6 Myths about Teens & Christian Faith in America
You may have read the recent CNN article, “More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians,” which extensively cited the research of Kenda Creasy Dean and her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. In the original article below, Dean expands on these ideas, clarifies others, and explains just how American teens are practicing their Christian faith.
By Kenda Creasy Dean
Have you heard this one? Mom is angling to get 16-year-old Tony to come to church on Sunday, and Tony will have none of it. “Don’t you get it?” he yells, pushing his chair away from the table. “I hate church! I am not like you! The church is full of hypocrites!” Dramatic exit, stage right.
This story sounds true – but it isn’t. Today’s parents and teenagers rarely fight about religion, according to the 2005 National Study of Youth and Religion – the largest study of teenage faith to date. Interviews with more than 3300 teenagers and their parents showed that American teenagers mirror their parents’ religious faith to an astonishing degree. Teenagers and parents seem to be on good terms about religion because 1) they believe pretty much the same things; and 2) religion doesn’t matter enough to them to fight about it.
3 out of 4 American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 call themselves Christians, yet most adhere to a default religious setting that does not truly reflect any of the world’s great religions. Instead, say NSYR researchers, American teenagers’ de facto religious creed is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a view that religion is a “very nice thing” that makes us feel good but leaves God in the background.
How did that happen? Short answer: This is what parents and churches are teaching them.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – the view that religion is supposed to make us feel good about ourselves and turn us into nicer people – appears in American teenagers of all religious persuasions. On the surface, that sounds like a good thing; at the very least, perhaps it is a corrective to abuses conducted in the name of religion.
Yet MTD is also a self-serving approach to religious faith. Moralistic therapeutic deist youth view God as a divine butler, invisible unless called upon, whose primary purpose is to make them feel good and to sanction things that they want to do anyway. Researchers were mum on MTD’s effects on other religious traditions (the number of non-Christian religious teenagers in the sample was small enough that researchers were cautious about their claims), but they were unsparing when it came to American churches. In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, lead researcher Christian Smith claims that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is now the “dominant religion in the United States, having supplanted Christianity in American churches.”
I helped interview teenagers for the NSYR, an exercise that convinced me more than ever that parents, congregations, and pastors are operating on some pretty shaky assumptions about Christian faith and teenagers. Other religious leaders may comment on the implications of this study for their own faith traditions, but let me speak to 6 myths about youth and Christian faith that need to be dismantled:
MYTH #1. Keeping kids safe, and raising them to be nice and to feel good about themselves, is the same thing as raising them as Christians.
Christianity doesn’t keep you safe (see Myth #2). Nor does it make you nice – if by “nice” you mean being friendly and not stepping on toes. For the record, I want my kids to be nice, and maybe Jesus was a nice guy (most kids in the NSYR thought so). But while the Bible talks a lot about compassion, hospitality, kindness, mercy, and justice, it doesn’t say anything at all about being “nice.”
Same goes for feeling good about ourselves: not a Biblical concern. If anything, the Biblical writers seem to take self-esteem for granted. Loving God’s creation obviously includes loving yourself as a part of that creation. Jesus makes no bones about this: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he tells his followers. (Apparently, he didn’t think reminding people to love themselves was necessary.) What is a Biblical concern is an honest self-concept, along with a slow trigger when it comes to judging others. Matthew warns against criticizing others before taking a good hard look at oneself (Matt. 7:3-5), and Paul warns Christians not to get big heads (Romans 11:20, 12:3). The emphasis in the gospels is on love and self-examination, not on self-esteem.
One of MTD’s central tenets, extremely prominent in the NSYR’s interviews with teenagers, is that “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself” -a position that echoes self-esteem movement, but that risks turning religion into a divinely sanctioned sense of entitlement. Jesus does not call us to have self-esteem or to be nice; he calls us to “love one another, as I have loved you.” The source of the church’s joy is gratitude for God’s mercy and love – so yes, Christians are frequently and often ebulliently joyful. But we are called to love as Christ has loved us – with true love, which willingly suffers on behalf of the beloved. So Christians also struggle deeply over the world’s pain, and share in the pain of others.
MYTH #2. Raising your children as Christians will make them good citizens.
On this one teenagers have it right: they know that being a Christian in American culture is a tough fit, and not just because of church norms on sex. When we raise children to be Christians, we need to acknowledge that we are asking them to live a very countercultural way of life.
Despite the role of Christian faith in our nation’s history, the gospel challenges our culture in a number of ways. For example, the gospel does not equate “the pursuit of happiness” with self-fulfillment. In fact, the “Jesus ethic” is an ethic of self-giving; as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”
The therapeutic nature of consumer culture (i.e., “I will buy things to make me feel good”) isn’t a good fit for Christians either. In Christian teaching, joy comes—not from acquiring resources—but from sharing them. Add to that the gospel’s emphasis on relationships and community, which fly in the face of prominent 21st century notions of individualism (“Anything is okay as it doesn’t harm anyone else”). Christians believe that we discover our true selves are found, not through self-reliance, but through relationships patterned on Christ’s relationship with us. The early church leader Tertullian taught that Christians should live in such a way that the pagan world (which was fraught with conflict and bloodshed) would look at the church and exclaim, “See how they love each other, and how they are ready to die for each other?”
When we think that raising our children as good citizens makes them Christians – or vice versa – we are usually in for a jolt. One of the scariest things for parents is when their children actually want to be like Jesus.
MYTH #3. The most important way to instill authentic, other-directed faith in young people is get them involved in youth groups and mission trips.
If only it were that easy. There are many, many good reasons for teenagers to attend a religious youth group; research shows that these groups offer teenagers important sources of adult support, church connections, and moral values. But youth groups seem less effective as crucibles for faith formation. A better predictor of sustainable faith is regular worship in a congregation, friendships with Christian adults, and – above all – a family that models what day-to-day Christian faith looks like.
Ditto mission trips. When the NSYR followed youth into their early 20′s, two religious practices – only two – seemed to be correlated with faith that survived high school. Can you guess? Prayer and reading Scripture. As Christian Smith told Christianity Today last year, when it comes to religious formation, mission trips don’t seem to amount to “a hill of beans.”
Now, I happen to think that church mission trips are a good idea, as long as the people in the host community are making most of the decisions. Like youth groups, these trips indirectly support adolescent faith by providing adult-youth relationships and de-centering experiences that allow you to see the world a new point of view, etc. But mission trips can’t cultivate Christian faith unless teenagers recognize that the actions these trips inspire are derived from the gospel – an awareness cultivated in practices like prayer and Scripture reading.
MYTH #4. Radical faith will turn teenagers into religious extremists.
In a post-9/11 world, it’s natural to be skeptical of religious passion and extremism. But we should distinguish between radical faith and extremism, because they are not the same thing. The word “radical” means root – radical faith points to the root of faith, which in the case of Christianity is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To do something radical for Christ means to do something that is connected to the root message of Christianity – the passion of God in Jesus Christ – by loving others enough to willingly suffer, if necessary, in their stead.
Extremism, on the other hand, takes place – not at the root of faith – but at its edges. Edges are constantly in danger of erosion, so extremists are people determined to protect these unstable edges of principles, political systems, religious views, etc. Extremism is a position of rational supremacy. If I am an extremist, the only way you can be right is to agree with me. What’s more, I will defend the precarious edge on which I stand at all costs. As a result, extremism leads to a lot of collateral damage. The emphasis in extremism is not on loving the person, but on protecting the principle.
Every religion has both radicals and extremists. For Christians, focusing on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection makes us radical because Jesus Christ is the root of our faith, the source of our growth, the anchor of our being even as we reach out towards others. Radical Christians love God and others as ourselves, which includes sharing in others’ suffering. True love is willing to suffer for the beloved. But true love never knowingly inflicts suffering. Never, never.
It is the church’s shame that history has so many examples where Christians have managed to ignore this fact. This is where the church must beg forgiveness, and throw ourselves on the mercy of God.
MYTH #5. The solution to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is to get teenagers to church more often and to hire a youth pastor.
Actually, the solution to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a more faithful church. Perfect attendance and a star-powered youth pastor can’t counter a church that focuses on its own well-being more than on Christ’s call to follow him into the world.
Yes: belonging to a faith community and having a youth pastor are strongly correlated with highly devoted faith. Furthermore, the NSYR found that highly devoted teenagers are more likely than their peers to attend churches with a youth pastor.
But since congregations often propagate Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, going to church will not necessarily instill consequential faith instead. And since even the best youth pastor withers quickly in congregations that lack structural support for youth ministry, most youth ministers do not stick around long enough to influence parents and congregations as well as teenagers themselves (see Mark DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry [IVP, 2008]).
The basic point is this: MTD is not youth ministry’s problem. It is not teenagers’ problem. It is the church’s problem – which means we’re not going to be able to evoke authentic, life-giving, outward-focused faith in young people without getting serious about authentic, life-giving, outward-focused faith ourselves.
As Clarence Jordan put it (and thanks to Tony Robinson for this): “Ya cain’t raise live chicks under a dead hen.”
Myth #6: I’m a Christian parent. It seems like nothing I’m doing is good enough.
Christians believe that parents aren’t ultimately responsible for their children’s faith; God is. Our job is to make faith part of the daily lives we share with them. That means that the best way parents can support their teenagers’ faith is to invest in their own.
Maybe you’re a person who’s looking for concrete ideas. Here are a few:
1) Enjoy God’s company. (When was the last time your teenager saw you delve into the Bible for the sheer joy of meeting God there?)
2) Invest in cultural tools associated with consequential faith in teenagers—they won’t hurt adult faith either. Ask yourself:
- Can I articulate what I believe about God? (cultural tool: an articulated story about a personal and powerful God)
- Do I belong to a faith community? (cultural tool: a community that helps us feel spiritually and interpersonally connected)
- Does my faith give me a sense of purpose and direction? (cultural tool: a sense of vocation)
- Does my faith make me hopeful about the future? (cultural tool: a sense of hope)
3) Talk about faith at home, intellectually and personally. Make God part of the family – part of normal daily conversation.
4) De-center. Tap into those age-old practices of compassion and mercy, meditation and prayer that make us more attentive to God by shifting our gaze away from ourselves.
Or maybe you are a person who just wants to get to the bottom line, and that is this: If you want your children to think faith matters, it has to authentically matter to you. How do we communicate that? Well, here’s what I’ve been telling myself: Do one radical, sacrificial thing for your faith, and explain to your kids that you are doing it because you follow Jesus.
It’s a start.
Kenda Creasy Dean is an ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference (United Methodist) and professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she works closely with the Institute for Youth Ministry. She is the author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.