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REVIEW: What can parents do about teens’ weak faith?

Most American teenagers possess a diluted version of traditional Christianity. In their minds, God certainly exists, but largely only to help them be nice, stay out of trouble and get ahead.  
These findings come from the National Survey of Youth and Religion, conducted from 2002 to 2005. Kenda Creasy Dean, one of the interviewers for the extensive survey, suspects that teens are windows through which adult Christians can see their own beliefs more clearly.  
This should give us pause.
In “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,” Dean, a youth ministry professor at Princeton University, builds on the survey and offers research-based suggestions on what we can do to foster a much deeper, consequential faith in our teens.
“Almost Christian” is no simplistic offering of things to do in class this Sunday. Instead, believers will find practical wisdom richly informed by sound theology that will push them to assess why we do what we do in faith formation.  
Dean offers hope. The National Survey of Youth and Religion revealed a small number of “highly devoted” teens who possess beliefs, a church community, a sense of purpose and a hope for the future that their peers do not.  
Interestingly, teens in “conservative evangelical” groups — such as Churches of Christ — are more likely to produce such “highly devoted” teens, though still not to a degree that should make us feel comfortable.
Simply put, we best serve the children in our churches when we allow them the freedom to try on faith and then faithfully mentor them on how faith influences day-to-day decisions. Instead of serving up programming that entertains but demands little, our children will form faith best when they are empowered to participate, especially in activities that inspire reflection, missions and service. These activities help them see life in a new way.
Parents who are short on radical ideas for reaching their kids should try David Platt’s aptly named “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.” Platt, minister for a 4,000-member megachurch in Alabama, argues that what some label as  “extreme” is really only biblical.  
With passion and simple prose, Platt returns the reader to the often prickly words of Jesus. “Come, follow me” is a call to die daily to our own advancement. “Go into all the world” is a command for all of us, not just missionaries. “It is hard for the rich to inherit the kingdom of heaven” isn’t just a theory.  
In America, the greatest obstacles to our faith are the materialism, self-sufficiency and entitlement implicit in the “American dream,” Platt writes. American adults have settled for the same low-commitment, self-focused version of Christianity detailed in the National Survey of Youth and Religion.
Platt’s correctives are similar to Dean’s — know your story, connect to a community, shake up your perspective, love sacrificially with your time and money.  
Some will find Platt’s proposals too radical — cap your standard of living, trade Disney World for a mission trip to Detroit, scale back the flash in worship. Others will embrace this book warmly, especially younger Christians whom Dean argued are dissatisfied with low-risk faith.
This has been my experience as a high school teacher with students who have picked up and then enthusiastically passed around “Radical” to their friends. As one ninth-grade girl said, “This book will change your life.”
The pressure to preach a message that ruffles few feathers — and to operate more like the CEO of a business than a shaper of souls — drove Keith Meyer to write “Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs.”  
Fifteen years ago, Meyer was a busy pastor in a large church, chasing ministry success while slowly losing touch with his family and his own identity.  When he realized that American Christianity seems to judge success by “buildings, budgets and bodies,” not by lives transformed to look more like Jesus, Meyer threw in the towel.  
The greatest appeal of Meyer’s book is his candidness. He is not afraid to share the dirt of his own life (neglect of his son, workaholism, self-reliance) in the hope that others may see themselves and cry out for more as well.
Meyer, like Platt, implores churches to adopt the program Jesus used for making disciples — invest in relationships with people, especially leaders, who can show others the way to transformation. Like Dean, Meyer sees apprenticing as key to real change.
Many of Meyer’s suggestions will strike some readers as general or even common sense, but he does a good job charting the way forward.  
No discussion of faith formation would be complete without a review of the newest repackaging of Henri Nouwen’s “Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit.” For 40 years, Nouwen’s magnanimous voice has influenced people’s thinking about Christian spirituality.
Taking a different approach from the previous authors, Nouwen sketches out seven “moves” faith must make over the span of life to attain spiritual maturity. Nouwen always helps me connect spirituality to modern struggles, and I suspect this book will do the same for others.

JASON KNIGHT is a high school Bible teacher at Harding Academy in Memphis, Tenn., and a member of the Highland Church of Christ in Cordova, Tenn.

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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