Kendra Creasy Dean tells the story of Jacob and Esau. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. She jazzes the story up as you would if telling it to a young contemporary audience. When Jacob wants to trade the stew for Esau’s birthright, she has Esau say, “Whatever.”
But she understands that Jacob and Esau were not really like today’s young people. The very ideas of adolescent and teenager are socially constructed. These categories did not exist in biblical times. She thinks the categories were partly created to designate a market for advertisers. But the concept of adolescence is still changing. In the last few years 21 has become the new 16. Adolescence is now extends well into the 20s. (In the new health-care law parents can keep their sons and daughters on their insurance until the age of 26.)
Nevertheless, Dean believes that in any era the transition to adulthood involves wrestling with religious issues. Secularists might see this as just figuring out the direction and purpose of one’s life. But Dean thinks that no matter what you call it, the transition to adulthood actually calls for spiritual or religious choices. And there always remains the possibility of selling one’s birthright for a bowl of stew.
This is where churches seem to fail. Survey results show that they have not been able to “meaningfully share the core content of Christian faith with young people” (p. 10). Instead, youth have been given something that resembles what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, something that requires little in the way of commitment and sacrifice. Picking up on the Jacob/Esau story, she calls this dinner theology. It is a theology that is easy to digest and makes you feel good. This tasty stew she calls, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Most American teens claim to be Christians, but half admit that it is not a terribly important part of their lives and more than half say they don’t really practice Christianity much. There is a glass-half-empty/glass-half-full response to these results. Some point out that it is good news that many teens do see their faith as important and many do see themselves as practicing Christianity.
But Dean is in the glass-half-empty camp. She sees the church as having failed to engage the majority of young people with a life-changing message. This is not the fault of youth ministry, but of the church as a whole. Youth ministry may do a pretty good job. But what of congregations, families, and mentors? Are we just shunting the responsibility off on youth ministry, which can’t really reach into the larger lives of young people?
She thinks the challenge to the church is not just about the method of youth ministry; it is about the theology of the church.
“The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on ‘folks like us’–which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all” (p. 12).
I have felt frustrated with congregations. However, unless one knows a particular congregation really well, to use this kind of language and imply that they are not really being the church, will come off as shaming rhetoric, the product of frustration. I have seen outside preachers come in and blast congregations with this kind of talk. People have responded, “Why is he mad at us: he doesn’t even know us.”
I share some of her theological concerns But I am still waiting for something more concrete from Dean in the way of analysis and suggested solutions.
My own thought at this point is that we get into this problem because we want to tell people that Christianity will make them happy. If Jesus and Paul were apocalyptic preachers who saw judgment as impending, they probably were not too concerned about everyday happiness. This is one of the reasons I think Christians should pay more attention to the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom literature, and even to Stoicism and Confucianism, which have more to say about everyday happiness than Christianity’s founding documents do.