» We played a lot of ping-pong.
» When the group dissolved, I ended up with a small piggy bank (well, it was a plastic snowman) containing a few dollars in coins. I think I kept the money. I remember feeling guilty about it.
» Our leaders were a retired Baptist minister (with Presbyterian leanings), Clarence Kerr, and his sweet wife Grace. One day Grace’s brother spoke to us. Because of cancer, he had had a laryngectomy. After regular gasps for air, he would croak his words through a hole in his throat. But get this: He was full of joy, he said, because God loved him.
What I take away from this review of teenage memory is that faith formation happens not so much with a series of sermonic lessons drawn from the Bible but, rather, from encountering faithful people who show us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I’ve been thinking about my old youth group days in response to reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s excellent, if distressing, new book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.
Dean, who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary, analyzes the results of a recent National Study of Youth and Religion, and her conclusions should give every serious Christian the willies. Often, she says, young people in our churches are not learning Christianity, with its radical call to self-sacrificial love of even the unlovable. Rather, they are learning Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
MTD makes almost no demands. Instead, it just suggests that people be nice. If there is a role for God in MTD, it is as the one who listens to our 9-1-1 help calls but otherwise leaves us alone. And MTD seeks to give everyone a handy boatload of self-esteem.
Another phrase used to describe this diluted religion is Benign Whateverism. And, Dean says, it seems to be winning the hearts and minds of our youth.
“The simple truth,” Dean writes, “seems to be that young people practice an imposter faith because we do — and because this is the faith we want them to have. It’s that not-too-religious, ‘decent’ kind of Christianity that allows our teenagers to do well while doing good, makes them successful adults without turning them into religious zealots, teaches them to notice others without actually laying their lives down for any of them. If this is the faith they see lived out by their parents, their pastors, and their churches, how would they know it’s a sham?”
The problem, however, as Dean notes, is that if you hold up the historic Christian creeds against MTD you find they bear little resemblance to one another “in either tone or substance.” The creeds are all about God. MTD is all about us.
Heaven help us.
I’m sure there are lots of PC(USA) churches that — without imposing on youth the straitjacket of Biblical literalism or an overemphasis on personal salvation at the expense of covenant community theology — teaching what it means to be a serious follower of the one who, in thorough obedience to God, went to the cross and who invites us to take up our own crosses for others.
But I also suspect that the study Dean references has identified a real phenomenon — churches that ask little or nothing of their members of any age, but especially of their young people, who are just sorting out what faith looks like.
The call to mission, to discipleship, to a commitment to the God of prodigal grace is harder to sell than Benign Whateverism. But, in the end, people who buy the latter are storing up not a treasure but fool’s gold.