Still getting mail about the CNN article, so I’ll post one more personal response: I really wish CNN hadn’t called teenagers “fake” Christians in the article’s title. An almost Christian is not necessarily a fake Christian. The book title was not intended as a slam; it comes from a John Wesley sermon preached in 1741 to university students and professors (so clearly, this is not a new issue for the church, or for young people! GBGM ) Almost Christians, said Wesley, go through the motions of religion without committing to a relationship of loving God, which (in Wesley’s thinking) always led directly to loving our neighbor.
Wesley confessed to being an almost Christian himself for much of his life. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Almost Christians look like they’re doing things right–they help other people, live good lives, even go to church and do their pious best. But they follow the “rules” of religion without loving God or their neighbors with whole hearts, which allows Christianity to become self-serving and joyless. Religion becomes a matter of duty and expectations, not an embodiment of love.
Of course, everyone knows the difference between doing something because “it’s a good thing to do” and doing it because you want to. When my kids were small, Brendan loved to play swords, and Shannon loved to play Barbies. I hated playing both swords and Barbies– but I didn’t tell them that. I love my kids, and play matters. So I would clash swords with Brendan and make Barbie talk with Shannon. But I wasn’t fully playing–I was almost playing. It was a good thing for me to do, and my children would benefit. But there was no joy in it, no reason to continue the game outside of its utilitarian purpose. The kids, on the other hand, were altogether playing. They abandoned themselves to swords and Barbies. They lost themselves in the moment. They loved swords and Barbies. They loved every minute of being immersed with them. Playing claimed them.
If faith is going to claim American teenagers, then we need the altogether kind. Some people have written me and asked, “Okay, so what is the standard for ‘real’ Christianity?” The standard for altogether Christians doesn’t come from the National Study of Youth and Religion, but from the gospel. Altogether Christians love God and neighbor as themselves. One problem with the NSYR is that it tends to define Christianity in terms of “beliefs,” which misses the fact that faith is more of a trust walk than a belief system. You don’t become a Christian by agreeing to a bunch of beliefs (no matter what they made you do in confirmation). We become Christians as we give ourselves over to the One who gave himself for us. Christian faith is more about trust and confidence in Jesus Christ than belief. Christians follow Jesus because we say we love him, and therefore we trust him enough to follow him.
Except…we don’t. Not really. Which is why I wrote the book. I don’t want to be an almost Christian either.