Flunking Sainthood


Did you see this article in USA Today yesterday? The upshot is that Protestant teens are skipping church in record numbers. They rarely even come for the pizza anymore.

This development didn’t come out of nowhere. Throughout the last decade, sociologist Christian Smith has published some fascinating research about religion and the American teenager, most notably in the Oxford book Soul Searching and its recent follow-up, Souls in Transition. Based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, these books were gold mines of information about the religious behavior and attitudes of American teens, generally revealing that although American youth profess belief at a high level (in God, the afterlife, and the Bible), their level of religious practice does not typically match what they say they believe.

One of the researchers in the National Study of Youth and Religion, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean, now draws upon the data to issue a gentle jeremiad to Protestant congregations. In Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, she argues that if teenagers don’t have a firm grasp of core Christian doctrines and instead worship at what she calls “the Church of Benign Whatever-ism” — or don’t worship at all — it’s because youth pastors and other leaders have watered down the message, she claims. Teenagers in Protestant churches get the idea that they’re supposed to feel good about themselves, but that little is expected of them; Christianity is designed to make them “nice,” but it’s not supposed to form them as disciples. The first part of the book draws upon copious research data to diagnose the problem that Protestant teens are being taught a brand of Christianity that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Then the book takes a surprising turn. In a chapter called “Mormon Envy,” Dean further indicts Protestant churches by holding up Mormonism as an example of a religious group that is doing right by its teenagers. She makes it clear that she has serious theological disagreements with Mormonism, but from a sociological perspective, Mormonism is succeeding in creating young adults who firmly understand what they believe and why their faith needs to have a claim on their behavior. She says that Mormonism is giving teens the four things they need in order to have a growing adult faith, elements that she develops more fully in Part III:

1) They are sufficiently catechized in beliefs by their own parents and by a spiritual community that expresses consistent expectations. In order to succeed as Christian adults, teens first need to know what their faith communities believe–the substantial stuff, not just the feel-good fluff. Dean holds up the Mormon tradition of early-morning seminary as an example of successful catechesis at the institutional level, and Family Home Evening as an example of how it can occur in the home. Mormon teens are nearly twice as likely (79%) as other teens to pray with their parents at times other than grace for meals.

2) They need to acquire a personal testimony. Step one (catechesis) is vital but in the end insufficient if teens don’t make the Christian story their own. In Mormonism, there’s a great emphasis on personal testimony. More than half of LDS teens (53%) reported giving a talk or presentation in church in the last six months, compared to one in seven Southern Baptist youths and one in twenty-five Catholics. Mormon teens also exercise leadership, which Dean says is a crucial part of faith formation; 48% reported attending a church meeting where they were called upon to make a decision that would be binding on a group. These practices aren’t just window dressing, according to Dean; they pave the way for other crucial faith-forming events, such as missionary service. “From a very early age the church fosters . . . the skills that help her talk about her faith and participate in faith-sharing practices, starting with regular religious conversations in the home, shared leadership practices in youth ministry, and frequent opportunities for public testimony in worship,” Dean writes of one of her Mormon interviewees.

3) They need concrete religious goals and a sense of vocation. Part of the problem that Dean is diagnosing in American Protestantism is that there’s nothing teens are working toward, no sense of spiritual growth being a closely monitored goal. Much of that seems to end with confirmation around age twelve or thirteen, which is an invitation to drop out. In Mormonism, children prepare for missions and the temple; start fasting with the community every month at age eight; are expected to pay tithing just like adults; give up time on weekends to clean the church building and do service projects; and actually track these things in personal progress journals.They work toward Eagle Scout status or being a Young Woman of Excellence. (That latter designation is extremely hokey, and it’s arguably a separate but unequal companion to the Eagle, but at least it’s a goal.)

4) They need hope for the future. In Mormonism, Dean says, teens talk confidently about the purpose of this life (which they understand as being tested and growing spiritually so they might return to their Heavenly Parents after death). In Protestantism, she says, there has been an erosion of eschatological hope. Reading Dean’s book — particularly the final chapter “Make No Small Plans,” which deals with the complexities of inculcating hope — you get the sense that this is where the author feels most at a loss for what to do. What she and Christian Smith call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (the idea that religion exists to make me a better person and make me feel good) has so infected Protestantism that she doesn’t quite know how to respond, though she is sure the answer as well as the problem lies with the Christian church.

As a Mormon, I am hard pressed to think of another major sociological study that has ever lifted my religion up as having the answers to a pressing cultural problem; if we get kudos, it’s mostly for our dietary restrictions and astonishing longevity. LDS Public Affairs is going to be all over this book in the same way it has touted Rodney Stark’s projections for LDS growth. I think Dean has raised some excellent questions about the fundamental difference I notice when I go to my church and when I visit my husband’s wonderful Protestant congregation: I love the services and the community there, but at the end of the day, no one ever makes the teens take out the trash. As with other Protestant churches I’ve been to (and the one I served for two years as a student pastor), they love their teenagers, but loving them does not always translate into making them work, or giving them concrete expectations for how they will contribute to the overall health of the congregation (through giving talks, teaching classes, or sharing the gospel). Teens become passive recipients of adult action, not emerging leaders.

One complaint I have with Dean’s book is that she seems to assume that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism doesn’t exist in Mormonism, which it does despite the aforementioned high levels of religiosity. Many, many Latter-day Saints have a functional belief that religion exists primarily to make them better people in this life. Still, Dean’s definitely on to something, and I’m pleased to see a sociologist take Mormonism seriously despite theological differences.

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