Kenda Creasy Dean will lecture Oct. 5 at Duke’s Convocation & Pastors’ School on “Why Generation ‘OMG’ is the theological stimulus package we need.”
The summer Kenda Creasy Dean was 15, the women in her tiny rural church sent her to camp.
“I went there to get a tan and came back with a sense of purpose that 35 years later I haven’t been able to shake,” she recalls. “That was the place where I realized it wasn’t just that I believed in Jesus, but that Jesus believed in me.”
In the decades since, Dean has become one of the foremost theologians and teachers in youth ministry. As a youth pastor in Washington, D.C., she had realized that the theological resources available to youth ministers were slim. The focus was on activities and programs — not deeper spiritual teaching.
What was missing was God, and serious reflection that youth ministry is ministry. The people involved just happen to be young, says Dean. In response, she pursued her Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she also founded the Institute for Youth Ministry while a doctoral student.
Yet the associate professor of Christian education at Princeton is frustrated. While youth pastors are better trained than ever before, she says that “kids’ faith is less sure, less widespread, and less influential..”
Far too many churches only skim the surface theologically in their programs for both youth and adults. The National Congregations Study, for example, shows that only 29 percent of education or youth ministers have a seminary education.
“Young people are not going to put up with a ho-hum church that’s only going through the motions,” she says. “They’re going to walk.”
Youth ministry, she believes, might be the issue that points to deeper problems in the church as a whole.
In her speaking and writing, she embraces pop-culture references such as the TV shows “Smallville” and “My So-Called Life” and the Madonna song “Like a Prayer.”
Augustine advised early Christians to pilfer from the Egyptians to make their messages relevant to the people they were trying to reach, Dean explains. Like many youth ministers, she’s doing the same with these secular parables.
“God is gracious beyond belief and is present in the world in ways that we seldom recognize,” she says. “We’re challenged and we’re called and we’re blessed by looking for God’s fingerprints that are over everything.”
Adapted from “Not kid stuff” by Anne Krishnan at Faith & Leadership, the online magazine of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.