Posted in Reading

Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian”

The blase religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel…  –Almost Christian

This book was more interesting than I expected (I posted an introduction to the book last week). The book is split into three basic sections, first dissecting the issues with the American church, second, identifying potential solutions through outliers and sociological tools, and last, presenting a vision for a different church.

Takeaway 1: We Get What We Are

The issue with Youth Ministry may well be not that teenagers don’t care about God, but that adults don’t care about God. Social psychology has repeatedly proven the importance of role models, particularly ones we see as “like us.” So, Dean points out, you can point to Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, or the apostles, all you want (and you by all means should) as what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, but without a model of what devoted Christian faith looks like now, in their community, for someone “like us,” how are children supposed to grow into it?

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)

Dean then lightly touches a follow-up question that could easily be the basis of a whole second book. Is the faith we’re passing on to young people lifeless because we adults have accidentally strayed from what we know we are meant to be? Or have we passed on dead faith on purpose to make sure our children are successful in a culture that frowns on zealotry? Did Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cripple our God or did we?

Gary Haugen, my old boss at IJM, wrote a book called Just Courage about the bravery inspired by Jesus, especially as to how it pertains to IJM’s (sometimes dangerous) work. He wrote a section about the parents of young people who go overseas to work in field offices, I read it to my mom when I left. His basic proposition is this: good Christian parents raise their children to love God whole-heartedly, to not seek material wealth, to serve the poor and suffering, to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, and then are mortified when their children actually do.  Are parents and churches guilty of teaching children only as much faith as they think will be convenient? If so, that is the greatest possible form of robbery.

Takeaway 2: No one Actually Wants to be Left Alone

For a striking number of teenagers, our interviews seemed to be the first time any adult had asked them what they believed, and why it mattered to them. –Almost Christian

This book, for any person who was in youth ministry, almost begs reflection. What was my defining experience? Would I have counted as a ‘highly devoted’ youth? What circumstances set the stage for me to have the faith I have?

There is one point that caused me more reflection than any other though. Dean points out that in the NSYR, teenagers consistently mention adults they enjoy talking to in their churches, and respond positively when asked about mentors, coaches and teachers. There is a pervading misconception in our culture that teenagers want adults to leave them alone. They don’t. Yes, maybe they push away certain adults (their parents) as a part of growing up, but they crave validation, encouragement, advice, and support from people they respect, like everyone does. I remember finding excuses for hanging around youth events late as a teenager just because I wanted to talk to my youth leaders for a few minutes. Maybe I wanted to debrief a problem I had at school, maybe I had read something and had been waiting all week for a chance to talk to them about it. I wasn’t uniquely without adult figures in my life, I grew up in a Christian, loving, two-parent household, but I was still so hungry for adults to tell me that I was seen, and heard, and loved.

In a different section of the book entirely, Dean talks about the importance of conversation about Jesus as a part of faith, how American teenagers are strikingly inarticulate about faith. Dean proposes this is because no one ever taught them how to talk about it, they’ve never tried. She also mentioned that teenagers, in a rush to conjure all the “God-talk” words they know, said things that were considered heretical in their own traditions. Things they may very well not have known were heretical because no one ever taught them.

I see these two issues are bound together, teenagers’ need for attention, respect, and validation from adults, and their need to exercise their spiritual muscles by discussing faith, have, after all, one solution. For adults and teenagers to spend time together talking about faith. This is a terrifying prospect for many adults. Because they’re afraid that a teenager will ask them a question they wont know the answer to, or because they’re afraid the teenager wont like them. The first fear is no big deal, they know you’re not an expert. I actually remember being consistently frustrated with my high school Sunday school teacher because she insisted on clean, unambiguous answers and frequently quieted questions that couldn’t produce them. The second fear is remedied through honesty testimony. Once you know someone’s story, its really hard not to like them. Address teenagers as people, and let them see you as a person as well.

Takeaway 3: God’s affection for Dis-orientation

The visitors feel themselves losing their grip; or better, they feel the world losing its grip on them. What world? The world made up of important people like us and unimportant and poor people like their hosts. As the poet Yeats says, “things fall apart”; the visitors’ world is coming unhinged… I’m on unfamiliar ground, entering a richer, more real world. – Dean Brackley

This book does, at times, use a little too much clunky academic language, particularly in its sections about liminality and reflexivity (which my spell check isn’t even recognizing as words). Liminality simply means the state of being between things, to be metaphorically standing in a doorway, like the space between waking and sleeping, or that fleeting, and somehow eternal, moment after someone tells you bad news but before you can react. Its an uncomfortable, free-falling feeling where all of your brain’s capacities to predict what happens next have failed you. Sociologists argue that adolescents experience liminality as a more or less permanent state.

Reflexivity, as described by Andrew Wall, is “choosing to change seats in the human auditorium” to be able to critically examine your own position and understand the world differently by stepping in to someone else’s. Liminality and reflexivity are related in the sense that moments of liminality almost beg us to take a step back and reconsider who we are and what led us there. Worked in alongside both of these concepts as the trigger for these feelings is, as Dean calls it, the “disorienting dilemma.” The moments in our lives that shake us, rattle us, uproot us, and cause us to question everything we thought we knew about God, ourselves, and our world. Teenage life is full of disorienting dilemmas, and the Holy Spirit just loves them.

These nerdy concepts all jell together to make sense of something we have all experienced as true. When we, or teenagers, are uncomfortable, off-center, and outside of our comfort zone, we are way more open to the transforming power of the Spirit, and much more attune to the voice of God and presence of Jesus in our lives. This is the psychological and sociological codification of the ancient truth that God’s voice is more clearly heard in the desert or in the wilderness or on a mountaintop than in our day-to-day. The more uncomfortable we are, the more intense our feeling of liminality, the more of our souls are exposed to the changing power of Jesus. These “de-centering experiences”  and “disorienting dilemmas” can’t be crafted by the church, the Holy Spirit moves as it will, but we can send teenagers into the wilderness and trust that God will move within them the same way he did for so many prophets.


My next read will be Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries (who is actutally my old youth pastor). As much as this book was a helpful profile of where we are as an American church, I hope the next one will help fill in my understanding of the role and practice of Youth Ministry. I also, as a point of curiosity, am interested in what the man who ran my youth group has to say about why he did it that way and what he might do differently.