Kenda Dean begins her latest book with these words: “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. One more thing: we’re responsible.” The rest of the book unpacks this troubling claim.
Dean is a member of the research team that conducted the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Spanning 2002 through 2005 and involving over 3,300 extensive interviews, the NSYR is the most comprehensive study ever of American teenagers and religion. Almost Christian presents the NSYR findings and their implications.
Dean quickly reveals that the results of the NSYR not only affect Christian parents of teens and Christian ministers to teens. They actually carry strong implications for (and indictments of) the entire American church. The NSYR discovers that the majority of American teens are devotees of “Christianity’s misbegotten stepcousin” called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Dean asserts that MTD is “supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in American churches.” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism consists of five basic tenets:
- “A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.”
- “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
- “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
- “God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.”
- “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
MTD is woefully inconsistent with biblical faith. Just as worse, teens raised with this mindset eventually leave the Christian faith altogether.
But where do teens get such ideas? The NSYR finds that that MTD is what teens are taught (explicitly or implicitly) in their churches. They are only learning what we in Christian congregations are teaching.
There is, however, good news. The NSYR finds that 1 in 12 teens (8%) can be described as “highly devoted” (e.g., “they attend religious services weekly or more, they feel very close to God, they participate in a religious youth group, they read Scripture, pray frequently, and say faith is very important in their lives”). Dean shows that these teens share four characteristics:
- “they confess their tradition’s creed, or God-story”;
- “they belong to a community that enacts the God-story”;
- “they feel called by this story to contribute to a larger purpose”; and
- “they have hope for the future promised by this story.”
In other words, teens are inoculated against MTD when churches and parents unite in strategic efforts to help teens embrace the Christian “creed,” connect meaningfully into a Christian “community,” live out a “calling” that grows out of the Christian story, and gain confidence and hope in the future which God’s story promises. These four tools provide teens with what Dean calls a “consequential faith”—a faith that matters enough to result in a truly transformed way of life.
This faith comes not merely through youth groups or by means of youth ministers. It grows, Dean writes, “in the rich relational soil of families, congregations, and mentor relationships.” The entire church is necessary in order to provide teens a Christian faith which stands against MTD. Parents, however, are most critical. Dean argues that “parents are by far the most important predictors of teenagers’ religious lives.” In the end, the book provides both motivation and methods to help families and the faithful raise up teens who walk boldly in the ways of Jesus.