Editor Ruth Jackson chatted to Kenda Creasy Dean, an ordained United Methodist pastor and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. Kenda has written numerous books, including Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church
Ruth Jackson: Where do you think your interest in youth work started?
Kenda Creasy Dean: I had amazing youth mentors and guides in the tiny church where I grew up. The youth group there was mostly in rebellion against the rest of the church! But through that, I wound up as a Methodist, and they had a state-wide youth organisation that I got involved in. They put on camps and that kind of stuff, and the philosophy the leaders had was that the kids do the ministry. They lead and we stand behind them. Teens leading teens was the idea. We had one situation when I was a teenager, where a speaker for a rally got caught in traffic and never got there. There were 5,000 kids at an amusement park and I remember the advisor saying: “Well, you’re the president. Get out there!” I just went out with my guitar and did it. I didn’t know that was a thing that should have maybe sent me over the edge!
Those assumptions were really formative because it gave me a lot of confidence in what teenagers can do, and what their capacity is in terms of leadership and shaping things. I had a really strong sense that I had been poured into in such positive ways by these leaders, so by the time I was in college it was kind of burning inside of me that I had to pay that forwards somehow.
RJ: Why do you think innovation is so important?
KCD: A colleague, Mark DeVries, says: “Every organisation is perfectly calibrated to get the exact results it’s already getting.” If that’s the case, if we don’t like the results we’re getting we need to change the organisation. I think innovation comes out of awareness. A lot of times we talk about searching for ‘Issachar’; that little no-name tribe that helped resource King David. They didn’t have horses, cedars or warriors, but they had wisdom. They could discern the times and knew what to do in response. We’re in an Issachar period where we really have to do that, and we don’t take advantage of that to our own peril.
If we want the Church to continue in some form that we recognise, we have more responsibility to innovate. It’s part of the DNA of youth ministry. Youth ministry is the research and development department of the Church. What we do with teenagers in youth ministry somehow pushes the Church as a whole to move forward in a certain direction, although that may not be as true going forward because kids aren’t sticking around to be that next generation.
“Young people want to be involved in things that make a difference and, if the Church isn’t doing that, there’s little compelling reason why they’d want to be involved in it”
RJ: How do we innovate in a local context?
KCD: I think we need to create a culture of permission instead of gatekeeping. We need to create a context where people come alongside young people and help them to do their ministry instead of co-opting them into ours. If young people have gifts and graces, we should assume God’s given them those for a reason. Or if God has put something on their heart, they should go for it. That was the kind of experience I had as a teenager. We weren’t just leading things, we were planning and developing them, so I know it’s possible. I do think youth are kind of wired that way.
RJ: Do you think that approach is rare?
KCD: It’s probably less rare than it seems. I was a minister before I knew that wasn’t the way everybody did youth ministry. I ended up serving in a situation where passionate, caring adults did ministry for young people and it was a jolt. It was a really different experience because the youth were consumers not producers.
Today, teenagers are producers even in ways that they weren’t ten or 20 years ago. You don’t just absorb YouTube videos; you produce them. You don’t just passively receive content from the media; you are part of creating that content. For the Church to not be doing that makes us such an anachronistic, outdated, mouldy institution!
RJ: What are some of the current trends in youth work across the UK and the US?
KCD: My hunch is that with a lot of the global trends we’re experiencing (across Europe and the West, anyway), it’s more a story of similarity than difference. Young people will often say they feel like they have more in common with kids around the world than they do with their parents in the next room.
I think there’s a real, genuine pushback to treating people badly. There is an activist impulse in young people. They don’t think of themselves as activists, they’re not protesting all the time, but it’s part of a young person’s nature to want to improve the world. This is the world that they’re going to be in, so they want to be part of making it a good place. They are pushing back against the rise of nationalism, tribalism and racism. Whether it’s a trend that will actually result in policy I don’t know, but in terms of their popular and social media responses, and what they give money to, I think that’s one trend.
I think that innovation and entrepreneurship is a trend. The participatory culture means that for them to be the innovators and not just receive the goods, matters. Young people see entrepreneurship’s main objective as doing good in the world. An interesting study found that when asked who they trust to make positive social change, about 85 per cent of young people said small business. There’s an assumption that money’s not the first thing a business does. Making a positive impact in the world is what business should do.
“We need to create a culture of permission instead of gatekeeping; coming alongside young people to help them do their ministry instead of co-opting them into ours”
RJ: How can we challenge young people’s apathy about the gospel?
KCD: I think we’ve got to get honest about the fact that a lot of the things we do in churches don’t matter. We do them because they may have mattered once, or because we don’t have the imagination to get past a certain way of doing things. Very few people go to churches where neighbourhoods would point to a church and say: “That’s one of the top three assets of our community.” Young people want to be involved in things that make a difference and, if the Church isn’t doing that, there’s little compelling reason why they’d want to be involved in it.
That’s also theological malpractice, because God makes a difference and, if the Church doesn’t make a difference, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something is amiss here. I tend to think the fact that kids are not involved heavily in religious congregations is not a mass act of apostasy. I think it’s a bunch of kids trying to be honest, and we should listen to that. Maybe God has sent this generation to us to hold the mirror up and say: “How about you be my church, instead of just hanging out the sign?”
You can’t start too soon in terms of caring for young people. I would love to think that churches could be the epicentre of where communities find ways that they can care for young people.
I think there is something the US needs to learn from the UK. In the UK, there is so much more work with young people in schools, non-profits and the justice system. And those people still think of themselves as youth ministers. In the US, youth ministry largely belongs in church or parachurch ministries.
There are a lot more young people out there in the community that sure could use a dose of grace. They don’t know what churches are for; they don’t know what they’re about. So why not experience what Christ is about through the people who say they’re Christians? It kind of makes me crazy that churches in the US will say: “We don’t have any youth, so we don’t have any youth ministry,” Have you looked around the neighbourhood? Because I bet you’re in a school district. I bet there are people in your congregation who have grandchildren. You have youth ministry coming out your ears, but you don’t know it.
RJ: What advice would you give parents of young people?
KCD: The statistics show that about 40 per cent of people raised in the Church stay. So, by and large, it’s a gamble every time. Fortunately, how God reaches people isn’t up to us. Parents are the most important youth ministers a young person will ever have. The faith that will stay with them is the faith they live at home. So invest in your own faith. You can’t give what you don’t have.
I think I would give the same advice to the parent whose child doesn’t give a hoot. I say this out of making a thousand mistakes with my own kids. My husband and I should have spent a lot less time fighting about church and a lot more time investing in how God brings us joy as parents and human beings. Our children could have seen the difference Christ makes for us, as opposed to the endless squabbles about who goes to church and who doesn’t. I feel like I need to ask my kids’ forgiveness for that. I have to challenge myself to trust that my children’s faith ultimately is not in my hands. The faith that I can nurture is my own.