Kenda Creasy Dean has written an important book. It's so important, in fact, that in some ways the future of Christian churches in America -- especially Mainline churches -- may hinge on whether the leaders of those churches understand what this Princeton Theological Seminary teacher is saying.
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church is about more than what teens believe and how churches can get them back in the pews. (Pews? Must all churches have pews?) Oh, it's about that, all right. But more, it's about the watered-down, non-missional version of Christianity that has in some ways become dominant in the lives of many young people because it has become dominant in the lives of many adults.
This kind of Christianity (giving it the name Christian is really a stretch) is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). It asks people to be nice, it wants God to be a cosmic bellboy and it wants people who adhere to MTD to feel good about themselves. You know, self-esteem and all that.
Yikes. If you're asking what that has to do with the high demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ and ministering to a wounded world with love, the answer is precious little. But, Dean insists, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the kind of religion teens are often learning in church nowadays. That's what she concludes by analyzing a recent National Study of Youth and Religion.
MTD, Dean writes, "has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm's length."
Is MTD, at its core, what Christianity is really about?
As Luke Timothy Johnson says in his book The Real Jesus, "Christianity in its classic form has not based itself on the ministry of Jesus but on the resurrection of Jesus, the claim that after his crucifixion and burial Jesus entered into the powerful life of God, and shares that life (whose symbol is the Holy Spirit) with those who can receive it."
The "real Jesus," Johnson argues, is not the Jesus being reconstructed by historians but the living Christ who moves followers to self-sacrificial acts of love as they minister to a world in need.
And it is that sacrificial nature of the faith that MTD seems to miss altogether.
Dean says, correctly, that the benign whatever-ism of MTD encourages little more than niceness, but "what niceness masks, however, is our tendency to reduce others to replicas of ourselves, which contradicts the nature of Christian discipleship. Following Jesus requires not the avoidance of particularity but radical particularity, which -- along with genuine openness to the other -- is made possible only by taking part in God's particularity and openness through Jesus Christ."
I am doing the author a disservice by picking out a few points here to mention. Almost Christian needs to be taken as a whole with its disturbing message that churches often are teaching their young people not Christianity with all its difficult demands to love unloveable neighbors but, rather, something else -- and the kids seem to be learning this something else so well that they no longer understand Christianity.
If you are a Christian, make sure your pastor, youth leader and others read this book -- and insist that they do some honest and serious reflection on whether they're really teaching young people MTD or Christianity.
(Oh, Emergent Church Movement guru Tony Jones has written several entries about this book on his blog. To read them, click here.)
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OUTFUNDING THE FUNDIES?
I have made the point here before that some of the more aggressive atheists nowadays seem to be biblical literalists in a way that almost outdoes fundamentalist Christians. This interesting essay, based on a new book, makes that and other observations about these evangelical atheists. Notice the tons of response to the piece.