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Protestant Prof. @ Princeton Theological Seminary Sez Protestants Should Emulate...Mormons!


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Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean has recently written a book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, which BeliefNet blogger (and LDS member) Jana Riess reviews here:

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.

The LDS Church, of course, has not been totally immune to these same difficulties.

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.

This is interesting to read, particularly coming from a Protestant scholar. As an outsider to Protestantism, I won't claim to have a perfect perception of how things go in that world. Still, I have observed that at least some forms of Protestantism can be described as follows:

The [Protestant] folks who are the most adamant about us not being Christian are the ones most likely to profess a watered-down, easy-believism version of Christianity. In this version, all you have to do is profess Christ and you are saved. OSAS "Once Saved, Always Saved" carries the day. This version of Christianity, however, has to have some boundary. Easy-believism Christianity cannot very well accept groups like Catholics and Mormons into the fold. These groups are anti-thetical to easy-believism.

and here:

The folks who use these "shock" tactics [in their attacks on Mormonism] subscribe to a bland, watered-down version of Christianity, such that Grace is cheap, salvation is to be had by merely reciting a prayer and is thereafter fixed and guaranteed, and obedience to God's commandments is merely optional.

But this creates a dilemma, because this watered-down version of the Gospel runs the risk of being too inclusive, so its adherents have resorted to constructing artificial and absurd restrictions conditions to salvation. First among these efforts is to apply a tortured, ad hoc, fabricated-out-of-whole-cloth definition to the term "Christian." These folks hope to have their cake (Cheap Grace) and eat it too (Cheap Grace that is nevertheless restrictive based on artificial constructs).

I wonder if various Protestant denunciations of supposedly "works-based" religions have ended up pushing these groups into the very sort of easy believism that is not costing them the interest of their youth.

Anyway, back to the article:

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.

"They're supposed to feel good about themselves, but ... little is expected of them."

Golly, that sounds like the natural consequence of teaching youth concepts like OSAS ("Once Saved, Always Saved"), condemning the idea that followers of Christ need to conform their behavior to the commandments of God, watering down Christianity and salvation to nothing more than an altar call, etc.

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.

I have recently had callings in the LDS Church which have helped me understand just how much time, effort and resources the Church is pouring into focusing on the youth of the Church. We are sadly losing many of our youth (as are most religious groups, I think), but it's nice to see an outsider like Dean conclude that we are headed in generally the right direction.

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.

"And why their faith needs to have a claim on their behavior." It's kinda hard to reconcile that expectation when pastors are simultaneously teaching things like OSAS.

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.

This is an excellent point. My wife and I are currently using the Gospel Principles manual as the basis for all of our FHE lessons for the next year or so. We also have our children attend church every week. We also have family scripture study every night before bed. We also discuss the Gospel informally when we are in the car, over dinner, etc. All of these are teaching moments where we "catechize" our children. And judging by my children's increasing tendency to make thoughtful and original comments during these discussions, these "moments" are paying off.

And my children all know they have "consistent expectations" placed upon them. Church attendance, scouting, priesthood and young women's, service projects, administering the sacrament and collecting fast offerings (for the boys), serving missions, getting married in the temple, preparing to have and rear children (for both the boys and the girls), paying tithes and offerings, serving in the church, and so on.

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.

Another great point. And I wonder if Mormons have an advantage here because we encourage our members to develop a testimony through study, pondering and prayer. I also find it ironic that this concept is met with so much derision amongst many Protestant critics of the LDS faith.

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.)

This is a continuation of the first point above.

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.

Wow! This is how I've perceived Protestantism for quite some time. And yet I don't dwell on or expound upon it because I am an outsider, and hence did not feel that I was sufficiently informed to make such cutting observations.

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 wonder if she's right about that.

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.

My oldest son is now twelve and passes the Sacrament most Sundays. He takes this seriously, so much so that he grooms himself much better than he did before (he combs his hair carefully, makes sure his clothes are (reasonably) pressed, etc.) and goes over to the Church building 30 minutes early (because that's what the DQ advisor has asked them to do).

My wife and I have also had callings which require some (though not huge) amounts of time away from family. They also pay tithing (and see my wife and I pay it, too). They are totally acclimated to the concept of the LDS Church calling upon its members to devote time, effort and money in support of the Church and its members. This sort of acclimation is, I think, vary valuable for helping LDS children avoid the problems Dean describes above.

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.

My current calling has me involved with the young men. They are called regularly called upon in church meetings to say prayers, conduct songs, give talks, conduct meetings, and so on. Again, I think this is a good and healthy thing.

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.

I think Riess is correct here. However, I wonder if the LDS approach (making adherents feel like better people through faith and correlated good works) is superior to the approach used in some Protestant quarters (making adherents feel like better people through teachings (like OSAS) that don't require much or anything of the believer).



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It is clear that who ever wrote this has an anti-Christian mentality.

Well that is what I have been told by the people that believe in a similar gospel as what is described in this article.

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Holy envy is a good thing.

Let's hope they can find the secret and reclaim those lost lambs.

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I remember a talk by a general authority (forgot his name) who told us an experience in attempting to get the church recognized in an African country. The person responsible for Religious Affairs was very unresponsive to his request when the GA visited his office -- "we already have many religions in my country and don't need another." As he was leaving, he remembered that he carried the "For the Strength of Youth" brochure, and, on a whim, gave it to this leader.

After looking through the brochure, the leader said, "This is something the youth in my church needs" and gave his permission for the church to organize.

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