- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2011

ALMOST CHRISTIAN: WHAT THE FAITH OF OUR TEENAGERS IS TELLING THE AMERICAN CHURCH
By Kenda Creasy Dean
Oxford University Press, $24.95, 264 pages

It’s the only academic book I’ve read that nearly brought me to tears. “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church” is at once a complex and emotional story. Its contents are often hard to grasp, but when you do get them, they grab you hard — as if you’re in the grip of a mighty wrestler’s headlock.

“Almost Christian” is not for readers mildly interested in why our youth as a whole do not profess a strong Christian faith. It is for those who are seeking how to understand and reach our children with an authentic and active Christianity that they can embrace and call their own.

Author and researcher Kenda Creasy Dean seems as if she could be both a motivational speaker and a librarian. Her moving descriptions of true Christianity as demonstrated by Jesus and defined in the Bible have inspired me to live my faith more openly, to want to help young people (and others) understand that God created them to be beautiful masterpieces and to try to open their eyes to the awesome potential God has placed inside of them to be powerful beacons of love and hope — if only they would fully immerse themselves in the glorious, unconditional love and forgiveness of Christ.

Herein lies the heartbreak: Ms. Dean reveals the horrid truth and vanilla “theology” that many modern church congregations have spoon-fed our children. Mainly, that the goal is merely to be “nice.” Our teachings are often nothing more than manners classes, which urge our children to live pleasantly and get along cordially with everyone, to settle for only “goodness” and tolerance toward others. We have failed to tell and show them about a passionate love so unselfish that Christ died for us and was damned in our place.

We have been unwilling to make ourselves vulnerable, to risk offending them and to sacrifice our pride to boldly proclaim that “goodness” does not save us: God demands righteousness, but this holiness is ours for the asking only as we place our personal faith in Jesus Christ.

The “theology” that our young people have adopted as a result of our serving them a cheap substitute instead of truth is called moralistic therapeutic deism, and the research Ms. Dean analyzes and summarizes in great detail is largely from a 2003-05 National Study of Youth and Religion. The book is replete with data, charts and graphs that will delight the social scientist but are easily skimmed over if they are more than one cares to consume. Fortunately, Ms. Dean also delivers in powerful prose what the charts dryly report.

Ms. Dean’s central messages are poignant: One, that research reveals today’s teenagers have a high regard for matters of faith and religion but they do not partake of either on a deeply personal level and are not likely to practice faith at all beyond high school. Her second point lays the responsibility for the emptiness on the doorstep of Christian parents and churches. Amid the heavily researched, analyzed and footnoted data, she offers divine inspiration and a solid foundation on which to build both our own faith and that of the next generation.

In the chapter “Going Viral for Jesus,” for instance, Ms. Dean reminds us how important it is — essential, even — to talk about faith and Christ in our everyday conversations with our children. There is undeniable, transformational power in our spoken testimony — if only we can find the courage to speak it.

“No wonder Christianity is smitten with words, and with the Word. The key term here is ‘smitten.’ Words matter to Christians not primarily because they spread our ideas or accomplish our goals, but because they proclaim our love. For both God and humans, love is a self-communicating impulse. Love goes out from itself toward the beloved; love cannot be contained. God reaches for us in the act of creation, in deliverance, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, but above all else in the Incarnation, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So we preach, pray, dance, sing because — like the ebullient leper who ignores Jesus‘ instructions to stay mum about his miraculous healing — we tell anyway (Mark 1:40-45). We cannot sit still, and we cannot keep quiet about someone who loves us this much.

“So the importance the church attaches to words stems from the Word, the God-story of Jesus Christ, to whom all Christian words point. Christianity is not only a translated tradition; it is a living encounter with the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Behind the words of Scripture is the Word, Jesus Christ; behind the story of Jesus‘ life, death and resurrection is the reality of God’s Incarnation; behind the church’s missional imagination stands the missio dei, the sending of God, who addresses and lays claim to us.”

The author goes on to say, “Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures bear witness to God’s partiality to speech and words, not because God is a divine bibliophile, but because God’s creativity is oral: God speaks the world into being, Jesus is the Word of God, and salvation comes in the name of Christ.”

And what is a natural outcome of a heart that embraces Christ as Savior, that decides to love him with all of our soul, strength and mind? We can begin to fully love — not just tolerate or be kind to — others, too.

• Rebecca Hagelin is author of “30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family” (Regnery, 2009).