Theology Professor: Adults in The Church Are to Blame For Teen Apathy

Group of young hipster friends playing with smartphone with mutual disinterest towards each other - Modern situation of technology interaction in alienated lifestyle - Internet wifi connection

According to Kenda Cresy Dean, the blame for the shift toward “fake” Christianity among teenagers should fall squarely on the shoulders of adults in the church.

“If this is the God they’re seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust,” says Dean. A new article published by CNN includes an interview with Dean, who is an ordained minister and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dean discusses Christian teenagers and their shift toward insincere or “fake” Christianity. She claims adults in the Church don’t share an authentic portrait of God and faith.

Teens leaving the church and exercising mediocre faith is a subject Dean has been on the front lines of studying. She helped facilitate the research for the National Study of Youth and Religion by interviewing teens about their faith. The depressing experience led her to write “Almost Christian,” which “investigates why American teenagers are at once so positive about Christianity and at the same time so apathetic about genuine religious practice.”

The study coined a new term to describe the faith of today’s teenagers: “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is a fancy way of saying youth sees God as a “divine therapist” who wants people to feel good about themselves and do good things themselves. According to Dean, this is fake Christianity.

The CNN article summarized the study’s finding succinctly: “Though three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can’t talk coherently about their beliefs.”

Dean will say that the church has taught youth a “gospel of niceness” instead of the true gospel. Additionally, we’ve held really low expectations for youth pastors. If the only expectations are for youth pastors to keep kids from doing drugs and having sex, we’ve entirely missed the point of youth ministry. Before you’re tempted to overhaul your entire youth ministry program, however, Dean says the most influential force in a teen’s life is his or her parents. When parents demonstrate apathetic faith and expect about the same from their children, it results in our current crisis.

However, there is a silver lining in all of this. During her research, Dean did meet youth whose faith is genuine and who have a deeper understanding of Christianity than their peers. These youth share four traits: “They have a personal story about God they can share, a deep connection to a faith community, a sense of purpose, and a sense of hope about their future.”

Dean also discusses a solution. We need to get radical. As CNN summarizes, “parents who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.”

Dean and the CNN report are certainly not the first ones to comment on this phenomenon. A lot of the language used by Dean and others in the article echo sentiments shared by other professionals like Kara Powell with the Fuller Youth Institute and David Kinnaman with the Barna Research Group.

The conclusion to draw from their words is that youth need an authentic faith (backed up by works) modeled to them by the most influential people in their lives and an environment where they feel safe to bring their doubts and questions.

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Megan Briggs
Megan Briggs is a writer and editor for ChurchLeaders.com. Her experience in ministry, an extensive amount of which was garnered overseas, gives her a unique perspective on the global church. She has the longsuffering and altruistic nature of foreign friends and missionaries to humbly thank for this experience. Megan is passionate about seeking and proclaiming the truth. When she’s not writing, Megan likes to explore God’s magnificent creation.