- More teenagers embracing watered-down Christianity, author argues in new book
- Teenagers see God as “divine therapist,” author says
- Teenager: “They don’t want to make sacrifices”
- Who’s responsible for inspiring teens? Parents and pastors are, author says
(CNN) — If you’re the parent of a Christian teenager, Kenda Creasy Dean has this warning:
Your child is following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible.
Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.
Dean is a minister, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of “Almost Christian,” a new book that argues that many parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity.
She says this “imposter” faith is one reason teenagers abandon churches.
“If this is the God they’re seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust,” Dean says. “Churches don’t give them enough to be passionate about.”
What traits passionate teens share
Dean drew her conclusions from what she calls one of the most depressing summers of her life. She interviewed teens about their faith after helping conduct research for a controversial study called the National Study of Youth and Religion.
The study, which included in-depth interviews with at least 3,300 American teenagers between 13 and 17, found that most American teens who called themselves Christian were indifferent and inarticulate about their faith.
The study included Christians of all stripes — from Catholics to Protestants of both conservative and liberal denominations. Though three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can’t talk coherently about their beliefs, the study found.
Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good — what the study’s researchers called “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
Some critics told Dean that most teenagers can’t talk coherently about any deep subject, but Dean says abundant research shows that’s not true.
“They have a lot to say,” Dean says. “They can talk about money, sex and their family relationships with nuance. Most people who work with teenagers know that they are not naturally inarticulate.”
In “Almost Christian,” Dean talks to the teens who are articulate about their faith. Most come from Mormon and evangelical churches, which tend to do a better job of instilling religious passion in teens, she says.
No matter their background, Dean says committed Christian teens share four traits: They have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose and a sense of hope about their future.
“There are countless studies that show that religious teenagers do better in school, have better relationships with their parents and engage in less high-risk behavior,” she says. “They do a lot of things that parents pray for.”
Dean, a United Methodist Church minister who says parents are the most important influence on their children’s faith, places the ultimate blame for teens’ religious apathy on adults.
Some adults don’t expect much from youth pastors. They simply want them to keep their children off drugs and away from premarital sex.
Others practice a “gospel of niceness,” where faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers. The Christian call to take risks, witness and sacrifice for others is muted, she says.
“If teenagers lack an articulate faith, it may be because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation,” wrote Dean, a professor of youth and church culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.
More teens may be drifting away from conventional Christianity. But their desire to help others has not diminished, another author says.
Barbara A. Lewis, author of “The Teen Guide to Global Action,” says Dean is right — more teens are embracing a nebulous belief in God.
Yet there’s been an “explosion” in youth service since 1995 that Lewis attributes to more schools emphasizing community service.
Teens that are less religious aren’t automatically less compassionate, she says.
“I see an increase in youth passion to make the world a better place,” she says. “I see young people reaching out to solve problems. They’re not waiting for adults.”
What religious teens say about their peers
Elizabeth Corrie meets some of these idealistic teens every summer. She has taken on the book’s central challenge: instilling religious passion in teens.
Corrie, who once taught high school religion, now directs a program called YTI — the Youth Theological Initiative at Emory University in Georgia.
YTI operates like a theological boot camp for teens. At least 36 rising high school juniors and seniors from across the country gather for three weeks of Christian training. They worship together, take pilgrimages to varying religious communities and participate in community projects.
Corrie says she sees no shortage of teenagers who want to be inspired and make the world better. But the Christianity some are taught doesn’t inspire them “to change anything that’s broken in the world.”
Teens want to be challenged; they want their tough questions taken on, she says.
“We think that they want cake, but they actually want steak and potatoes, and we keep giving them cake,” Corrie says.
David Wheaton, an Atlanta high school senior, says many of his peers aren’t excited about Christianity because they don’t see the payoff.
“If they can’t see benefits immediately, they stay away from it,” Wheaton says. “They don’t want to make sacrifices.”
How ‘radical’ parents instill religious passion in their children
Churches, not just parents, share some of the blame for teens’ religious apathy as well, says Corrie, the Emory professor.
She says pastors often preach a safe message that can bring in the largest number of congregants. The result: more people and yawning in the pews.
“If your church can’t survive without a certain number of members pledging, you might not want to preach a message that might make people mad,” Corrie says. “We can all agree that we should all be good and that God rewards those who are nice.”
Corrie, echoing the author of “Almost Christian,” says the gospel of niceness can’t teach teens how to confront tragedy.
“It can’t bear the weight of deeper questions: Why are my parents getting a divorce? Why did my best friend commit suicide? Why, in this economy, can’t I get the good job I was promised if I was a good kid?”
What can a parent do then?
Get “radical,” Dean says.
She says parents who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.
A parent’s radical act of faith could involve something as simple as spending a summer in Bolivia working on an agricultural renewal project or turning down a more lucrative job offer to stay at a struggling church, Dean says.
But it’s not enough to be radical — parents must explain “this is how Christians live,” she says.
“If you don’t say you’re doing it because of your faith, kids are going to say my parents are really nice people,” Dean says. “It doesn’t register that faith is supposed to make you live differently unless parents help their kids connect the dots.”
‘They called when all the cards stopped’
Anne Havard, an Atlanta teenager, might be considered radical. She’s a teen whose faith appears to be on fire.
Havard, who participated in the Emory program, bubbles over with energy when she talks about possibly teaching theology in the future and quotes heavy-duty scholars such as theologian Karl Barth.
She’s so fired up about her faith that after one question, Havard goes on a five-minute tear before stopping and chuckling: “Sorry, I just talked a long time.”
Havard says her faith has been nurtured by what Dean, the “Almost Christian” author, would call a significant faith community.
In 2006, Havard lost her father to a rare form of cancer. Then she lost one of her best friends — a young woman in the prime of life — to cancer as well. Her church and her pastor stepped in, she says.
“They called when all the cards stopped,” she says.
When asked how her faith held up after losing her father and friend, Havard didn’t fumble for words like some of the teens in “Almost Christian.”
She says God spoke the most to her when she felt alone — as Jesus must have felt on the cross.
“When Jesus was on the cross crying out, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus was part of God,” she says. “Then God knows what it means to doubt.
“It’s OK to be in a storm, to be in a doubt,” she says, “because God was there, too.”
Scouring the Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca, I found nothing to suggest that Ambrose had ever led teens on ski trips to the nearby Alps. Digging through the Eastern Fathers, I came up even drier — no junior-high dances — not even a pizza party in either Antioch or Alexandria. In fact, in all the documentary evidence from all the ancient patriarchates of the East and the West, there’s not a single bulletin announcement for a single parish youth group.
Yet the Fathers had enormous success in youth and young-adult ministry. Many of the early martyrs were teens, as were many of the Christians who took to the desert for the solitary life. There’s ample evidence that a disproportionate number of conversions, too, came from the young and youngish age groups.
How did the Fathers do it? They made wild promises.
They promised young people great things, like persecution, lower social status, public ridicule, severely limited employment opportunities, frequent fasting, a high risk of jail and torture, and maybe, just maybe, an early, violent death at the hands of their pagan rulers.
The Fathers looked young people in the eye and called them to live purely in the midst of a pornographic culture. They looked at some young men and women and boldly told them they had a calling to virginity. And it worked. Even the pagans noticed how well it worked.
The brightest young man in the empire’s brightest city — a teenager named Origen of Alexandria — promised himself entirely to God in virginity. And, as he watched his father taken away to be killed, Origen would have gone along himself, turned himself in, if his mother had not hidden all his clothes. . . .
I searched volumes on the ancient liturgy, and I was unable to find a scrap of a Mass we’d call “relevant” today. There were no special Youth Masses. Yet there was an overwhelming eucharistic faith among the young people of the Church.
Tarcisius was a boy of third-century Rome. His virtue and devotion were so strong that the clergy trusted him to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the sick. Once, while carrying a pyx, he was recognized and set upon by a pagan mob. They flung themselves upon him, trying to pry the pyx from his hands, wanting more than anything to profane the Sacrament. Tarcisius’ biographer, the fourth-century Pope Damasus, compared them to a pack of rabid dogs. Tarcisius “preferred to give up his life rather than yield up the Body of Christ.”
Even at such an early age, Tarcisius was aware of the stakes. Jesus had died for love of Tarcisius. Tarcisius did not hesitate to die for love of Jesus.
What made the Church attractive in the third century can make it just as attractive in the twenty-first. In the ancient world and in ours, young people want a challenge. They want to love with their whole being. They’re willing to do things the hard way — if people they respect make the big demands. These are distinguishing marks of youth. You don’t find too many middle-aged men petitioning the Marines for a long stay at Parris Island. It’s young men who beg for that kind of rigor.
The spiritual writer Father John Hugo told a cautionary tale, not from the ancient Church, but from the German Church of the early twentieth century. Youth leaders faced a country depressed and dejected from its defeat in World War I. Teens seemed aimless, with little hope for professional opportunity and no clear sense of patriotism or other ideals.
The German clergy made a conscious effort, then, to accentuate the positive. They decided to accommodate the country’s weakness, avoid mentioning sacrifice, and downplay the cross and other “negative” elements of Christianity. They were big on nature hikes.
At the same time, there arose a man who called upon those same youth to give up everything for the sake of their country. “He put them in uniforms, housed them in barracks — in short, he demanded that they live a hard and laborious life.” This man, Adolf Hitler, won the hearts of the youth. Because no young man or woman really wants to give his life away cheaply.
Tarcisius knew better. So do the kids in your parish.
Source: National Catholic Reporter
We knew that some English government officials were a wee bit peeved about the Pope coming to England. They’ve shown that with their emails suggesting that the Pope visit an abortion clinic or suggesting a new brand of Pope Benedict condom. We know that many Muslims aren’t happy about the visit because a Muslim publication has called for Muslims to “tell the Pope in no uncertain terms what Muslims think of his evil slanders against the last Prophet of God and his message.” What we didn’t know was that some Catholic officials in England aren’t so crazy about the Pope’s visit either. In fact, some Catholic officials are hoping that the Pope doesn’t act too Catholic-y when he visits England.
The Catholic Herald reports:
English Catholic officials are hoping that the Pope will not further inflame anti-Catholic sentiment by speaking out against gay marriage or adoption, or abortion and divorce.
They are focusing on common ground between the Vatican and the British government in such areas as the environment and international development.
So the Pope shouldn’t talk about the dignity of the human person or the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage? But other than that the Pope should feel free to say nice things about the environment ‘cause you know Jesus was a big greenie.
So many Catholics today (lay and clergy both) see themselves as real world ambassadors to the Church. They seek to “modernize” the Church. They seek to “update” the Church or make it “relevant.” Embarrassed by the tenets of the faith they seek to tone down the message to one the world already accepts which I’m not sure I understand why the world needs to be called to be exactly like it already is.
The message of the Church is a radical one and can set the world on fire. But first Catholics have to be willing to carry the message. They have to be willing to be too Catholic-y.