I read a big chunk of Almost Christian over the week-end. The author gets much more concrete in the middle of the book and talks about what we should do both in youth ministry and the whole church.
Having a conversation is Kendra Creasy Dean’s prescription for what ails youth ministry and the cultural crisis of the church in the U.S. Having a conversation sounds trite and simplistic, but it really isn’t. It is a powerful tool. I have found, for instance, that many couples preparing for marriage have never actually had conversations about money, sex, children, etc. A goal for pre-marital counseling is just to make them have those conversations. Similarly, I have found that congregations need to have a conversation about expectations before they are ready to call the next minister. My main job for some years was to facilitate such conversations.
Dean uses the story in 2 Kings 18 and 19 to give a structure to the kind of conversation that needs to happen. In the story the Emperor of Assyria has invaded Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem. The Emperor sends representatives to the city wall to negotiate a surrender. A conversation takes place there in Aramaic, the language of the empire. But inside the city walls the Hebrews have an internal conversation in Hebrew.
She allegorizes this story a little. There is a conversation that needs to take place beyond the boundaries of the church with the secular culture, just as the ambassadors of the two kings spoke at the city walls. This conversation needs to be in the “language” of the secular culture. But inside the church another conversation needs to back that one up. And this conversation needs to pick up the traditional “language” of the church.
In other words, the church, with youth fully participating, needs to figure out what it believes and how this challenges Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. But then it needs to translate the results so that the secular culture has a chance to get what the church has to say. The youth of the church can be–and need to be–ambassadors between the church and the world.
She makes the following points about this conversational Christianity translating traditional Christianity to contemporary culture:
1. The best translators are people, not programs
2. The best translators are bilingual
3. The best translators invoke imagination
4. Translation can threaten the people in charge
She spends some time drawing out each of these points. Bureaucratic and structural fiddling isn’t the answer. But the people in the current structure of our churches often have a stake in that being the answer. Also many who live within the walls of Jerusalem do not get why people outside the walls fail to understand their traditional language. And imagination in the use of music, video, and technology is a gift that youth bring to the endeavor.
This section of the book is long and defies summary. It contains a lot of statistics from the studies. But it also contains several stories that illustrate the points. Dean is a good storyteller. It also contains some theological argument from Dean pointing to her understanding of what a faithful Christianity would look like.
The book is not formatted for use as a study manual for a church group. Perhaps there will be (or already is) an accompanying leader’s manual so that this book can help start the conversation that Dean wants.