It carries a sub title: “What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.” It is written by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean (a United Methodist minister who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary).
This book is a response to the National Study of Young and Religion, a five-year research project funded by the Lilly Endowment. The directors of that study concluded that most American teenagers think highly and warmly of Christianity but fail to articulate its most basic affirmations or engage its most common practices. What remains, the scholars assert, is a quasi-religion known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
And Dr. Dean writes: “We have convinced ourselves that this is the gospel, but in fact it is much closer to another mess of pottage [see Genesis 25:29ff], an unacknowledged but widely held religious outlook among American teenagers that is primarily dedicated, not to love of God, but to avoiding interpersonal friction” (page 10).
Dean interprets this for Christian parents, pastors, and youth leaders; and what she has written is both winsome and worrisome. She lays the blame for semi-Christian youth at the feet of, yes, pastors, parents, and youth leaders. “We generally approve of teenagers who let us socialize them into younger versions of ourselves”(53).
But the book Dean has written offers page after page of help for those who want to pass on to their children a vibrant, authentic, Christ-centered, world-serving, life-affirming faith.
“A more faithful church,” she writes, “is the solution to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (22). Faithful congregations can transmit to their young the things every teenager needs: “a governing ideology, a significant community, a life purpose, and a source of hope” (49).
Her strategy for filling young lives with these precious gifts involves “missional imagination,” engaged parents, testimonial conversation (“Where have you encountered Jesus this week?”), and immersion/reflective experiences (and here, in chapter 8, she quotes expensively from the journal of an older youth on mission to Mexico).
Ranging widely throughout the book, Dean concludes with a quote from the noted American architect, Daniel Burnham, who wrote, “Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized….Let your watchword be order and your beacon, beauty. Think big” (quoted on page 192).
What prepared her for that admonition she sates here: “Since Christians believe that God is responsible for the future, and that Jesus Christ has already redeemed it, this expectancy fills us with joy instead of dread” (189). And what bolsters that confidence in the future she enumerates on page 193 and following (buy the book and read it), and concludes with this indirect altar call: “I know [these young people] are more than the scripts society has given them. I know God has made them to be more than consumers, more than airbrushed images in an ad, more than victims of their economic and family circumstances, more than applicants to the college or grad school or job of their choice. What Christian adults know that teenagers are still discovering is that every one of them is an amazing child of God….Their family is the church, their vocation is a grateful response for the chance to participate in the divine plan of salvation, their hope lies in the fact Christ has claimed them and secured the future for them. If we, the church, lived alongside young people as though this were true—if we lived alongside anybody as though this were true—we would be the community Christ calls us to be” (197).
If pastors and parents would forget (for a while) youth ministers and youth programs and just read this book and take it seriously and practice what it urges, we would witness the transformation of families, congregations, and young people. I hope that is what we want!