George Whitefield and John Wesley both preached sermons titled, “The Almost Christian,” expressing concerns over a majority of the people in the Church being Christian more by culture than by real, life-changing faith. “The Church is full of almost Christians who have not gone all the way with Christ,” said Wesley. And Whitefield defined the almost Christian as someone who “is fond of the form, but never experiences the power of godliness in his heart.” John Wesley realized that this attitude had been true of himself into his adult years, before his heart was “strangely warmed” by the love of God awakening his heart to “love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul…as Christ loved you.”
When I first read Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,” I became incredibly depressed as a youth minister. The book perfectly described what I was witnessing in the church. Teenagers who really enjoy coming to my excellent youth programs, who are being morally shaped to be nicer people, who may even continue to be church-goers as adults, but who don’t see Christ as important to any of that. The truth I continue to discover is this: while the youth ministry can shape youth to a certain degree, youth are going to mirror the faith practices of their parents, they are going to absorb the attitudes of the larger congregation, and if those attitudes are focused more on the form of godliness than on the power of God in our hearts, we will continue to produce young adults who value church as a social club that reminds them of childhood experiences, if they value it at all.
My parents were recently FaceTiming with my kids and me, and I made the joke that I’d just let Mom keep an eye on the kids through the iPad while I ran out and took break for a while. Responsible parents would never really consider virtual babysitting for their toddlers. And yet, most parents have completely outsourced faith-training of their kids to the youth leaders and children’s ministers, the Sunday School teachers and summer camps. We have raised an entire generation (maybe two generations) to view any church activity as just another extra-curricular group function, like soccer or book club, that looks good on a college application, that raises well-rounded people, that has no eternal significance and can easily be skipped if a more entertaining or restful opportunity comes our way. We expect our churches to be busy with good programs, never stepping back to judge whether this is actually forming disciples or just keeping our kids from doing riskier activities.
There is a major difference between our aspiring values (what we say we want to be) and our core values (what our actions prove we really value). Very few churches have displayed that the life-changing love of Christ is their core value. Like the parents in this comic who decide to move their kid to a more polite church, most churches prove time and again that what they value most is maintaining the status quo, of keeping the social norms. And teenagers sense that this doesn’t matter…they’re like the world’s best B.S.-o-meter. If your church consistently produces teenagers who play the church game but can’t express why Jesus matters, you’re doing it wrong. Until the church’s core value, its actual practice, is the transforming love of Christ, children’s and youth ministries don’t really stand a chance.
Help me out, Church. If you’re a pastor or a parent, or an adult in your congregation, it’s time you made it clear by your actions that Christ is your ultimate value.