Reading Almost Christian

Kenda Kreasy Dean’s book Almost Christian has been the hot book for many youth ministry people this year. I’m finally reading it.

First, I can’t say this enough, I think everyone in ministry should be reading it. Not just the youth people. If you know me well, you know that I am not so enamored with most practical ministry kind of books. I love this one, and not just as a youth pastor, but as a generalist pastor, a church-goer, a parent, someone just trying to live a faithful life.

While this is a simplified take on parts of the book, one thing she points out is that a church simply having a great youth program (or a great youth pastor) doesn’t make for a church that will necessarily be good at nurturing youth into mature Christian faith.

This got me thinking: not to brag, but I think, to some extent, something about my own religious upbringing must have gone somewhat well. At very least, I wound up being a minister. And, reluctant as my Dutch-Calvinist roots are to let me say it, I think I’ve gotten to some form of mature faith life as an adult.

So, what was it about my church experience as child and teen that was most influential? First off, I have to agree with the book: it was not my youth group experience. I went to two churches as a high schooler. Both had what would not, by the standards of many churches, be described as conventional high-octane youth programs. Both were relatively small churches.

The first church had an all-volunteer youth ministry leadership group. And, during my time in it, there were some seriously flawed trips, outings, interactions, etc. The second church was trying to build a youth program. They had an incredible woman working very part time to build it, but, the only teens at the church who were from members’ families were: my sister and I. This was a completely outreach focussed youth group in the time I was there.

So, then, if the youth groups weren’t the main formative thing for me, what were the important components?

  1. Worship. Formal and informal, small and large. Participating in it and sitting through it. Week upon week upon week. It just sinks in when it’s a normal part of the pattern.
  2. Meals with church people. I grew up in a church where we had informal meals before or after an evening worship service at least twice a month, and normally weekly. Sometimes it was a really small crowd, 2 or 3 families. That didn’t matter.
  3. The way the church folks took care of each other, across generations and places in life. For example, caroling to shut-ins, and the not-so-shut-ins, was one of the highlights of the year in the church I grew up in. And, witnessing how they pulled together when someone was in crisis.
  4. The way the church people took care of other people. One church, when the local community college was faced with a shortage of host homes for a group of Central American students coming to study on a State Department program, took in about half of these young people. So, this smallish church in an area of the country that was decidedly NOT hispanic at the time, had a good 10 Central American young people (most of whom were from pretty poor backgrounds) worshipping with us and being social with us.
  5. Adults, parents and otherwise, who took time to teach and talk to us and model for us what the Christian life looks like. Not always by using any sort of set curriculum, but just by being around us.
  6. The simple insistence (mostly by parents) that church life was a non-negotiable for us. Sort of like school and homework were non-negotiobles.

Note the thread here: most of the things in this list seem to be about a web of interconnected relationships, centered around church as community. Maybe this worked for me because my make-up as a person involves being highly social. (However, when I think through my age-group peers at this church, I think the “outcomes” for who is still significantly involved in a faith community today are higher than the norm.) Or, maybe it worked for these churches because they were smaller, didn’t have the numbers and resources to create elaborate programs and groups, and didn’t need to create programs to promote opportunities for community building. Who knows?

I’m curious, too, what others would put on their list of what was most formative about the churches they grew up in.

And, if you’ve read the book, what about it resonates with your own personal experience?

One Response to “Reading Almost Christian

  1. Susie Says:

    Have you read the Souls of Adolesence? Someone gave it to me, and I’m having a hard time getting past the “all our teens are going to he$$ in handbasket” attitude… and honestly, that’s all I’ve gotten from the reviews of Almost Christian too.

    As for your other question… our youth program was definitely formational for me. It started when I was in 8th grade, and we had all kinds of power in that group. I particularly remember one meeting where our assistant priest presented the activity calendar she’d planned for the year, and we re-wrote the whole thing. We were more than a little sassy, in retrospect :)

    But the other things you mentioned were all true too: learning to worship from our choir director, having a church matriarch send me packzis on Fat Tuesday, and having attendance be a non-negotiable were all important.