An interview with the author who got America talking about teen faith.
Kenda Dean is an ordained United Methodist pastor in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference and Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she works closely with the Institute for Youth Ministry. In this interview, Kenda discusses her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.
The term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is used quite a bit in your book. What does that mean, and what are the implications of it?
MTD is the term coined by Christian Smith, the lead researcher in the National Study of Youth and Religion, describing what he saw as the “default” religious position of American teenagers. You could summarize it this way: Religion helps you to be nice (it’s moralistic) and feel good (it’s therapeutic), but otherwise God stays out of the way except in emergencies (it’s Deist). That’s what most teenagers think. The ways they described God in the study were revealing; God was either the cosmic butler (staying out of the way until called upon to meet my needs) or the divine therapist (God’s main goal is to help me feel good about myself).
But the study went further. Since the NSYR also found that teenagers mirror their parents’ religiosity to an astonishing degree, Smith and his colleagues believe that MTD is not just the default position of American teenagers; it’s the default religion of American adults, too. They conclude that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has “colonized” American churches and is now the “dominant religion” in the United States, having “supplanted Christianity.” That’s one heck of a claim. In other words, young people don’t subscribe to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because they’ve misunderstood what we’ve taught them in church. They subscribe to it because this is what we’ve taught them in church.
At the very least, MTD is a very self-serving spirituality. It is what Christianity looks like once you jettison Jesus and a conviction that love involves sacrifice and not just warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s what you get when churches forget that God has not called us to exist for our own well-being. And it’s a short step away from thinking that God’s primary goal is to help me feel good “at the expense of everybody else.” MTD comes close to a divinely sanctioned sense of entitlement. I think teenagers are absolutely right not to take this form of so-called “Christianity” very seriously. I don’t think it represents the gospel well at all.
Your book title Almost Christian comes from a sermon John Wesley preached in the 1700s about people going through the motions of religion without a commitment to Christ. It seems there might have been the same findings had this (NSYR) research been conducted then. How do you think things differ today?
Great question—because of course, every generation of Christians struggles with acculturated Christianity. So on the one hand, the NSYR is this generation’s reminder that Christianity is being co-opted by the reigning cultural ethos—and for us, that means absorbing the values of therapeutic individualism, consumer capitalism, and pluralistic relativism, so our primary goals include feeling good about ourselves and being nice to people so we don’t step on toes.
Of course, Christians should get along with others—and then some. Jesus never actually mentions being nice, but he says a lot about compassion and justice (which are a lot harder than being nice). And Christ calls us to love people who are different from us, even our enemies—and we do this because we follow Jesus, not in spite of it.
But churches over the centuries adopted some very nasty habits, even to the point of doing violence “in Jesus’ name” (which is heresy, flat out). So one thing that is distinct about 21st century Christianity is our need to follow Jesus in a way that does not simultaneously place Christians at the center of the universe. Our solution has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater: be religious, but not “too” religious. Be good, but don’t be passionate. Be “almost” Christian, as John Wesley put it, but not “altogether” Christian. Don’t love God with your whole heart and soul and mind; it’s too dangerous.
This interpretation misunderstands the problem completely. I was visiting a Methodist-affiliated college recently with my daughter, where the admissions counselor spent much of his presentation emphasizing that students should not be put off by the university’s Christian affiliation—that in spite of it, “we welcome everyone.” I wanted to jump out of my chair! Who is training these admissions counselors on Christian theology? It’s because of our Christian identity that we welcome everyone! People who follow Jesus practice radical welcoming, but this is not the way Christianity is generally viewed.
Jesus asks not for our membership in a club or our attendance on Sunday mornings, but for our very lives. Following Christ to the point that it shapes our identity is an “altogether” thing. The more intentionally we pattern our lives after Christ, the more we genuinely extend ourselves for people who are different from us. That is what the New Testament church was all about, which I take to be the prototype for churches even today.
You spend a significant portion of your book encouraging the church to reclaim its central identity as a missional community. Where do you think the church has gone wrong here?
I wish we didn’t need the word “missional” to describe the church. It seems redundant to me. Mission is the business the church is in; if the church isn’t missional, it isn’t the church.
Of course, the fact that we need to make mission into an adjective tells us that we don’t view churches this way. As Christendom began to crumble and churches began to feel threatened—you know, fewer people, fewer dollars, less social capital and power in society—churches did what all anxious people do. We circled the wagons and began protecting our own instead of looking for ways to follow Jesus into the world. That’s actually a sign of a paradigm shift. When the tectonic plates of our reality start to change, we hold on more tightly to what we have. It’s the perfect petri dish for cultivating self-serving spiritualities like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
You say the solution to MTD is fostering a “missional imagination.” What do you mean by this, and what might that look like in the context of youth ministry?
That’s the million-dollar question. I view youth ministry as the research and development arm of the church. So if anybody is open to imagining the church as a “sending” agency that deploys Christ’s representatives in the world, it’s going to be young people.
Having a missional imagination just means being the church for others—for people who have no interest in the church whatsoever—instead of primarily focusing on ourselves. In the U.S., many churches got in the habit of thinking that our job is to make everyone else look like us. Christianity is not about cloning ourselves; it’s about following Jesus. Jesus didn’t ask people to go to church. He asked them to follow him.
What most young people practice—and a key to developing a missional imagination—is radical engagement with culture. Teenagers are less interested in preserving the church than in participating in the incarnate work of God. A church that imitates Christ—God incarnate, present in human culture, good news in the midst of human suffering—that kind of church makes some sense.
One of the latest things you’ve been calling out in the church is that we’ve developed a “cult of niceness.” Can you elaborate a little more on this?
When churches take their marching orders from American civic values instead of from the gospel, we confuse being nice with being Christian. Look, there’s nothing wrong with being nice; I’m generally for it, and the kids we interviewed in the NSYR considered God (sometimes Jesus) a “nice guy.” But, as I said earlier, Jesus doesn’t actually say anything about being nice. He says a lot about justice, compassion, and mercy, which are a lot harder than being nice.
So what I call the “cult of niceness” developed out of good intentions. I think it stems from our honest desire to avoid the atrocities that churches have sometimes visited on people. But niceness confuses not stepping on toes and getting along with people without really getting to know each other with the gospel. The cult of niceness is basically a low-risk version of hospitality. But Christianity is much, much more than this. When Jesus asks us to love one another, he’s not talking about finding common ground and avoiding touchy subjects of conversation. He’s talking about laying down our lives for one another, which raises the stakes past where most of us want to go. Ironically, teenagers get this. They are in the middle of the age-old human quest of finding something worth staking their lives on, not just a Sunday night.
Three things are mentioned in your book as vital to creating a framework for consequential faith in today’s teenager: translation, testimony, and detachment. Can you give us a summary of these and why they are so important?
Well, if we’re going to have a missional church, we’re going to need some missionary habits or practices to help us become people who enter the world in this way. Missionaries know that translation, testimony, and detachment (I sometimes use the word “de-centering”) are critical tools in the missionary toolbox. Translation—taking one form of a message and making it into another form that newcomers to the conversation can understand—is a time-honored missionary practice. The Incarnation of Christ serves as our model for translation; missionary historian Andrew Walls calls the Incarnation God’s “perfect translation,” God’s perfect conversion of God’s very own self into human terms. We’re called to be translations of God’s love, as well, and while we don’t do it perfectly, the idea is to translate God’s love through a human life: ours.
Likewise, missionaries know the importance of testimony—the ability to share their faith stories with others, even people who don’t share their point of view. Testimony requires a language for faith, which was shockingly absent in the teenagers interviewed in the NSYR. So the art of testimony is the art of putting our faith stories into words, so we can talk about faith the way we talk about everything else that is important in our lives.
Detachment is a word that is now used by modern psychology, so the art of detachment for Christians sounds confusing at first. But it’s absolutely crucial to developing a missional imagination, because basically detachment is “the art of getting out of our own way.” Medieval mystics used the word “detachment” to describe the practice of detaching ourselves from the things that distract us from Christ, so that we can reattach our gaze upon Christ alone.
Today, educators would use the word “de-centering” instead of detachment. There is significant educational value in learning to see the world from someone else’s point of view, and spiritually, of course, this includes seeing the world from God’s point of view. De-centering practices are a little disorienting; they loosen our grip on what is familiar and open us to new possibilities. That’s why de-centering practices typically involve an encounter with an “other.” This can mean an encounter with another person or an encounter with the Other who is God. So while we usually think of de-centering as involving things like a mission trip to another culture, the primary de-centering practice of the church is prayer, where we take our attention off ourselves and radically focus on God.
After your research, what would you say the youth (minister’s) worker’s role should look like in the church today?
Most youth ministers know that what is usually marketed as “youth ministry” isn’t working. For the most part, teenagers aren’t coming to faith, growing in faith, or serving in faith because of a youth group or a summer program. Where young people meaningfully encounter the transforming love of Jesus Christ is through their families, their congregations, and the deep investment of faithful adults who take an interest in them.
This doesn’t mean that youth groups and summer youth programs are bad—they do many important things for teenagers, and they often serve as contexts that sharpen young people’s understanding of how Christ has encountered them. But apart from the nurturing presence of Christian adults, by themselves these traditional youth ministry venues are not very reliable vehicles for faith formation.
What this means for youth ministers is that we need to think of our work more as ministry than as youth ministry, and our shepherding needs to include helping parents and adults come to faith, grow in faith, and serve in faith as well as teenagers themselves. Youth are not, after all, a separate species. The big “secret” of youth ministry is that it is ministry—ministry contextualized for a particular flock, to be sure, but ministry nonetheless. Our job is not to minister to teenagers, making them objects of our ministry, but to enlist young people as full participants in the mission of God. Doing Christ’s work transforms us into people who follow him.
So our first task as adults who are invested in young people’s lives is to live alongside these young people as though we believe what we preach and to invite them into a Christ-following way of life alongside us. If youth and adults feed hungry people together, they probably won’t need icebreakers.
Almost Christian has been described as “disturbing” yet “hopeful.” Are you disturbed by the findings? AND hopeful? Why?
I left the NSYR both depressed and hopeful, yes. For a long time, my primary reaction was to be deeply disappointed in the church I have given my life to. It seemed clear that we had sold out to a caricature of the gospel, and we had given up on God as having a transformative presence in the world. I was disappointed that nothing churches were doing seemed to make a difference in teenagers’ faith maturity, even if teenagers participated in congregations.
Then it occurred to me that this was the good news: Teenagers weren’t buying our watered down “Christian-ish” position as worthy of a primary commitment. If churches can’t point to God’s transformative presence in the world, teenagers shouldn’t be all that interested in us. Teenagers should look for a faith that can survive shipwreck, and if churches don’t offer one, they should absolutely look elsewhere.
Of course, if churches aren’t offering a faith that can survive shipwreck, we’re probably not offering the gospel. I read the data from the NSYR as teenagers telling us that the emperor has no clothes, that churches are not who we say we are, that our actions fall short of our words, that we are not being “authentic.” Our words say that God overcomes death, that even death cannot stop God from righting a capsized world. Our words say that God loves teenagers so much that death on a cross was not too far for God to go in order to win them. Our words say that God’s love is “to die for,” literally, and every teenager on the planet recognizes that as the sign of true love. What gives me hope is that teenagers are more willing to risk this kind of love than we are to ask it of them. Whatever shape the church takes next, I suspect “a little child will lead us.”