Book Review: Almost Christian

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Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church
by Kenda Creasy Dean.
Oxford University Press, 2010
This is a brilliant book.
Kenda Creasy Dean is Associate Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary and was an interviewer on the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) project. She has an amazing, passionate heart for youth ministry and in Almost Christian she takes on the challenges presented in the NSYR data and lays them out in front of the church. She speaks profoundly and with conviction. She goes far beyond just laying out the statistics. Rather, she attempts to answer those good Lutheran catechism questions, “What does this mean?” and “How is this done?”
She begins, very briefly, with an overview of the NSYR material but she doesn’t stay there very long. She’s more interested in addressing the church with what she perceives to be the critical needs for the church to address. At times it seems like every page has an observation that needs to be remembered or a comment that’s real genius. Her book is incredibly accessible, a treasure of insights.
When it comes to effective youth ministry, she would advise that it’s not about the program. It’s not about entertaining youth, although a good event might make a good initial contact. Rather, Youth Ministry is first about introducing teenagers to Jesus Christ. “The church’s identity is not defined primarily by its edges, but by its center: focused on Christ, the sole source of our identity, no intruder poses a threat.” (p. 65) “The church’s identity, in other words, is revealed in our fidelity to the mission of God.” (p. 90)
Studies indicate that teenagers basically think religion is nice and most claim to be Christian. But niceness isn’t really faith. Teen faith is “nice” because it doesn’t want to offend. Our culture encourages teens to be tolerant of all and not apologetic for one.
And for those who claim Christianity (or any religion for that matter), most of today’s teens aren’t really able to articulate much of what they believe. Dean makes similar observations to Chap Clark in his book Hurt¬†and Christian Smith in the NSYR books. She makes a strong case for teaching teens the fundamentals of the Christian faith. She quotes Luther, “If ever the church is to flourish again, one must begin by instructing the young.” (p. 111) Making the case for catechesis, Dean observes that “Catechesis shapes missional imaginations…. Catechesis clarifies the church’s understanding of who God is…. Catechesis…gives teenagers the tools that stake up young faith, improve teenagers’ exposure to the Son and therefore the likelihood that their faith will mature and bear fruit.” (p. 63)
Teenagers want to be a part of something that stands for something. In her book, Practicing Passion, Dean observes that teens want to live for something worth dying for. In Almost Christian, she speaks of the church rediscovering its mission. She notes that “Missional churches…seldom spring from church growth strategies. The purpose is not to grow the church or to serve the church but to be the church.” (p. 95) She notes that in turning things around, “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.” (p. 189) She speaks of four theological accents and notes that teens with a strong faith have these four cultural tools: (1) they confess their tradition’s creed, or God’s story; (2) they belong to a community that enacts the God story; (3) they feel called by this story to contribute to a larger purpose and (4) they have hope for the future promised by this story.” (p. 49) She goes on throughout the book to demonstrate how important these four are to young people: Creed, Community, Call (vocation) and Hope.
One might ask what I, as a Lutheran, like about this book. First, she always makes the point that youth ministry’s focus should be on nurturing faith in Christ in young people. It’s not about inculcating a list of moral imperatives (the law) but rather stressing the grace of God through Jesus Christ (the gospel). It’s not that we don’t want teens to know God’s law but just being good people is not the goal. Surely, under God’s grace and forgiveness, teens may strive to be good people but when we miss the mark, we know God doesn’t dismiss us–Dean calls it “God’s radical acceptance.” Youth ministry is not about getting teenagers to make decisions for Christ, as I read her book. It’s about God bringing young people into the family of God, caring for them, giving them hope and equipping them to be His people in their world.
There is a huge temptation to review this book by just amassing page after page of quotations. My copy is marked up with and underlined with all kinds of “aha moments.” Perhaps most striking, though, is one comment, practically a mission statement made toward the very beginning of the book–a sentiment Dean spends more than 200 pages promoting and explaining:
“I ache for them to know Christ’s love in their bones, to belong to a community that bathes them in grace and to experience the kind of communion that weds them to God and to all humanity. The love God shows young people in the cross is passion, a love worthy of suffering, not an absence of hostility.” (p. 38)
Personally, bottom line, I think this is a must read for anybody serious about youth ministry.