There has been a lot of hype the past couple of weeks about a book called Almost Christian–a book written by one of the people who conducted the National Study of Youth and Religion. Not having read the book yet, but having read a lot of other material about (and from) that study, and other related books and articles, this is the best summary I can give right now:
Youth and young adults coming from our religious traditions have a very shallow theology–so shallow that using the word “theology” is actually a bit of a stretch. This “theology” consists of just one basic premise: God wants you to be happy/have good self-esteem, and will be there for you when you feel down or need a boost but otherwise is just sort of…meh. This is an even further stretch away from the biblical understandings of God than Deism (which is the tradition most of our founding fathers belonged to), in which God is “like a clockmaker” who creates, sets in motion, and then just watches from afar without intervening or having relationships or demanding anything of the system or the workers within the system.
It seems this new book places this situation exactly in the context where it belongs: our congregations. This “theology” is not something every generation has gone through, not something that just comes with adolescent territory, not just a result of changing culture or social media or extra narcissism (which is also up for debate). It’s a new development, and it seems to be coming from US…from churches and church people–those of us who are teaching, nurturing, preaching, leading children’s sermons and youth groups…we are creating this non-theology, this vaguely Christian-sort-of floaty idea.
Which means that the answer to the problem of watered-down-theology and declining faith traditions (whatever “decline” means…) lies not in further watering down our theology to their “level” or to be “accessible”, but in giving our kids, our youth, and our young adults something worth doing, something worth being, something worth participating in…a God worth listening to and following, in other words. If God calls us, and Jesus shows us, and the Spirit empowers us, why are so many people walking around believing that the essence of faith is that God is only around when we need a self-esteem boost? There’s a lot of mystery involved, not a lot of answers but plenty of space for hard questions, and a significant amount of complexity to be considered…but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be exploring that complexity, probing the questions, living in the mystery, passing on the good and the hard from our centuries long theological traditions so we can continue to learn together what it means to live faithfully in the world.
Mark DeVries reminds us that “youth ministry is the church’s ministry, not just that of specialists who can relate to young people. The mandate to be there for young people belongs to the Christian community, not to any individual or group of individuals.” The same is true of teaching, nurturing, praying. We all make the baptismal vows together…and hopefully, we fulfill them together as well.