There are a plethora of books in this world. The problem, as one of my college professors used to say, is that you have to read all of them. I’m attempting to make a dent in my enormous reading list, and I completed Hollow Faith by Stephen Ingram the other day.
Hollow Faith will be familiar territory for many. Stephen is working with the same data (the Nation Study of Youth and Religion) that Kenda Creasy Dean worked with in Almost Christian. Stephen’s book, however, focuses more narrowly than does Kenda’s. Almost Christian really looks at the big picture, how parents and the church are modelling a faith that is almost Christian to the students in our youth ministries. Hollow Faith, while acknowledging the truth of this, focuses on six related areas in the lives and faith of students. It’s not a long read, and in my opinion is well worth it.
Each of the first six chapters are written with youth workers in mind. After laying out the argument of each, and presenting the evidence, Stephen moves on to offering practical advice on how we might combat these negatives in our lives and ministries. The entire thing is quite helpful.
I also found Hollow Faith to constantly push the boundaries of conventional thinking in terms of theology and praxis. In one section, tucked away in a chapter on meism, Stephen says:
We have to stop being “pastoral” in these situations [one's in which students focus on what they get out of a mission trip, e.g., wanting to feel satisfied, or have a meaningful experience] and in goo and loving ways help our people and youth understand that disaster relief is not about how they feel or what they get out of the work. Unfortunately in the modern church this attitude switch rarely happens. We have to begin to construct theologies with our youth that regularly put them into unsatisfying situations, give them work that does not give them a “mission high” and all along the way help them understand that the work of God is referred to by Jesus as a cross we are to bear. The last time I checked, carrying a cross was not very fulfilling, satisfying or a good experience. It is important to reframe our work and mission as something that is much bigger than ourselves, our desires and our plans. We need to help our students see that God was at work in the situation before we got there and will continue to be at work long after we leave.
That is just one example of the helpful, against the grain thinking that Hollow Faith is filled with.
After the first six chapters, however, Hollow Faith also includes lesson plans for each of the six areas on which it focuses. I found the lesson plans to be understandable, easy to follow, and I imagine I’ll use them in the future with minor modifications–which is saying something. I hate using other people’s lesson plans. Each of these lessons are challenging without being preachy. They push students to think more deeply about their faith and the presuppositions they have, without coming off as being holier-than-thou. It is a difficult balance to strike, and I’m rather impresses that Stephen was able to walk that tight-rope with such aplomb.
The final chapter is written for parents. I found it, once again, helpful.
There isn’t a great deal to list that is bad. Most of these things are simply nit-picky. I would have preferred the parent section to be longer and more robust. A chapter on how to navigate through the difficulties of students who want to focus on themselves, and essentially be moralistic therapeutic diests also would have been helpful. But these things are omissions, not things that negatively impact the book that is there.
Throughout the book there are a number of typos and editing errors. It seems to me that another copy edit wouldn’t have hurt the book before publication. But this is really, honestly something most people won’t notice. I simply have my attention attuned to such things because of my own writing.
All in all, I can heartily recommend Hollow Faith. It may not be as groundbreaking as Almost Christian or Christian Smith’s original study, but it covers some ground that neither of those books cover. For those involved in youth ministry, it is well worth the read. I’ve already begun using some of the ideas in Hollow Faith to help prepare our team of students who will be travelling to Guatemala next summer. That may be the highest praise I can offer a book on ministry.