"I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life"

Father God, thank you for the love of the truth you have given me. Please bless me with the wisdom, knowledge and discernment needed to always present the truth in an attitude of grace and love. Use this blog and Northwoods Ministries for your glory. Help us all to read and to study Your Word without preconceived notions, but rather, let scripture interpret scripture in the presence of the Holy Spirit. All praise to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Please note: All my writings and comments appear in bold italics in this colour

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Almost Christian - the Post-modern Church

What follows is a very disturbing interview with the author of "Almost Christian". Using data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, Kenda Creasy Dean describes what most 'Christian' teens in America believe. Furthermore, she does not blame their apathetic beliefs on poor listening skills or bad communication skills from the pulpit, but she states flat out that they believe what they believe because that is exactly what they are being taught. And if that is what they are being taught, then it must mean that we, the older generation, believe that same thing, in general.

Dean's book should be required reading for everyone in ministry.

Kenda Dean is an ordained United Methodist pastor in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference and Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she works closely with the Institute for Youth Ministry. In this interview, Kenda discusses her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.

The term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" is used quite a bit in your book. What does that mean, and what are the implications of it?

MTD is the term coined by Christian Smith, the lead researcher in the National Study of Youth and Religion, describing what he saw as the "default" religious position of American teenagers. You could summarize it this way: Religion helps you to be nice (it's moralistic) and feel good (it's therapeutic), but otherwise God stays out of the way except in emergencies (it's Deist). That's what most teenagers think. The ways they described God in the study were revealing; God was either the cosmic butler (staying out of the way until called upon to meet my needs) or the divine therapist (God's main goal is to help me feel good about myself).

But the study went further. Since the NSYR also found that teenagers mirror their parents' religiosity to an astonishing degree, Smith and his colleagues believe that MTD is not just the default position of American teenagers; it's the default religion of American adults, too. They conclude that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has "colonized" American churches and is now the "dominant religion" in the United States, having "supplanted Christianity." That's one heck of a claim. In other words, young people don't subscribe to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because they've misunderstood what we've taught them in church. They subscribe to it because this is what we've taught them in church.

At the very least, MTD is a very self-serving spirituality. It is what Christianity looks like once you jettison Jesus and a conviction that love involves sacrifice and not just warm, fuzzy feelings. It's what you get when churches forget that God has not called us to exist for our own well-being. And it's a short step away from thinking that God's primary goal is to help me feel good "at the expense of everybody else." MTD comes close to a divinely sanctioned sense of entitlement. I think teenagers are absolutely right not to take this form of so-called "Christianity" very seriously. I don't think it represents the gospel well at all.

Your book title Almost Christian comes from a sermon John Wesley preached in the 1700s about people going through the motions of religion without a commitment to Christ. It seems there might have been the same findings had this (NSYR) research been conducted then. How do you think things differ today?

Great question—because of course, every generation of Christians struggles with acculturated Christianity. So on the one hand, the NSYR is this generation's reminder that Christianity is being co-opted by the reigning cultural ethos—and for us, that means absorbing the values of therapeutic individualism, consumer capitalism, and pluralistic relativism, so our primary goals include feeling good about ourselves and being nice to people so we don't step on toes.

Of course, Christians should get along with others—and then some. Jesus never actually mentions being nice, but he says a lot about compassion and justice (which are a lot harder than being nice). And Christ calls us to love people who are different from us, even our enemies—and we do this because we follow Jesus, not in spite of it.

But churches over the centuries adopted some very nasty habits, even to the point of doing violence "in Jesus' name" (which is heresy, flat out). So one thing that is distinct about 21st century Christianity is our need to follow Jesus in a way that does not simultaneously place Christians at the center of the universe. Our solution has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater: be religious, but not "too" religious. Be good, but don't be passionate. Be "almost" Christian, as John Wesley put it, but not "altogether" Christian. Don't love God with your whole heart and soul and mind; it's too dangerous.

This interpretation misunderstands the problem completely. I was visiting a Methodist-affiliated college recently with my daughter, where the admissions counselor spent much of his presentation emphasizing that students should not be put off by the university's Christian affiliation—that in spite of it, "we welcome everyone." I wanted to jump out of my chair! Who is training these admissions counselors on Christian theology? It's because of our Christian identity that we welcome everyone! People who follow Jesus practice radical welcoming, but this is not the way Christianity is generally viewed.

Jesus asks not for our membership in a club or our attendance on Sunday mornings, but for our very lives. Following Christ to the point that it shapes our identity is an "altogether" thing. The more intentionally we pattern our lives after Christ, the more we genuinely extend ourselves for people who are different from us. That is what the New Testament church was all about, which I take to be the prototype for churches even today.

You spend a significant portion of your book encouraging the church to reclaim its central identity as a missional community. Where do you think the church has gone wrong here?

I wish we didn't need the word "missional" to describe the church. It seems redundant to me. Mission is the business the church is in; if the church isn't missional, it isn't the church.

Of course, the fact that we need to make mission into an adjective tells us that we don't view churches this way. As Christendom began to crumble and churches began to feel threatened—you know, fewer people, fewer dollars, less social capital and power in society—churches did what all anxious people do. We circled the wagons and began protecting our own instead of looking for ways to follow Jesus into the world. That's actually a sign of a paradigm shift. When the tectonic plates of our reality start to change, we hold on more tightly to what we have. It's the perfect petri dish for cultivating self-serving spiritualities like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.