Almost Christian

By Jim LaDoux
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 that 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, 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. 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.
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 God, but rather what God can do for us. Dean says there are four traits that deeply religious teenagers, whose faith affects their day to day lives have in common:
  1. They have a personal story about God they can share
  2. They have a deep connection to a faith community
  3. They have a sense of purpose
  4. 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 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 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?”

Dean includes research from the 2004 Exemplary Youth Ministry study which identifies the faith attributes of highly committed Christian young people. The study concluded that mature Christian young people:
 Seek spiritual growth, both alone and with others  Are keenly aware of God
 Act out of a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ  Make Christian faith a way of life
 Live lives of serve
 Reach out to others who are different or in need through prayer, hospitality, conversation and support  Exercise moral responsibility by living with integrity
 Possess a positive, hopeful spirit towards others and towards life
In the section on Consequential Faith, Dean lifts up the important role of parents, quoting Christian Smith and Melinda Denton:
“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.”

The Smith and Denton remind parents that “we get what we are” and that children’s and youth ministry begin at home, and that home is a place where young people need to learn how to translate their faith into vibrant public witness. Dean offers guidelines for translating faith with young people which include:
  • The best translaters are people, not programs
  • The best translaters are bilingual
  • The best translaters invoke imagination
  • Translation can threaten the people in charge

In chapter 7, Dean lifts up the important art of testimony, suggesting that testimony is a learned art that has bypassed many young people. She reminds readers of the importance of developing a conversational faith which is often learned when parents talk about religious things with their children on a regular basis.

In the section on “Learning to Speak Christian,” she describes practices such as spiritual apprenticeships and faith immersions that give young people a faith vocabulary along with settings to practice that vocabulary. In chapter 8, Dean unpacks the term detachment and offers ways young people might begin to disentangle themselves from whatever distracts us from Jesus Christ.

Lifting up Mark Yaconelli’s work on contemplative spirituality and how we might begin to reframe the questions we ask related to ministry with young people, we might consider asking ourselves:
  • How can I present to young people and God?
  • What can we do together to uncover Jesus; way of life?
  • Who will bear the life of God among teenagers?
  • Who has the gifts for living alongside young people?
  • Who are the kids we’ve befriended?
  • What’s the fresh way in which God is challenging us through our young people?
  • What are the real needs of youth?
  • How do we help young people articulate who Jesus is for them?

Kenda Dean offers a number of suggestions for reframing ministry and discovering new insights through contemplation. In her concluding chapter, she identifies two key areas of focus that we must address if we are to counter Moralistic Therapeutic Deism with Consequential faith:
  1. Nurturing highly devoted teenagers
  2. Nurturing highly devoted congregations

Kenda brings closure to her book, stating that, 1) It can be done, 2) Religious formation is not an accident, 3) The cultural tools associated with consequential faith are available in every Christian faith community, 4) Consequential faith has risks and the love of Christ is worth dying for, and 5) We are called to participate in the imagination of a sending God, participating in God’s missional creativity.


  1. Who were the 2 or 3 most important individuals that shaped your faith?
  2. What are you doing well in light of Kendra's research?
  3. How will Kendra's insight rethink or refocus how you disciple others?
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