Princeton Theological Seminary professor Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean has explored the emerging ramifications of a lack of passion and faith among young people in her book Almost Christian. Dean’s book spotlights the impact of the church’s decades-long embrace of a consumer-driven, “moralistic, therapeutic” alternate version of faith formation. Dr. Michael Brown, in his book How Saved Are We?, points to similar underlying shifts in the church, already entrenched more than 30 years ago.
For years the church has preached and modeled a cheap gospel and peddled a soft Savior. We have taught salvation without self-denial and the crown without the cross. A wide-scale departure from a biblical understanding of what living as a follower of Jesus looks like in the lives of adults has led to an epidemic of young people who see religion as a means to enhance their emotional well-being, if they see it as anything at all. They may identify as Christians, but the religion they follow isn’t Christianity. The contemporary gospel fuels complacency instead of compassion, success instead of sacrifice, prestige instead of prayer.
In contrast, Dean says there are four traits that deeply religious teenagers, whose faith affects their day-to-day lives, have in common:
- They have a personal story about God they can share
- They have a deep connection to a faith community
- They have a sense of purpose
- They harbor 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 a transformational faith from a dead religion? Dean says: “Faith is a matter of desire, a desire for God 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.”
Dean points to the great Methodist pioneer John Wesley, who journeyed through a season in his life when he described himself as “almost a Christian.” He meant: “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?”
So, what does it mean to lead people out of their dead religion and back onto the path toward “fully Christian”? Dean quotes Dr. Christian Smith: “The best way to get most youth more involved in and serious about their faith communities is to get their parents more involved in and serious about their faith communities.” Smith reminds parents that “we get what we are” and that ministry to children and youth has always begun at home. Home is the place where young people learn how to translate their faith into vibrant public witness. Dean offers these simple guidelines for translating faith into the lives of young people:
- The best translators are people, not programs
- The best translators are bilingual
- The best translators invoke imagination
- Translation can threaten the people in charge
In this work of translation, these questions will help us help parents as they journey with their kids…
- How can I be more present to young people, and to God?
- What can parents and kids do together to explore Jesus’s way of life?
- What other adults have gifts for living alongside young people?
- What are fresh ways that God is challenging us through our young people?
- What are the real needs of young people?
- How do we help young people articulate who Jesus is for them?
- Who were the two or three most important individuals that are shaping our faith?
- How do “Almost Christian” insights spur us to rethink or refocus how we’re discipling young people?
Jim LaDoux is the longtime Director of Coaching Services for Vibrant Faith. Jim lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife—he has two adult sons. He’s been a coach since 1992, and has a Master of Management Arts and is a certified PCC (Professional Certified Coach).