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Teen Faith: Rising to the Challenge

by Dave Palmer, United Church of Christ of La Mesa                                                                                                           

     In July of 2010 Princeton Theological Seminary Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture Kenda Creasy Dean published the book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. The book created a significant ripple across the community of youth workers, giving a quantitative and qualitative challenge to youth workers, parents and church bodies across the US.

     Dean posits that the faith of a majority of American teens is, “not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. One more thing: we’re responsible.” Her statements address a wide range of challenges, from evangelical youth accustomed to pat answers without the ability to articulate doubt (something, it turns out, to be a healthy sign of an active and engaged faith) to mainline traditions stressing a “do-good, feel-good spirituality” without any of the challenge of sacrifice and digging deep.

     In an interview on the progressive religious site Patheos.com, Dean suggests that one of the most dramatic ways for parents and churches to begin a shift is to do one significant (she uses the term radical) thing because of one’s faith, “and do it in front of [their] children, and let children know that it’s because you’re a follower of Christ that this radical thing matters.” As examples she lists “changing jobs, changing neighborhoods, changing friends. It might mean sharing your home with a foreign exchange student, or going to a struggling church instead of a successful one.”

     The action in front of our youth is important, says Dean, because it allows youth to “look at their parents or someone in their church and say, ‘Wow, that‘s what faith does to people, that’s what Christianity makes you do!  You can live no other way.’ Unfortunately, the example we give them is that you can live the American dream just fine and still call yourself Christian and it doesn’t really seem to make a difference. So what do they learn? They learn that Christianity doesn’t seem to make a difference, so why would they be sold out for that?”

     Dean is no alarmist slouch without credentials. A respected scholar and long time practitioner of youth ministry, Dean was part of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s National Study of Youth And Religion, one of the broadest and deepest studies on the topic. She is a pioneer in the growing movement of contemplative youth ministry and helping youth understand spiritual practices and development.

     Some of the most influential church leaders among youth and young adults are those making bold statements with their lives, such as Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way Community. This is group of young adults who live in community in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, grow much of their own food, make much of their own clothing and invest their lives in the lives of their marginalized neighbors. In some ways it’s 21st century hippie-dom, but with a religious zeal to follow the call to care for the least of among us.

     And the Simple Way are not alone. Scores of “new monastic” communities are cropping up across the country with young people who refuse to create a hierarchy between God’s desire for personal renewal or for communal justice. These leaders are inspiring thousands of youth as well as many older leaders who are refreshed by this new take on an old model.

     So what does all of this mean? For me it’s a pretty significant mind screw, if I’m honest. It’s a call to the zeal I felt in my late teens and early 20s, combined with some wisdom and insight gained in the ensuing two decades. It’s a desire to live as an example for my own children and give them an experience of something that means enough to change me. It’s a reminder that Dean’s friend and colleague, author Mark Yaconelli, urges youth workers (and really, everyone) to take care of their own souls so that they have something to give to the youth they serve.

     It’s also a challenge to not rest on the laurels of my beloved progressive faith traditions, and that my theological and ideological convictions need to be visible to my children, not as a show but as an example of what conviction in action looks like.

     And while much of Dean’s book doesn’t surprise me, the clarity with which she expresses the challenges and opportunities still hit home, and hit there hard. There are things about it that made me feel defensive, or to justify my own behaviors or lack thereof. But it also poked at that part of me that wants to rise to a challenge, to overcome, to achieve, and to do so because I do care. I am passionate about a rich and active spiritual life and I wish that for anyone.

     Perhaps most of all I wish it for our youth and for our children. For there are few things like true conviction lived with confidence and joy. And few things more valuable to transmit to our youth than an idea of what that looks like.

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