“Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church” by Kenda Creasy Dean. Oxford University Press (New York, 2010). 254 pp., $24.95.

“Win It All: The Way to Heaven for Catholic Teens” by Justin Fatica. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2010). 141 pp., $11.95.

These two books sit at opposite ends of the youth ministry spectrum. “Win It All” is an in-your-face, disorganized, passionate appeal directed to young people, calling them to live their lives for Christ. “Almost Christian” is a scholarly, insightful, interesting, theological reflection on what the church in the United States can do to bring young people to Christ. It is also a must read for anyone interested in the topic of youth and religion.

Justin Fatica, the author of “Win It All,” gives retreats and conferences for young people through his Hard as Nails ministries. He offers eight steps that young people can take to become disciples. He presents a “muscular” version of Christianity, and uses stories and lives of saints to illustrate his points. The book is written for young people to guide their journeys toward discipleship. Each of the eight chapters/steps ends with reflection questions and activities young people can do.

There is no lack of passion in Fatica’s appeal to young people. His work in retreats and one-on-one ministry is seemingly very effective. The book is written with the energy one would expect in a live event. Whether young people will find the book as moving as the live ministry is a significant question.

“Almost Christian” builds from the 2003-05 research on adolescents and faith conducted in the National Study on Youth and Religion. During this study the researchers came to understand that, in general, American young people are fine with religious faith, it just isn’t very important to them.

The researchers gave a name to this attitude: moralistic, therapeutic, deism – it provides guidance on how I should live, makes me feel good about myself and features a God who demands nothing from me.

Kenda Creasy Dean, associate professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, was one of the researchers on the national study. In “Almost Christian,” she examines “moralistic, therapeutic, deism” from the perspective of both a researcher and a theologian, and offers suggestions about what the church can do to counteract this “theology” that is so influencing young people.

According to Dean, the problem is that young people have been taught all too well a watered-down, nonchallenging, uninspiring version of the faith. She makes clear that the problem is with the church and not with young people. She offers clear, theologically sound guidance on what the church can do now to change the message young people receive.

Dean offers advice for fixing the problem: focus on parents and the faith community and not on the teens themselves. Churches need to become spirit-filled faith communities that exist to share the Gospel message with others, and parents need to be living examples of a faith lived for the glory of God, sacrificing for others and teaching their children that these sacrifices are made out of love for God.

The key word for Dean is “missional” – that the church exists to fulfill the mission Christ gives us and that the church is always on a mission. When it ceases to be “missional” – when it starts to exist for the benefit of its members instead of existing to follow Christ – it loses its passion, and young people lose interest. Returning to a mission focus will lead to a rediscovery of this missing passion and interest.

The author offers suggestions to better prepare young people for mission. The most interesting one concerns the importance of “God-talk,” conversations with and by young people about faith. Through these conversations, we develop a theological vocabulary and “talk ourselves into being Christians.” The author’s other suggestions are just as creative and enlivening.

The ideas presented here deserve serious discussion at all levels of the church.

Mulhall is a catechist and writer who lives in Laurel, Md.