This development didn't come out of nowhere. Throughout the last decade, sociologist Christian Smith has published some fascinating research about religion and the American teenager, most notably in the Oxford book Soul Searching and its recent follow-up, Souls in Transition. Based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, these books were gold mines of information about the religious behavior and attitudes of American teens, generally revealing that although American youth profess belief at a high level (in God, the afterlife, and the Bible), their level of religious practice does not typically match what they say they believe.
One of the researchers in the National Study of Youth and Religion, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean, now draws upon the data to issue a gentle jeremiad to Protestant congregations. In Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, she argues that if teenagers don't have a firm grasp of core Christian doctrines and instead worship at what she calls "the Church of Benign Whatever-ism" -- or don't worship at all -- it's because youth pastors and other leaders have watered down the message, she claims. Teenagers in Protestant churches get the idea that they're supposed to feel good about themselves, but that little is expected of them; Christianity is designed to make them "nice," but it's not supposed to form them as disciples. The first part of the book draws upon copious research data to diagnose the problem that Protestant teens are being taught a brand of Christianity that is a mile wide and an inch deep.