"Almost Christian" Response – Part 1


How ambitious of me!  Two series on my blog at the same time!  While I’m working on my next post on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, I’m reading the latest book by Kenda Creasy Dean titled Almost Christian (you can get it from Amazon.com, Published by Oxford University Press, 2010).  This is a fascinating book and a rather telling commentary on how our church disciples (or doesn’t disciple) our youth in Christian faith, doctrine, and practice).  I’m working my way through the book so I’m going to post this in a couple of different articles.  There have been other reviews on line by other authors (you can find a pretty extensive discussion of the book at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed Blog).  But here’s my take.

This post is going to be primarily about chapters 1 which sets up some of the information about the teens and youth in the church.  Now, my friends have pointed out that this book is targeted mostly to those within the walls of Christendom and those of us who have started breaking through those walls and started to venture out into the wild world may be more on the lines of “well DUH!” as we read this.

Essentially, Kenda is introducing a problem.  The problem doesn’t seem, at first, to be a problem because, after all, the teens in the church are typically good, nice, well behaved, moral people.  This is what we all want after all.  But the question is how deep is this morality of theirs and is it truly grounded in Christian values or is there something else going on?

Kenda introduces the idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a symbiote or parasite within our churches.  It is a religion that is, essentially, replacing Christianity in the American church.  There are several beliefs in MTD that I’d like to comment on.

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over life on earth.  On the surface there is nothing necessarily wrong with this belief.  All Christianity essentially believes this.  However, implied in this is a kind of benign, unintrusive god who just makes sure things run well and smoothly and that everything works as it should.  A god who is intimately involved with creation is not part of MTD.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.  Again, on the surface, this is rather innocuous.  But “niceness” means that there is no confrontation, there is no disagreement, there is no room for someone to say, “But God says we should/shouldn’t do that”.  It implies, again, a god who doesn’t really care about the specifics so long as everyone gets along.   All religions are essentially the same, at the core, right?
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.  This is where things really start to go south.  Christianity is not about the self.  Christianity, if you really want to look at Christ as the author and example of our faith, has nothing to do with personal comfort or self-fulfillment but has EVERYTHING to do with sacrificing the self for the well being of others.  For that matter, where does the “good about oneself” come from?  In Christianity, it is about how we fall in the order of the world and in relationship with each other.  It is about realizing the proper place of relationships and your proper place in the world, not about some sort of self-worth that comes from achievement or activity.  Happiness is not Christian, at least not the happiness of the world.  Joy is Christian, but joy as found in Scripture is full of pain, suffering, and grief.  It is joy that is found, not because everything is working right, but because, even when everything is going wrong, God’s love still fills and overflows.
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.  Here is the “therapeutic” part of things.   God is the problem solver, the great mediator.   He is the guy who comes down and “fixes” things that I’ve messed up and then let’s me go off on my own again.  Feeding the poor? That’s a “nice” thing to do, but I don’t have to get too involved, right?  God doesn’t need me to be about him all the time.  There’s so much of my life going on that God really doesn’t want to know about all those little details about choosing a career, deciding what clothes to wear, what movies to watch, how to treat my siblings, how to treat my friends, etc.  But see, Jesus talked about selling everything and following him.  Jesus talked about the entirety of life being centered in him.  We are to abide in him which implies that we are fully engaged and involved in him in everything we do, not for our own good again, but because “As the father sent me, so send I you.”  The purpose of my life is to move follow Christ into the world which means that he needs to be involved in all the details of my life, not just when a problem comes up.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.  And here is the final piece.  How often have we heard this argument in our society?  “I’m a good person.  What do I need Jesus for?”  Our kids are essentially telling us the same thing.  Keep my nose clean, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex outside of marriage, give to the church, go to Sunday School, get good grades, and do some charity work.  If I can do all that and essentially weigh down the “good” side of the scale more than the “bad”, God is merciful enough to let me in, right?  Well, if that were the case, why did Jesus die?  Why was such a sacrifice needed?  For that matter, what about the Holy Spirit?  If we can be just good enough, what do we need the supernatural help for?  It’s not “goodness” that gets us to heaven, it’s “Christ-ness”.  And “Christ-ness” only comes if you are following Christ and bringing his light into every part of your life.
Most of chapter 1 is then going through and describing these things in more detail.  But you see, most of us would sit back and say “Yeah, we know all this.  Well, we just need to get a better youth ministry going here to get this fixed”.  Here’s the kicker.  Kenda points out that the fault is not in the kids or in the failure of getting just the right ministry together.  The problem is in the failure of the church at large to do more than just teach a ho-hum faith.  We are at fault here.  We are not modeling a faith.  We are teaching, in our churches and in our Sunday schools, good morality and good self-esteem teaching but we’re not teaching the sacrificing and radical faith that moves people out of comfort and “niceness” into actually engaging the world.  We’ve been infected in the American church with this parasite of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because we’ve given in to the cultural pressures that come from living in a pluralistic society.  “Can’t we all just get along?”  While we want to show love to the world around us, perhaps we’ve become too accommodating.
As an Anabaptist, this saddens me.  I look at the Mennonite Church USA today and I see much of this among our youth.  While we have a few who go into Voluntary Service or STAT or other situations, how many of them are truly engaged in their faith in their everyday lives?  The once a year mission trip is a great therapy to make sure that we’re being “nice” and taking care of others, but what about in the halls of school?  What about on the street corner?  What about at the dance on Friday night?  What about in the video arcades or online chat rooms?  Where are we when it comes to being that “peculiar people”?  Perhaps the Mennonite church has a greater percentage of devoted youth than other denominations, but I see the trend happening.  One of the things that starts the trend is the segregation of the ages.  The kids and the youth are given a special place in the church, away from the adults and their struggles, and are nurtured into a nice “let’s all get along and be nice to each other” place.  Meanwhile, they are insulated by the struggles and trials that the adults have in trying to live out their lives.  The youth are being taught good morality, but they are not having modeled to them in the everyday teaching and discussions about how the faith really impacts lives.  For that matter, the central teachings are kept out of the children’s hands.  After all, deep theology is for the mature, right?
Kenda wraps up this chapter with an important point.  That being that we treat adolescents as a seperate species.  We aren’t treating them as people, albeit less experienced ones, who need as much of the theological grounding as adults.  They don’t have the opportunities to learn under the mentoring of the more mature adults and so they don’t learn how to take those tough beliefs and live them out.  Instead, our culture infiltrates their thinking and, while they may have some belief in God and God’s morality, it doesn’t really mean much.
See, I saw this first hand.  In a discussion with some of our youth, I posed the idea of engaging with non-Christians, being there with them, being the presence of Christ among them.  And I got what sounds like a great piece of wisdom. “Well, we don’t want to be dragged down with them.”  Would our youth fear getting dragged down if they had a strong faith foundation to begin with?  Instead, we teach them that they need to be insulated from the world and grow up big and strong.  And what we have left is a generation with the idea of being good is what matters and we should get along with everyone instead of a generation engaged in a mission of “God and make disciples”.
We’re losing our youth, and it’s our fault.
So, questions: How can we turn this around in our congregations?  How can we reestablish the Anabaptist fervor of being Christ-like in an UnChristian world, even to the point of death?  What changes can we make in our ministry to our youth?

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