By guest blogger Pat Olds, DEdMin, Columbia Theological Seminary
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church is an analysis of data collected from a 2002-2005 National Study of youth and religion. The book’s thesis states that teens are “almost Christian” because of a socio-cultural turn that has changed their understanding of faith in the Christian church. The author uses a mirror metaphor to support her analysis and argument of why the youth are “almost” Christians. According to the author, the youth are saying that adults’ verbal testimony of faith conflicts with their lived behaviors of Christian faith.
Youth say the images they are seeing adults who are immature and lackadaisical in their attitudes and behaviors toward God, Christ and intentionally practice of faithful living.
Drawing from extensive interviews with more than 3,300 American teenagers, between the ages of 13-17, telephone interviews with parents and face-to-face follow-up interviews with 287 teens (pp. 16), the content of this book focuses on five key outcome areas of the survey:
Dean offers practical theology as the means for teenagers to explore the deepest dimensions of their faith and to cultivate relationships with God and each other. From beginning to the end, Dean’s passion and love for youth and youth ministry is experienced. The book’s content is practical, insightful, relevant and user-friendly for anyone seeking answers to what, how and why questions. It offers a vision, direction and strategies for developing and facilitating a God-centered youth ministry that would meet the faith formation needs of the digital youth culture.
Readers may connect to the visual image of new terms: “whatever-ism” used to describe the attitudes of youth in relationship to their own faith formation; and “cult of niceness” coined by Dean to describe parents who replace love and obedience to God with making youth happy (pp. 130). It was challenging to see writing on the mirror: a dead church is not the absence of youth, but the presence of youth just sitting (pp. 133); and to hear no one is intentionally asking youth to talk about what they believe (pp.133). The metaphorical mirror that Dean uses throughout the book to show how faith formation is secondary, provoked deep thoughts about both parents and the church.
Dean said we teach youth of all ages how to play baseball, but we only “expose” them to faith. Or, we seek out coaches to help youth improve SAT scores, but we depend upon osmosis to be the faith formation teacher. Dean’s thoughts on teaching the gospel does not mean creating a curriculum, but is about how well one creatively and excitingly translates and tells the story of cultural traditions and practices so that the young listener senses are engaged. Engaging truth, faith is my life and my life is faith, is encouraging for all generations, which is also Dr. Dean’s belief because she says the best translators of the 21st century culture are those who are multi-lingual, informed yet non-threatening, nurturing, active and socially connected (pp.123).
The learned lessons from the eleven categories of the survey came as no surprise, but what did was spiritually troubling was the data cited for African Americans in the category of personal religious faith seemed to be overstated. Especially, when one compares and contrasts the percentages reported to the percentages cited in the categories of characteristics of faith, religious beliefs, religious experiences and family religious practices to personal religious practices during the past year. The 52% of protestant teens surveyed is not identified by race (pp.199), nor can the reader identify economics, locations: rural, urban or suburban communities and grade levels raises the question of how many African American youth were given surveys and how many returned surveys. On-the-ground experience and fore knowledge of historical patterns of African Americans with surveys also raised the thought of the survey results being possibly skewed because of understanding or misunderstanding of the Black church.
This book is can be celebrated and challenged. From beginning to the end, Dean’s passion and love for youth and youth ministry is experienced. The book’s content is practical, insightful, relevant and user-friendly for anyone seeking answers to what, how and why questions. It offers a vision, direction and strategies for developing and facilitating a God-centered youth ministry that would meet the faith formation needs of the digital youth culture. One chapter entitled “Conversational Faith Formation” incited a chuckle. The word ‘conversational’ sounded ‘dated.’ It really speaks to how embedded and embodied the words ‘dialogue and dialogical’ is becoming the normative terms associated with 21st century faith formation.
The Center for Lifelong Learning will offer the next online course of the “contemporary readings” series titled “Contemporary Readings in Christian Education: Christian Formation,” starting October 31 through December 2, 2016. Registration is now open.