Dean, professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written a disturbing yet thought-provoking book on the current religious state of America’s teenagers. The background research for this book was the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). One of the largest studies ever of the religious views of teenagers, the original research was conducted from 2002 to 2005 and consisted of extensive interviews with 3,300 American teenagers (thirteen to seventeen years old) and follow-up interviews with 267 teenagers. The study also continues with a longitudinal study of 2,500 of these teenagers. The overall summary of the findings (and the basic theme of the book) is that “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school” (p. 3). The most condemning part for the parents and grandparents of this generation is that Dean rightly sees the lukewarm nature of the children’s faith as a “barometer of the religious inclinations of the culture that surrounds them, giving parents, pastors, teachers, campus ministers, youth pastors, and anyone else who works closely with teenagers fifty-yard-line seats from which to watch America’s religious future take shape” (p. 9).
Dean summarizes the NSYR findings under five general headings. First, most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise do not give it much thought. So while teenagers are not hostile toward religion, neither do they care much about it. Dean believes that most teenagers equate Christian identity with “niceness” but do not think religion has any influence on one’s decisions, choice of friends, or behaviors. Second, most American teenagers (for good or for bad) mirror their parents’ religious faith. Dean strongly states, “The religiosity of American teenagers must be read primarily as a reflection of their parents’ religious devotion (or lack thereof) and, by extension, that of their congregations. . . . Lackadaisical faith is not young people’s issue, but ours. . . . The solution lies not in beefing up congregational youth programs or making worship more ‘cool’ and attractive, but in modeling the kind of mature, passionate faith we say we want young people to have” (pp. 3–4).
Third, most American teenagers lack a theological language with which to express their faith or interpret their experience of the world. Teenagers call themselves Christian yet do not have a readily accessible faith vocabulary, few recognizable faith practices, and little ability to reflect on their lives religiously. Fourth, a minority of American teenagers—but a significant minority—say religious faith is important and that it makes a difference in their lives. According to the NSYR numbers, approximately 8 percent of American teenagers were classified as “devoted.” This designation means that these teenagers attended religious services weekly, believed that faith is very important in everyday life, felt close to God, were involved in a religious youth group, prayed a few times a week, and read Scripture once or twice a week. While not too much confidence can be placed in exterior actions of faith (and can even lead to legalism), it is at least one means of assessment. Interestingly Mormon teenagers actually did well in the NSYR study, but adherence to orthodox Christian theology was not taken into consideration in the study. For evangelicals, this would be the only shortcoming of this study overall.
A most insightful point in the book is that many American teenagers enact and espouse a religious outlook that is distinct from traditional teachings of most world religions. Dean calls this codependent outlook “Moral Therapeutic Deism” and is convinced that it is supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in the United States. The guiding beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are as follows: (1) a “god” exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth, (2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions, (3) the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself, (4) God is not involved in one’s life except when a person needs God to resolve a problem, and (5) good people go to heaven when they die. Instead of God being active in the lives of His people, Dean sees the primary role of God in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as passive—“stand back and approvingly watch us evolve” (p. 39).
After painting a very bleak religious landscape for American teenagers, Dean devotes the rest of the book to providing ways for parents and churches to engage the mission field of America’s youth. One way is by providing a “cultural toolbox” to make faith consequential. The items in this toolbox could include a creed (an articulated God-story and belief), a community (a sense of belonging with peers and adults), a calling (a sense of purpose and significance), and a hope (the belief that God is moving the world somewhere). The goal is to move teenagers toward spiritual maturity, marked by seeking spiritual growth, being keenly aware of God, acting out a commitment of faith, making faith a way of life, living lives of service (“ethic of giving”), reaching out to others, exercising moral responsibility, speaking publicly about one’s faith, and possessing a positive and hopeful spirit. Adults in faith-supporting congregations can help cultivate consequential faith in teenagers by modeling the transforming presence of God in life and by engaging in conversations, prayer, Bible reading, and service that nurtures faith and life.
Like a missionary in a foreign land, adults need to engage in several mission practices to reach and retain this next generation. First, adults must help translate the faith by handing down the catechesis, language, and practices of Christianity in tangible and understandable ways. Parents especially can no longer abdicate their role (“let the experts do it”) in articulating their faith to their children. Adults (and parents in particular) must become incarnational in walking alongside teenagers, demonstrating acts of love and allowing their love of Christ to show.
Second, adults must help teenagers in articulating their own faith. Churches must encourage public conversation about faith to help teenagers develop their ability to express their beliefs. Adults must give teenagers opportunities to talk about their own faith in families and congregations, and teenagers need opportunities to hear adults talk about their faith as well. These conversations are an opportunity to develop good theology as well (“Jesus-talk,” not just “God-talk”). Faith immersions (camps, mission trips, etc.) are also excellent venues for teenagers to practice “speaking Christian.”
The final mission practice is one of detachment. The goal is to help teenagers decenter from themselves to focus on God and others. Adults need to be intentional in placing teenagers in environments where they can come in contact with the “otherness” of God and people. Adults also need to be intentional in placing teenagers in environments where their usual cultural tools do not work, introducing a state of disequilibrium. This will actually involve creating space for teenagers to be with Jesus (through prayer and reflection) instead of being busy for Jesus through activities.
As a parent of a teenager, this reviewer found the book very sobering. Much of what the modern church calls ministry is little more than entertainment, with little eternal impact in the lives of the participants. But closer to home, all parents need to reexamine the faith that they have practiced in front of their own teenagers. Teens are watching to see if their parents’ faith is consequential in their own lives first.
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