Congregations have been doing a lot with teenagers, but it isn’t always leading to consequential faith, maintains Kenda Creasy Dean in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church(Oxford University Press, 2010). Urging congregations to move beyond emphasizing self-fulfillment and entertainment, Dean invites them to embody self-relinquishment and a missional imagination. “Mission means participating in the very life of God, taking part in the ‘to die for’ love of Jesus Christ, which is the purpose of the church,” writes Dean. For missional congregations Jesus Christ has ultimate significance, and participating in Jesus’ self-giving love shapes consequential faith.
To cultivate consequential faith among American teenagers, at least two elements are necessary: parents and a missional imagination.
Simple? Not quite. What keeps Dean awake at night is an alternate faith that is dulling the imaginations of teenagers. As a participant in the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), Dean interviewed many of the more than 3,300 American teenagers surveyed in this research. She found that American teenagers largely confess a faith that Christian Smith and Melissa Denton call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It is a self-emolliating spirituality aimed at achieving personal happiness and helping people treat each other nicely. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, and helps solve problems by encouraging people to do good and feel good while keeping God at arm’s length.
This faith has two significant purposes for teenagers in American culture. It supports relationships in a pluralistic society by deemphasizing Jesus and any other Christian peculiarities in favor of a benign faith. Second, MTD provides a safe religious experience to foster happiness and self-fulfillment.
The NSYR revealed something else. American teenagers, for the most part, mirror their parents’ religious faith. MTD is the default faith for teenagers because it is essentially the default faith taught and practiced in congregations. While this keeps Dean up at night, oddly enough, it also provides a substantial ground for hope. “The best news about MTD is that teenagers do not buy it as faith. They buy into it — it shapes them nicely for fitting into American society, since it conforms so neatly to American dominant cultural ethos.” The good news is that teenagers and the adults that surround them do not really buy this pseudo-faith, but neither are most connecting deeply with the authentic traditions of their particular religious faith.
How can congregations cultivate consequential faith in adolescents? Dean considered the small percentage of American teenagers who are highly devoted to religious faith, found primarily in “Mormon, conservative Protestant, and black Protestant communities.”
Parents matter. The NSYR found that parents who share the story at the heart of their faith are more likely to have children who do the same. Dean suggests that adults convey the good news of Jesus Christ as love, not as information, and that teaching moments revolve around trust more than content. Talking about Jesus is very different from falling in love with Jesus. “The question lurking beneath the data surfaced by the NSYR is,” says Dean, “‘Do we as adults love Jesus enough to want to translate the Christian conversation for our children?’”
Faith language. Highly devoted teenagers have a faith language because they hear a faith language spoken by their families, in their congregations, and among their friends. For instance, 74 percent of Mormon teenagers have families who talk about religious things every few days or weeks, compared to 23 percent of Mainline Protestant teenagers. Further, teenagers participate in faith practices because they are offered the opportunity to particulate meaningfully in the practices with their families, in the congregations, and with their friends. Among Mormon teenagers, 65 percent spoke publicly about their faith in a religious service or meeting in the past year as compared to 33 percent of Mainline Protestant teenagers. Dean invites congregations to “look for places where adults can move beyond their comfort zones and talk about their faith in teenagers’ presence.”
A contemplative spirit. Finally, Dean advocates that congregations embody a contemplative spirit, offering children, youth, and adults opportunities for spiritual pause and wonder. Contemplative experiences open spaces for reflection that blur the distinction between people we know and people we are coming to know. A contemplative spirit might not react to difference but could explore the nuances of difference in an act of self-giving. And this act of the contemplative spirit is closely akin to a missional imagination that ultimately conforms to Jesus Christ, whose self-giving love shaped consequential faith.
Thus to cultivate consequential faith among American teenagers, at least two elements are necessary: parents and a missional imagination. “What Christian adults know that teenagers are still discovering is that every one of them is an amazing child of God.” Teenagers need to hear this confession and together with adults live into the good news of a self-giving love that is sent forth through the church into the world. This is the consequential faith that lets us all wake in the morning after a deep sleep.