Dean posits a false dichotomy when she insists that the purpose of instruction in the faith “is not primarily to foster beliefs about Jesus but the cultivation of trust in him.” She has little use for apologetics upholding the truth of the Gospel. Instead the Princeton professor favors a kind of Christian testimony that “neither dissects an argument, nor makes one; it is more inclined to sing.”
In an earlier article I wrote about “moralistic therapeutic deism,” as described by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and Princeton Seminary professor Kenda Dean. The focus was on diagnosing the problem: What is this new “almost Christian” religion, and how did it become so prevalent among teenagers and young adults?
It was the parents, Dean contends, that taught their children to think this way: that God acts principally by giving rules for individuals to find happiness and be nice to others, that he helps individuals feel good about themselves when they encounter trouble, and that otherwise he leaves people to their own devices. Even the church bears responsibility for fostering this sub-Christian attitude.
So if we want to call young people to Christian faith, it falls to adults in the church to change their approach. But how? How do we present a Gospel that is so much more than the watered-down message of moralistic therapeutic deism?
Kenda Dean offers an abundance of ideas in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church:
- We need wider adult involvement with youth in the church. Instead of sending teenagers off to a room labeled “youth group” under the supervision of a specialist “youth minister,” their parents and other lay adults and other pastors need to take responsibility for their spiritual formation. Dean recommends one-on-one relationships of “spiritual apprenticeship.”
- Adults have to model for youth a “conversational Christianity.” They need to tell “the peculiar Christian God-story”–especially the parts about Jesus. They should give testimony to how God has made a difference in their lives.
- The church needs to impart to youth a “missionary impulse”: that Christian faith isn’t just about their own inner development, but also about reaching out in transforming love for the world around them.
- The church needs to invite more youth into “liminal experiences” apart from their daily lives. Experiences such as Christian camps and mission trips, by challenging young people with unfamiliar and disorienting circumstances, prompt critical self-reflection that can lead to a deeper faith.
- The church should place renewed emphasis on spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and contemplation through which faith can grow.