‘Almost Christian’: Reflections on Youth Ministry from the USA

One of the major pieces of recent research on youth and religious faith in the USA was the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted by a team led by Christian Smith. The findings of the study in 2005 were published in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. One of the team members, Kenda Dean, Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, was given the task of applying the findings to the work of churches and youth groups. Her book was published in 2010: Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.

Dean begins with the major findings of Soul Searching. Three out of four American young people consider themselves to be Christian (Dean 2010, loc.207*) and think that religion ‘is a very nice thing’ (loc.144). She describes them as ‘worshipping at the church of benign whatever-ism’ and describes their religiosity as ‘luke-warm’. Teenagers are not in rebellion against religion, she says, rather they are simply not engaged with it. The predominant attitude is ‘whatever-ism’ (loc.523). Dean argues that this insipid faith has developed among teenagers because this is the faith that their parents and churches display. At the heart of the problem, she says, is that ‘churches have lost track of Christianity’s missional imagination’ (loc. 690).

Dean says parents have the most influence on the faith of their children. One must begin by encouraging parents to take their faith seriously (loc. 1932). The problem is, Dean says, that many parents lack confidence in articulating their faith. Dean takes up the finding in the National Study of Youth and Religion that young people are mostly inarticulate about the Christian faith. She suggests that to develop a vibrant faith, young people need to learn the language of faith.

Dean notes that one in three American teenagers takes part in a crosscultural service project before finishing high school (loc. 2743). Dean suggests that if such occasions are approached as learning opportunities rather than times to ‘fix’ the problems of other people in a patronising way, they can assist in providing an opportunity for a new self-awareness (which Dean describes as ‘detachment’). They can provide an opportunity to disentangle the self from everything that would distract us from Jesus Christ (loc. 2775).

Where young people believe in God, they often think of God being there to watch over them, rather than they being there for God. The dominant desire in life is for fun and friends, and living for the well-being of others is not prominent in their thinking. It is also true, as Dean states, that parents have by far the greatest influence on the formation of faith.

The book also raises some important questions about factors in the spiritual growth of young people. Within the context of church and youth activities, it will be important to examine what sorts of relationships are being formed between mature Christian adults and young adults and how these relationships impact on the lives of young people.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 1, Pages 9-12

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