adolescent theology

September 5, 2010


Kenda Dean has written a really challenging book titled, Almost Christian. And CNN wrote a really fair review of the book and her study:


Dean’s conclusion is simple and profound: “Your child is following a ‘mutant’ form of Christianity, and you may be responsible . . . more American teenagers are embracing what she calls ‘moralistic therapeutic deism.’ Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.”

My conclusion: YIKES!

Student Ministry is a really complicated calling with an even more complicated application. For their entire personal, emotional, and spiritual development until adolescents has been without the ability to understand abstract concepts or ideas. Their world is concrete and they are the center of it. Everything that occurs happens with them in the center. In fact it is actually impossible, developmentally, to see outside of this reality. And for better or worse our children’s ministry and our student ministry fit this developmental framework as we come along side them and help them see that in this world of theirs there is a God who loves them desires a relationship with them. Jesus loves ME this I know!

As children transition into adolescence, they can actually being to conceptualize a world outside themselves. I know that any 5 minute conversation with a teenager might cause you to question that statement, it is true. Chap Clark summed up a ton of complicated sociological work into the term individuation. This is the process in which students are sorting out their own identity. And this process can only happen by separating yourself, by developing an identity as someone other. And to do this, means that for the first time students can begin to conceptualize a world outside themselves, and even a God that might be about more then their world.

While I so appreciate the hard work that Dean has done, and agree with her conclusions, I am not quite ready to throw out youth ministry, the church, or parents in the process. This is a reality that is well documented, and to address this “mutant” form of Christianity, we need to first recognize some of the significant obstacles in helping our students develop good theology.

1) Adolescent development means that their natural inclination is to have an ego centric view of theology. And as adolescence lengthens the chances to really tackles this is even more difficult. Where middle schoolers were developmentally ready to work out their theology just a generation ago, high schoolers are just at the beginning of this process. So instead of six solid years to work this out, we are looking at maybe one or two years where students can realistically develop a theology that is healthy and centered around God and not themselves.

2) Our American Christian Culture. At the very core of our national identity is this deep strain of individualism and self-reliance. And this has impacted our theology. We come out of a tradition where Jesus saves me, where Jesus heals me, where Jesus blesses me. And when Jesus doesn’t come through for me, many have a crisis of faith.

These two obstacles are enormous contributors that leave students with a self-centered view of faith. And this is not a faith in a the personal a specific God found in the Bible, but the generic, moralistic, therapeutic deism that Dean has observed. While this may be a fact, this doesn’t have to be the end. This study is a very helpful indicator of the context in which we are called to do student ministry.

Every context in every time has obstacles, and this “mutant” from of Christianity is one of ours. Now we get the opportunity to find ways that work in our context to help students develop emotionally and spiritually in a way that paints a world view where Jesus is in the center, not them. Confirmation Curriculum, The Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, Reading Through The Entire Bible, and Short and Long Term Missions, are time tested ways to communicate that the Jesus we follow is so much bigger than we are and so doesn’t need us in any way, but invites us to go with Him, to where He is going.

In the midst of our amazing lessons with great theology, we mostly get the privilege to graciously walk through life’s ups and downs. And as we walk alongside them, we get to help students frame their experiences with a theology that the church has affirmed for thousands of years and will serve them their entire lives, no matter their context or circumstance.


One comment

  1. Great new writings- YWU will go out today- great things for people to wrestle through- thanks ben!

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