by Terri Martinson Elton
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church
Kenda Creasy Dean
Oxford University Press, 2010
$24.95. 264 pages.
Don’t judge this book by its cover, at least not completely. It might seem like a book about teenagers, and in many ways, it is. It offers as its starting point high-level insights and personal stories from the findings of the massive 2003–2005 National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), and Dean narrates and interprets the findings of the study through the lens of her youth-ministry experience and as a Christianformation educator. The book is addressed to people who love and care about the spiritual state of teenagers: people who lead youth ministries, parents who seek to pass on a vibrant faith, and those who mentor adolescents. And the book is about teenagers and the congregations that desire to be places where faith is transmitted from one generation to another, as it highlights the important role faith communities have for “devoted” adolescents or adolescents with a faith that helps them navigate their world. As one who shares the author’s passion for and experience in youth ministry and a calling to teach future leaders, I believe Dean does an excellent job reflecting theologically on the NSYR findings and putting them into conversation with the frames and practices of ministry with, for, and among young people.
While all of that is true, reading Almost Christian strictly from a youth-ministry perspective misses Dean’s main premise. Almost Christian is an urgent cry to the Christian church in America to reexamine itself. Dean summons the church to reflect on the faith it professes, the practices it engages, and the apathy that is eroding the church from the inside. Hence, not only is Dean asking “how can the twenty-first-century church better prepare young people steeped in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for the trust-walk of Christian faith?”, but she is also inviting the church to consider how it can call all Christians into such a journey. To get at this task, the book is divided into three parts: “Worshipping at the Church of Benign Whatever-ism,” “Claiming a Peculiar God-Story,” and “Cultivating Consequential Faith.”
Part 1 creates urgency by making the case that the de facto creed of adolescents— Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—is in fact what the church has taught them and mirrors the faith and spiritual lives of adults today. The reader is then invited to consider God’s consequential love and to wonder about what a consequential faith might look like. Part 2, drawing from the disciplines of sociology and missiology, unpacks the importance of knowing one’s peculiar story and allowing that story to be generative and missional. Taking lessons from Mormonism on cultivating a consequential faith, or “a faith that matters enough to issue in a distinctive identity and way of life,” Dean reminds the church that Christianity is a relational affair that draws one out of oneself and into the world with meaning and purpose. Part 3, then, explores how faith communities might cultivate this consequential faith. As Christians bear witness to the gospel in all of who they are, Dean offers suggestions on how congregations can be attentive to helping people nurture a faith that has traction in this world by being bilingual, dynamic, and reflective.
Translation, testimony, and detachment, Dean argues, are three missional practices that could help congregations live out their incarnational calling in today’s world and refocus the self-indulgent Christianity that accompanies Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. From this vantage point, Dean stretches beyond her traditional audience of youth ministers, Christian educators, and practical theologians, speaking into a larger conversation. This is the heart of Almost Christian: a call for all church leaders to take seriously their role in reimagining the church so that it matters in this time and place, so that it heeds its call of fostering a consequential faith. And while the first two sections are the strongest, and worth the price of the book, the third part offers one of what could be several pathways.
As a Lutheran missiologist, I both resonated with Dean’s call for congregations to embrace a missional ecclesiology and appreciated her use of theology, missiology, and sociology. Written in accessible yet not simplistic language, this book is a great resource for church leaders—clergy, lay staff, and other congregational leaders—offering the church a reality check, an element of hope, and a possible way forward in an age of uncertainty.