When Almost Christian was published at the end of 2010, it quickly became one of the most talked about books in the mainline Christian internet world. It was hailed as “the most important book we’ll read this year” and other such superlatives. And it’s true—it is an important book, not primarily for or about youth and those who minister to and with them, but for the whole church. The problems Kenda Creasy Dean lifts up are not primarily problems with youth ministry, but are due to the message the church has been giving out for decades—a message that looks, on the surface, like the gospel but is in fact something much less.
The first section, titled “Worshipping at the Church of Benign Whatever-ism” sums it up nicely, beginning with a quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson (interesting choice for a book about Christian faith, but a pertinent quote nonetheless!):
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character . Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”Dean then goes on to say that what we worship is often not the God we meet in Christ or in Scripture, but in fact a mild mannered idea of niceness, which the authors of the National Study of Youth and Religion have dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has a few basic tenets. Among them:
1. there’s a god, probably, and he made the world but doesn’t do much with it now. EXCEPT: if you have a problem, he’ll always be there to help you. (yes, the “he” is intentional–this MTD god is always male.)
2. this god wants you to be happy. and nice to people. nice/good people get to be happy and go to heaven. not nice/not good people do not get to be happy and do not get to go to heaven.
That’s pretty much it. You can see why the depictions of the moralistic therapeutic deist god are such metaphors as “cosmic butler” and “divine therapist.”
The difficulty, of course, is that this is not Christian at all. It has almost nothing in common with Scripture, nothing to do with our historic understanding of theology or faith or discipleship, asks nothing of us, and is so vague and floppy as to be basically worthless.
And so Kenda Creasy Dean asks whether it’s any wonder young people leave the church. Why be a Christian? Why be anything? You can believe both of those things and be a pretty good person without bothering with any of that religion stuff.
The problem here is not that we do not pass our faith on to our young people. The problem is that they are learning all too well what we are teaching them, and it is not biblical, missional Christianity that makes disciples and asks us to learn to be holy as God is holy. Instead it’s a pragmatic, get-along-with-the-culture, be-successful-in-life-and-work, be-nice faith.
Through the rest of the book Dean gives examples of teaching and events that are really about indoctrinating young people into the “cult of nice,” shows us how MTD has colonized our churches often without our noticing, and then she goes on to think about some things we could do differently in order to combat Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. (There’s something about calling it MTD that makes it sound like a disease…which I suppose it is, of a sort, but still.)
Most of her thoughts in this latter area are things that seem obvious when we say them:
*Learn our actual faith tradition—what does the Bible actually say? What do our creeds and confessions or our classic and modern theology actually teach? What is the content of our Christian faith, both historically and today?
*Teach this content to our children. Dean calls us out on the idea that we can simply “expose” young people to faith—we teach them math and soccer and piano, why not faith?
*Make certain that young people are not segregated from the rest of the congregation. Ensure they have meaningful involvement—not just one Sunday a year, but regular consequential involvement in mission, worship, fellowship, and education. Things where if they don’t do them, they’ll be missed. Youth can serve as liturgists, ushers, greeters, and in missions of various kinds. Be sure their voices are heard in worship and meetings. Allow older youth to teach sometimes. You get the idea.
*Equip parents. Parents are the most important factor in a young person’s faith development—and parents are, like every other member of most of our churches, underequipped for the task. Dean points out that “Teenagers’ ability to imitate Christ depends, to a daunting degree, on whether we do.” (p112)
*Ensure that every young person has multiple “vertical” relationships with other adults in the church besides their parents as well. “Jesus does not ask parents or congregations to be theological experts. He asks us to follow him, to remember him, to love him—and to let it show. The question lurking beneath the data surfaced by the study is “Do we adults love Jesus enough to want to translate the Christian conversation for our children?”” (p122)
*Talk about faith—personal faith and the theological tradition. Do you love God? Why? How does that affect your life? Why should someone else want to know God? Dean says “Since youth do not hear a language of faith, they do not speak one.” (ouch—but true) (p138) What we say and hear shapes what we believe, so talk freely about faith!
*Call out Moralistic Therapeutic Deism when you hear it. It is a cheap substitute for the gospel, and young people know it’s not worth their time or energy—which is why they don’t give it. Be a part of equipping the church of all ages with real theology and real scripture and real desire to follow Jesus into the world. That’s what transforms lives, not MTD. As Dean says, “Youth [or anyone] are unlikely to take hold of a ‘god’ who is too limp to take hold of them” (p36) and “as long as God demands little, we are free to invest little and everyone is happy.” (p77)
“At the end of this project, I find that I have arrived at only two conclusions with any confidence. Here is the first: When it comes to vapid Christianity, teenagers are not the problem—the church is the problem. And the second: the church also has the solution.”
For more in-depth discussion of this book, you can visit our church blog’s online book group exploration from last fall.