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A Church That Can Survive Shipwreck

Last night I was listening to an old Mars Hill Audio Journal interview with Kenda Creasy Dean, a Methodist pastor and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. In it, she talked about her great book Almost Christian, which examines the way American teenagers relate to religion, based on Christian Smith’s pioneering research. (Smith is the sociologist who coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). Creasy Dean and host Ken Myers talked briefly about the role parents play in preventing their children from becoming mature Christians. According to KCD, many ostensibly Christian parents undermine the possibility of real Christian faith in the lives of their children by raising the kids to think that Christianity is something you may do to help you succeed in life — that is, to be a better whatever it is you want to be.

In fact, she says, if Christianity is true to the religion taught in the Bible, then it is rather the opposite: to be a Christian is precisely to be a sign of contradiction to the dominant trends in American life. If you are a “successful” American in 2013, suggests KCD, you should ask yourself some hard questions about whether or not you are doing Christianity right. It’s not to exclude the possibility of being successful American by worldly standards and a Christian, but it is to say that the two are not the same thing, and in fact one can undermine the other. And that to the extent the church confuses the two, it hollows out Christianity, replacing it with a pseudo-religion.

In a different interview about the book, Creasy Dean spoke about how depressing the research data on the faith of American teenagers was to her:

 For a long time, my primary reaction was to be deeply disappointed in the church I have given my life to.  It seemed clear that we had sold out to a caricature of the gospel, and we had given up on God as having a transformative presence in the world.  I was disappointed that nothing churches were doing seemed to make a difference in teenagers’ faith maturity, even if teenagers participated in congregations.

Then it occurred to me that this was the good news: Teenagers weren’t buying our watered down “Christian-ish” position as worthy of a primary commitment.  If churches can’t point to God’s transformative presence in the world, teenagers shouldn’t be all that interested in us.  Teenagers should look for a faith that can survive shipwreck, and if churches don’t offer one, they should absolutely look elsewhere.

Not only teenagers, but everybody, right? I like her formulation. If your church isn’t giving you a faith that can survive shipwreck, or making that kind of faith available to you, however imperfectly, look elsewhere. If you’ve never been shipwrecked, you probably will be. What will you do?

UPDATE: OK, this is kind of cool. I posted this entry this morning before I left for church. I’ve been thinking since last night about Kenda Creasy Dean’s shipwreck line. This morning I was standing during the liturgy at our little country Orthodox mission church (we all stand, as you may know), praying for the church, silently thanking God for bringing this church into my family’s life, and allowing us to serve it. I heard the kids rustling on the bench behind me, and turned to check on them. One of the church kids had this book out on the bench:

I love me a good synchronicity! At that I went on my knees to thank God for my church and my church family. No doubt in my mind that I’m standing exactly where I’m supposed to be.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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