to talk about their own faith in families and congregations, and teenagers need opportunities to hear adults talk about their faith as well. These conversations are an opportunity to develop good theology as well ("Jesus-talk," not just "God-talk"). Faith immersions (camps, mission trips, etc.) are also excellent venues for teenagers to practice "speaking Christian."
The final mission practice is one of detachment. The goal is to help teenagers de-center from themselves to focus on God and others. Adults need to be intentional in placing teenagers in environments where they can come in contact with the "otherness" of God and people. Adults also need to be intentional in placing teenagers in environments where their usual cultural tools do not work, introducing a state of disequilibrium. This will actually involve creating space for teenagers to be with Jesus (through prayer and reflective space) instead of being busy for Jesus through activities.
As a parent of a teenager myself, I found the book very sobering. Much of what the modern church calls ministry is little more than entertainment, with little eternal impact in the lives of the participants. But closer to home, every parent needs to reexamine the faith that he/she has practiced in front of their own teenage audience living under our roofs. Our kids are watching to see if our faith is consequential in our own lives first.
on November 23, 2010
In Dean's close proximity to extensive research involving youth and religion (NSYR), a study outlined in the book Soul Searching by Smith and Denton, her approach is two-fold: refreshingly poignant, especially her argument she lays out that teenage faith is a reflection of the church's hold on faith (i.e. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism), which she outlines with great energy and articulation; her approach also remains very theoretical - although this book has been touted as a practical theology (that is what I've read, and was an appealing aspect for me) on the religious state of youth ministry and church, she remains very prescriptive - she outlines what is wrong, things which virtually all youth ministers and many pastors can relate to when it comes to jaded faith of youth and adults - she also outlines places that are filled with hope, namely the church is still the vehicle for spiritual guidance and formation - but that is where she leaves it - she leaves out a descriptive nature of how this has played out, or will play out, with the exception of a riveting example from a teen's journal from a missions trip and its ripple effects on her choices after her return.
Almost Christian is a must read for youth pastors, and I believe pastors would benefit from the truths that Dean brings to light regarding the church's and family's role in a teenager's faith development. Be prepared that when you finish the book, the real work is still to be done - figuring out how to translate all that data into something tangible and transformative.
*I received this book for free by Oxford University Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review and opinion. Thanks to Oxford Press for the opportunity to review this title.
on November 3, 2011
I bought Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church on the recommendation of acolleague. In some respects I was not disappointed. Kenda Creasy Dean offers some keen insight on the religious perspectives of teens. She presents a rigorous and insightful analysis of the National Study of Youth and Religion. She mixes her analysis with occasional bits of humor and real life meaphors. It is obvious from her analysis that she has experienced life in the front trenches of youth ministry. If nothing else, Kenda Creasy Dean quickly establishes that she is not some ivory tower academia type, but someone who writes with passion and experience about her subject.
Unfortunately, Dean's writing style obscures many of the book's strengths. If the book was intended to be read by youth directors and lay leaders (the purpose for which I hoped to use it), then the book needs a serious rewrite in plain English. As much as I appreciated Dean's insights and analysis, the book suffers from a terminal case of "seminary speak". It left me wondering whether it was written to be read by the public or if it was originally a doctoral dissertation that has been reworked into book form.
on August 27, 2010
Almost Christian is a prophetic call to Christian action for parents, youth ministers, pastors, and congregations to live a vibrant, contagious faith alongside today's youth. Dean speaks truthfully, eloquently, and passionately out of her own love for God and teenagers. This book has the potential to change the lives of those ready to empower today's youth to move beyond nominal Christianity into a life transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ. It is a work of prophetic genius, a sounding alarm, written to cultivate a new way of practicing youth ministry, which is rooted in rigorous, academic research.
on July 9, 2015
Five stars for the results of the studies. Most of which my wife and I gleaned from this interesting treatise we got from the early chapters. After that the book is pretty academic, and therefore somewhat, for us anyway, yawn-inducing. It's the results that interested and enlightened us, and, like I say, that is worth the five stars. Knowledge in this world and in the clash of ideologies is, well, everything.
on November 15, 2012
The research behind this book and the book itself address a very interesting and important subject. My biggest takeaway from the book was that whatever your faith or theology or world view is, you need to articulate it with your kids. Based on the research done, it appears that many teenagers not only can't articulate their own faith, but they may be coming away from religious services with beliefs that were not what the speaker originally intended. Read the list of the general religous view of the teenagers surveyed and ask yourself if that's what your churhc actually wants to teach. While some of the ideas are on the mark, others seem pretty far off. On the other hand, having read the book, I also began to notice that if your theology or faith is not fully formed, I can sort of see where some sermons or articles might be taken as these teenagers apparently have taken them. We forget sometimes that our kids are not necessarily getting the foundation of Biblical knowledge and references that we may have gotten as kids. Some are, and some aren't.
At any rate, the book is good food for thought. It is not slanted toward any particular denomination, but it is written from a Christian perspective. That said, if you don't mind slogging through the specifics, I think the results of the research might be interesting and useful for people with other world views as well, just as a treatise on what practices seem to enable kids to form and articulate their views more clearly.
on January 1, 2016
Purpose, Main Argument, and Overall Summary;
It is not about getting students in church. Almost Christian does not intend to explore strategies for attracting teenagers to church, nor even what might keep teenagers active in church after they graduate high school. However, as the author points out consequential faith is also by nature lifetime faith. Rather, the author is interested in exploring what allows some teenagers to have a faith that makes a difference in their lives, and what causes other teenagers to practice Christianity with a positive disposition, but one that makes little change in their lives.
What contributes to consequential faith, the kind of faith that makes a difference to a teenager's way of life? That is the question that the author explores and attempts to answer in Almost Christian. Dean looks at the research from the ongoing National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) to give readers an understanding of four common traits of teenagers who possess consequential faith. While the NSYR found that a sizeable number of teenagers attend church, just 8% are "highly devoted" teenagers whose faith makes a significant difference in their actions, identities, and lives.
While the first part of the book identifies the characteristics of teenagers with consequential faith, the author recognizes that identifying these characteristics does not answer the question of how we go about nurturing them in students. For that task, the author offers the American church a solution to the problem of watered-down cultural Christianity. As a Christian theologian, the author is quick to recognize faith as the unique gift of the Holy Spirit, but the author also emphasizes that parents and faith communities play an integral role in preparing students for faith that matters.
Personal Reflections, Ministerial Considerations, and Questions for Class Consideration;
In this book there were four major findings that I believe would be important for anyone in student ministry to consider. First, there were four characteristics that tend to accompany consequential faith in teenagers. These students know basic tenants of the faith, belong in a faith community, were on mission, and finally these students saw the larger story.
As student minister it is very important for me to be developing these for characteristics in our students. And much of it can only occur through repetition and through living it out in everyday life. In addition, these four characteristics cannot be developed in only an hour every other Sunday. Which leads to the next major finding.
Second, Parents and congregations get the kind of faith they model. Probably the most important point that this book makes is that the lack of faith among students is a direct result of the lack of faith of their parents and the feel good messages from the pulpit. Which as a student minister it is really important to make sure you are also discipling the parents along with the students, but it is also key to remember that both need the Gospel more in their lives. There is a temptation in student ministry to help students make better decisions and to use the Bible to teach these moral values.
However, as we are seeing this kind of teaching is leading to what the author calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We forget that instead of teaching them of how Jesus was good, we need to teach them about a Jesus that died for their sins and through the work of the Holy Spirit makes them good.
Third, a missional imagination is key to developing consequential Christian faith. Students need to see that Christianity is not about them, but a calling for them to change the eternal destination of their friends, family, classmates, and teammates. That they are called to change their family, community, and the world for the sake of the Gospel.
And finally, Parents and congregations can help foster a missional imagination by pursuing three historic Christian practices. These students know basic tenants of the faith, belong in a faith community, were on mission, and finally these students saw the larger story.
“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.... Lackadaisical faith is not young people’s issue, but ours.... 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” (3–4).
"The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little.... What if the blasé religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of 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?" (11-12).
“It is in participating in the mission of God that God decisively changes us into disciples” (15).
"Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is what is left once Christianity has been drained of its missional impulse" (39).
“The point of God’s Incarnation was mission, the sending of God-as-love into creation” (91).
“Missional churches…seldom spring from church growth strategies. The purpose is not to grow the church or to serve the church but to be the church.” (p. 95).
on November 23, 2012
Biblical illiteracy. That is the affliction that is plaguing our young people, today. And the reason they suffer from it is that they caught it from us. We have communicated to our kids that the real, tough, demanding stuff of Christianity isn't really all that important. And they have believed us. Fortunately, there is time to turn this trend around if we are willing to do the hard work.
Kenda Creasy Dean doesn't pull any punches. Her work is based on sound scholarship and research and absolutely must be taken seriously. Read this important book only if you care enough about the future of Christianity to do some serious work.
on September 14, 2010
i hardly know how to write a "mini book review" for this book. it's too important. i know i write "every parent and youth worker must read this book" from time to time. and, maybe that's not true for this one if you only read people magazine or star trek novels -- because this is not an easy read (there were parts where my brain really had to work!). but anyone who's thoughtful, and cares about the spiritual lives of christian teenagers -- well... yup, you gotta read it. kenda worked as part of the research team for the "national study on youth and religion", the findings of which were most widely disseminated in christian smith's soul searching. from her proximity to the study and its subjects, kenda unpacks the findings as a book of practical theology. in other words, she takes the findings and says, "what does this mean for us?" at times discouraging (as was true of smith's book also), and at times fiercely encouraging and hopeful, it would be an excellent book to read with a team of youth workers, or a team of parents, and have a series of conversations about the implications for your church and youth ministry (and your home). certainly, if i had a "5 most important books on youth ministry in the last 10 years" list, this would be on it.