Kendra Creasy Dean has obviously spent a lot of time struggling with the results of the studies she sites (she has put the details of the studies in two extensive appendices). She has struggled with the prevalence of the almost-Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or “benign whatever-ism”, as she sometimes calls it. She sees that this almost Christianity serves the purpose of avoiding religious bigotry. You don’t have to condemn anybody’s religion if you can just say “whatever”. She insists, however, that this is not the only or best alternative to bigotry. She says:
“A good deal of philosophical writing suggests just the opposite–that situating our selves within a deeply held tradition makes us less rigid. Having an existential home base gives us the confidence to reach out toward others without feeling threatened by them, and without needing to make them become like us” (p. 190).
She also sees that dogmatic indoctrination of youth (God said it-I believe it-That settles it) makes a poor response. The rabbis and the Christian progenitors (a term I use for Church Fathers, since there were some women too) left contradictions in place. They did not try to completely harmonize our story or eliminate all vexation about faith. Youth, she thinks, will respond better if we do this too.
So, in the end, she is hopeful. If the Mormons, can do it so can others. She thinks mentoring, mission trips, and fully engaged youth ministry have a chance to create consequential faith. But most of all the gospel itself remains a life-changing resource.
I am not quite as optimistic about youth ministry in mainline churches. A lot of it is still oriented toward doing good in a way that emphasizes a kind of works righteousness. Doing good in liberal churches is sometimes hard to distinguish from being nice. Jesus as teacher overshadows Jesus as healer and sacrifice. And some of Jesus’ teaching gets downplayed. We are not really equipped to make a hard confrontation with our culture over sexual ethics, for instance. Also, mission trips and progressive social ethics don’t really give youth anything close to the sense of vocation Mormonism gives its youth.
We will have to finally let the younger generation figure it out for themselves.
I don’t have many answers. I’m just thinking out loud after having read a good and provocative book that deals with a real problem.