I was having a conversation with the student ministries director of my church yesterday. As our church has followed CDC and local recommendations regarding large group gatherings, he has had to be resourceful in fulfilling his responsibilities. The students have met together through Zoom in place of their regular Sunday evening activities, but he said yesterday how they likely need to do more. He said, “Right now, it’s connection over content. What we’re trying to teach isn’t nearly as important as offering the students an opportunity to be together, however we can.”
I think he is right, though I have encouraged him not to ignore their need for spiritual growth and development, even during a season of social (physical) distancing and sheltering-in-place. We have all leaned hard toward pastoral care in the initial stages of the pandemic’s emergence in the United States, but I am concerned that if we are not careful, we will reinforce what many already believe about the church: that we exist merely to acknowledge God’s existence, help people make good (moral) choices, and offer comfort so that people feel good about themselves.
This triad forms the basis of Kenda Dean’s “Almost Christian.Matt McCullough’s review offered this:
“In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the first book to draw from the groundbreaking discoveries of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Their description of teen religiosity as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” has been eagerly embraced by journalists, ministers, and other interested pontificators.
Kenda Dean, a professor at Princeton Seminary and a collaborator on the NSYR, draws from the same research in her recent book Almost Christian. But where the analysis of Smith and Denton was mostly descriptive, Dean offers the American church a solution to the problem of watered-down cultural Christianity.”
Dean’s “solution” is for church’s to concentrate more on spiritual development (discipleship,) investing in the students who attend and offering opportunities for them to mature in their faith, rather than simply attracting students to a place for activities, fellowship, and a surface-level lesson on living a Godly life. McCullough writes, “While many twentieth-century churches spent their energy wondering how to keep teenagers coming to church, they neglected to cultivate the kind of faithful Christian communities that could have a significant impact on the youth who did show up.”
This aligns with Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson’s research of young adults in the transitional period of life from high school graduation into early adulthood. In his review, Hyemin Han writes,
“On the one hand, they have the freedom to shape their future lives. On the other hand, (young adults) are usually not fully independent of their parents, because they may lack stable social or economic status. Therefore, they experience aspects of both adolescence and adulthood. It is difficult to classify their experience according to the traditional categories of adolescence and adulthood.”
According to Han, “The key solutions suggested by the book are the reformation of social institutions, such as schools, and the efforts of older adults to establish firm relationship with emerging adults.”
It’s too soon to say how history will remember COVID-19. Right now, it certainly feels like it might be an event that shapes the future. A moment that serves as a reference point for other moments in time. A marker that potentially defines a generation and the outlook of young people for years to come. For young adults who have grown up in the church in particular, I wonder how this experience will shape their relationship with the church and their personal faith.
What will become of the church once life settles back into a more familiar “post-corona” routine? A generation of young people, most of whom were already digital natives who were experts in remote interaction thanks to gaming systems and video chat, will have spent weeks, perhaps months, participating in “virtual church,” free to consume content on their own schedule, tailored to their own needs?
How is the church leading them in this season? Most of the churches’ immediate responses have been to double down on connection and community, comfort and care. Many pastors and church staff have taken the role of therapist to help congregants endure, adjust, and perhaps make meaning of this unusual time of self-isolation, social distancing, and sheltering-in-place. Pastors and churches spent time and energy in the creation and offering of online worship experiences, both to meet the need of the church community to gather and to maintain a sense of the familiar as worship had been the primary (if only) weekly touchpoint for the average congregant. The next phase was virtual communities as Bible studies, prayer groups, Sunday school classes, student ministries, etc. have shifted to video-conferencing and the like in order to keep meeting. And finally, churches have re-engaged in service- mobilizing the church community to help their neighbors and fill gaps for community service providers
Are our efforts to maintain a sense of “normal” in the midst of something so completely abnormal moving our people, especially our young people, into deeper discipleship? Are we lifting up the primary mission of the church to become better followers of Jesus or are we modeling a type of faith that really only exists to help us feel better and do some good when and where we can?
I think it is possible that this virus could significantly weaken the Church. I also think it is possible for the Church to emerge from this historic event more capable than ever to reach and teach emerging generations about the power of connection and community built around the life of discipleship first taught by Jesus. By all means, our churches need to offer comfort and care during times of anxiety and uncertainty, but they can also help people plant deeper roots and build on a more solid foundation that will hold them more firmly when the storms of life rage.
 Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.)
 Matt McCullough, review of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean, 9Marks, February 18, 2011, accessed March 30, 2020, https://www.9marks.org/review/almost-christian/.
 Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.)
 Hyemin Han, review of Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, by Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson and Hilary Davidson, Journal of Moral Education 41, no. 1 (2012): 147-147, accessed March 30, 2020, https://coa.stanford.edu/publications/book-review-lost-transition-dark-side-emerging-adulthood.