FaithWorld

Guestview: “Almost Christian” teens challenge U.S. parents and churches

By Guest Contributor
November 4, 2010

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(Photo: Shavon Gardner, 17, sings with the Redeemed Christian Church of God youth choir at Redemption Camp in Floyd, Texas June 17, 2009/Jessica Rinaldi)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth E. Evans is a freelance writer, columnist and priest-in-charge at St. Marks Episcopal Church, Honey Brook, Pennsylvania.

By Elizabeth E. Evans

A large-scale study charting the religious habits of American teenagers has quietly been underway for almost a decade but has received relatively little media attention until now.  As the data from the longitudinal analysis performed by the National Study of Youth & Religion is released, (NSYR) it could and should stimulate unsettling questions for Christian parents and churches alike.

Featuring phone interviews with 3,300 teens and their parents and three-hour interviews with close to 300 of them, the NSYR research random sampled feedback by kids from any tradition – or none.

Impassioned and articulate, NSYR research team member Kenda Creasy Dean has distilled her reflections on the findings into a volume that is both a critique of “status quo” Christian practice and encouragement to take faith more seriously.

In Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, the Princeton Theological Seminary professor mines the NSYR information to examine a virus she believes is currently wreaking havoc with American denominations — “moral therapeutic deism.”  Coined by NYSR chief investigator Christian Smith, a Notre Dame professor, the term symbolizes  the view that “religion is about being nice, feeling good about themselves, and that otherwise God pretty much stays out of the way — unless you need to call upon God to serve your needs,” says  Dean.

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(Photo: Christian themed t-shirts at the Creation Christian music festival near Mount Union, Pennsylvania, June 28, 2008/Mike Segar)

“Moral therapeutic deism,” as practiced in American denominations, promotes the notion that there is value in being nice to others and in being happy – ideas that have little in common with the Gospel ethic of sacrifice, she says.

When congregations portray God as a kind of divine butler, she added, it is distressing (but perhaps not surprising) that the study found by and large that, even if teenagers are involved in religious communities, they aren’t having a transformative effect on their lives.

But creating a hospitable environment for dynamic faith isn’t just the responsibility of congregations.

Dean says she has learned from the research that parental faith and teaching can make a big difference in the lives of teens.  “If we think we don’t have any influence over our children’s faith, we do,” Dean said. “The kind of investment we make in our kids’ faith formation tells them what’s important to us.”

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(Photo: A baptism during the Creation Christian music festival near Mount Union, Pennsylvania, June 29, 2008/Mike Segar)

But the writer isn’t parent-bashing. She believes that, at least in American Christianity, changes in the cultural landscape are creating a new context.

“The cultural reality, one that the churches haven’t taken seriously is that Christendom is over and that the Christian narrative isn’t the only one from which kids can choose,” said Dean.

No question now – as Christianity becomes a less dominant force in American society, the needs of church and society are diverging more sharply. “What does matter about Christianity if it’s not going to be about power? What matters is love — even if Constantine doesn’t convert,” Dean said, referring to the fourth-century emperor whose decision to become Christian, some scholars say, set the tone for church-state relationships for centuries to come.

Although many teens have been affected by “moral therapeutic deism,” the researchers found that a smaller group, roughly eight percent, could be called “highly devoted.” These kids were predominantly Mormon, conservative Protestant and African-American.

“Highly devoted” teens shared some common characteristics, she said.  These included a sense of belonging to a religious community, a sense of purpose and vocation, an “articulated God story” in which God is both powerful and personal, and hope for the future.

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(Photo: Christian music fans pause for a prayer at the Creation Christian music festival near Mount Union, Pennsylvania, June 29, 2008/Mike Segar)

I asked her about the focus on Mormon teens.  “I spent  a lot more time getting to know Mormons than I anticipated,” said Dean.  Factors influencing the religiousity of Mormon adolescents included both the idea that the family is the primary unit of faith and the high involvement of other members of the community in nurturing faithful teens. Community members are keenly aware that Mormon teens will be apologists for that faith tradition in the broader culture, she commented.

Though the study results might be eye-opening, they are also hopeful, she said, because teenagers are telling parents and faith communities that “the Emperor has no clothes.”

The message of faith is one that teenagers already instinctively understand, that is, the message of love revealed in sacrifice, love that “goes the distance.”

Yet the “faith they see enacted is not the faith we say we believe,” said Dean. “In allowing moral therapeutic deism to suffice, we have lost the point of the Christian story.”

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(Photo: Mass baptism ceremony during the Creation Christian music festival near Mount Union, Pennsylvania, June 29, 2008/Mike Segar)

The quiet crisis of faith confronting American adolescents may, in fact, be a reflection of the conflicted faith of their denominations and their parents. It is yet to be seen whether denominations and parents can muster the power and passion to educate, illumine and provoke America’s youth towards greater engagement with the vital — and demanding — faith that their parents profess to believe.

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