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What Teenagers Really Need From Church

A Conversation With Kenda Creasy Dean

Interview by Kathy Henning ( | Photo by Perry Azevedo/The Falcon

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Kenda Creasy Dean is the founding director of the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry and the author of several books, including Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010). An ordained United Methodist minister, she is active in youth ministry ecumenically, nationally, and locally, and a preacher, speaker, and theologian for youth and youth workers.

Dean was the keynote speaker at Passionate Faith: A Bible Youth and Culture Conference and Church Leaders Forum, presented by the Center for Biblical and Theological Education at Seattle Pacific University. Following her presentations, Dean spoke with Response staff writer Kathy Henning about youth ministry: What churches do well, how they can improve, and what teenagers need to grow spiritually.

Q: In your book, Practicing Passion, you maintain the reason many adolescents are not passionate about Christianity is that they are hesitant to invest in a faith they don't see being lived out passionately by parents, siblings, peers, and other adults. What can adults do to change this problem?

Dean: The short answer is that we need to live out the faith that we want kids to have. My fear is that we're doing exactly that, and that may be the root of young people's ho-hum attitude toward faith. It's something we've got to come clean about.

Parents just don't realize that the small decisions they make are being watched carefully. And if we don't connect those decisions to our faith, our children think, "Mom's making that decision because she's a nice person, or because she's a good citizen, or because she's active in the church."

Sometimes we shy away from talking about faith, because we don't have confidence. We think, "Oh, I need to say something wise here." But the truth is that in the conversations that happen at home, we talk about the things we love, or the things that make us crazy, things that really matter to us. And if faith isn't one of those things — either because it makes us crazy or because it's something that we're invested in — young people can get the idea that God is just in the wallpaper and is not really involved in their lives.

One of the interesting things that the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study [a 2003 national study of congregations in seven denominations] found was that young people with mature faith talk about God as subject: God does this. God acts. And they get this idea from being in communities where congregations talk about God being active in the world. Parents and other adults in congregations need to recognize that they shouldn't have a hands-off attitude about young people's faith. Adults have something critical to contribute even if we feel like we don't have all the answers.

I'm thinking of my own congregation. We actually just changed congregations six months ago. My children have gone to big churches all their lives, but now we go to a little tiny church with 30 members, and a part-time pastor, who's a student. It's a United Methodist church that has been on the brink of closing its doors for 130 years. And my children love it. They think of themselves as having a role in this congregation, that they are part of the conversation that happens there. Every person matters, because it's so small you can't function unless every person does his or her part. And kids realize that they matter too.

My 16-year-old daughter said to me the other day, "Well, the youth are meeting after church today. Both of us." And then she said, "I will make fun of that till the day I die, but I really like it."

What do teenagers respond to in their youth pastors or other church leaders?

I was talking to a 19-year-old here on campus yesterday (I'll call him Nick) who said, "It doesn't matter the style of worship, it doesn't matter the size of the church. What matters is whether the pastor seems authentic." He said he goes to a church where the pastor hangs around after worship to talk to people, and he is the same person in the pulpit as he is in conversation. That mattered to Nick.

He sees this pastor as a real leader, as somebody he respects. I don't think Nick is going through his life right now saying, "I want to be like that guy." But Nick has decided that he wants to be authentic. What Nick's pastor may not know is that by not not creating distance between himself and young people, he is modeling a way of being in the world that young people like Nick are taking to heart. When Nick starts thinking about what he values in Christians and who he wants to be as a Christian, he is going to remember that pastor.

Not every teenager has parents who can model this, so the example of congregations matters. I'm optimistic, but I do think those of us in churches have to get our acts together. The most publicized crisis is in the Catholic church right now, but Protestants certainly have plenty of highly publicized examples of people who do not walk the talk. Of course none of us walk the talk, right? But we need to be conscious of the fact that our own example is what most often undercuts the fabric of what we say we are as a church.

What set you on the road to becoming one of the premiere voices in America on teen faith and youth ministry?

"Holy" accident. I didn't set out to be an academic at all. In fact, I still sort of cringe when I hear that people think of me that way. I set out to be a youth pastor. Somebody needed to do it. That was how I got into youth ministry, and it's how I got into teaching youth ministry — somebody needed to do it.

I was the beneficiary of incredible youth ministry when I was a teenager. Not in my local church — I got far more from my church than I realized at the time, but where I learned about youth ministry was through our denomination's regional youth leadership programs, where youth leaders shared the philosophy that young people should do ministry and not just be objects of ministry.

That rang true to me, probably because I was from a small church. Everybody pitched in. It never really occurred to me that there was any other way to do youth ministry. When I became an adult, I realized that a lot of youth ministry — maybe most of it — was done "to" teenagers, not with them. A lot of youth ministry assumes that adults do the ministry, and kids watch and receive it. That simply was not part of my experience.

At some point during college, I remember sitting at a youth conference where I was a counselor, thinking, "Somebody has to pass this on. Who's that going to be? Eventually, it occurred to me that maybe I should step up to the plate. That's basically how I wound up in academics, too. As a pastor I needed more to go on than books on how to do a game on Sunday nights. Well, who's going to write it? And eventually I said, "OK, I guess I'm elected." That's how I wound up sensing a strong call to get a Ph.D.

What are some of the big turnoffs for teens when it comes to church and youth group? What makes their eyes glaze over?

The No. 1 turn-off is being fake. If that's not taken care of, nothing else really is going to matter.

After that, significantly after that, is the turn-off young people experience when they feel invisible in a congregation. If kids feel like they're invisible in church, there's absolutely no reason they should come. They won't criticize a church that makes them feel invisible. They're just going to say that going to church doesn't matter. And part of the reason they say church doesn't matter is because they don't think they matter to the church.

There's also a potential theological turnoff, and I think it's a good critique for churches to hear: Churches that are not inclusive turn off young people. Grace is in short supply, and somewhere in their bones teenagers know that churches are supposed to be places of grace. When churches exclude people, either because of a stated policy or because of habit, kids are very quick to pass judgment, and it's often a judgment we need to hear.

What do you see some churches doing well?

There are lots of churches that are doing lots of things well. To me, the most exciting churches are those where young people do ministry. They're not objects of ministry, they're agents of ministry. In congregations that think of themselves missionally, young people tend to be engaged because every member has a part in that mission. When young people are participating in the mission of the church, they're often participating alongside adults who can disciple them.

An interesting part of Christian Smith's follow-up work with the teenagers in the National Study of Youth and Religion is that, as Chris put it in one interview, a lot of activities — like mission trips — don't amount to a hill of beans when it comes to forming faith in young people. That upsets a lot of churches, because they invest a lot in mission trips. What matters reliably is engagement in a community and relationships in the community. To the extent that trips let those two things happen, they are helpful. But a mission trip doesn't automatically contribute to kids' spiritual formation.

Churches also do well in youth ministry when they don't draw sharp lines between the culture and the church. In fact, the church is made of the same clay as culture. To draw too sharp a distinction between the two is simply dishonest. Churches should have a strong identity as the church, but that identity is defined by putting Christ at the center, not by building high walls built between the church and culture.

So what does that look like? It might mean having secular music in the church service. It might look like the church being out in the community. It often looks like a pastor who decides to coach soccer or lead a Girl Scout troop.

When young people see the church engaged in the world outside the traditional boundaries we put around Christianity, they pay attention. For example, a big positive sign is when churches engage in interfaith dialogue. Since kids are sitting by classmates in algebra who are Muslim and Hindu, for churches to just acknowledge this reality tells young people that the church has a clue about the world they live in.

There are churches that do all those things well and they do them with a very strong sense of their Christian identity. We shouldn't pretend that we are anything other than a community of people who follow Christ.

There is often a lot of turnover among youth pastors. Youth pastoring often seems to be seen as a stepping stone to "real" pastoring. Why is this, and what can churches do to recruit good youth pastors whose calling is youth pastoring and who will stick around?

Turnover has been a problem in youth ministry since youth ministry had a name. In fact, the tenure of youth pastors is getting a little bit longer. We used to think the average stay of a youth minister was about 18 months. Now it's about 3.9 years. That's still pretty short, but you have the benefit of seeing kids through high school (3.9 years is precisely the time it takes for a young person to go from September of the freshman year through graduation).

Still, one drawback of the high turnover rate is that all the studies on expertise say that what the No. 1 factor in making someone an expert in any subject is 10,000 hours of practice. At 40 hours a week, that's seven years of full-time ministry. Of course pastors sometimes exceed a 40-hour work week, and youth pastors typically exceed it, but it's still common for youth ministers to change jobs before we really get good at what we do.

So how do we get people to stay? You named the first requirement: We have to think of youth ministry as a call rather than as a job that you get out of college. Second, we can improve the structural support for people who are in youth ministry. Typically, youth-pastor salaries are too low to realistically sustain someone who wants to get married or have a family, especially over a long period of time. So if we want people to stay in youth ministry, we have to give them the type of vocational support that treats youth ministry like a long-term job.

We should also realize that there are many ways to be in youth ministry without having the title of a youth pastor. I maintain that every pastor is a youth minister. Every parent is a youth minister. And, I tell my students, the version of youth ministry you are doing is going to change over time, because this is a mission, not a job description. You may be in youth ministry as a youth pastor for a while, but you're also going to be in youth ministry as a parent. Even if you take a job outside the church, that doesn't stop you from being a youth minister.

We have to stop equating youth ministry with a job description. If we want specialized youth ministers, we have to support them so they can stay long enough to mature in it and become experts. But we also need people who are not in traditional youth ministry roles to understand themselves as being in youth ministry.

You've talked about how important the congregation is in the life of youth. How can members of a congregation make a difference without making time commitments they may not be able to keep?

People sitting in the pews need to realize that every conversation they have with a young person is ministry, because they are representing Christ to that youth. Every time they ask a young person what's going on in school, they're doing ministry. It doesn't look like ministry, but it is.

If you'd have asked Ed Augsberger, an 85-year-old guy in my congregation when I was a teenager, if he was a youth minister, he wouldn't have had the foggiest idea what you were talking about. But when I was growing up in this little farm church, he was a very significant youth minister to me. Why? He noticed me. He noticed when I was there; he noticed when I was not there, and not in a punitive way. When I wasn't there, he figured something must be going on in my life, and he wanted to know about it. For 85 years, Ed had been a good member of this little Christian community, and it gave him joy to connect with young people on Sundays. People don't realize that the fastest way for kids to stop coming to church is if nobody notices if they are there.

In Almost Christian, I point out that in the National Study of Youth and Religion, the highly devoted kids all seemed to view their congregations as significant places of connection and belonging. The interpersonal connection wasn't just with other teenagers; it was intergenerational. Furthermore, youth also felt spiritual connection in their congregations, a connection with God. Congregations are not just interpersonal networks; they are places where God-sightings are somewhat regular for young people.

Do you see any guidance in Scripture for youth ministry?

I do; I see it all over the place. For instance, there's the story of Eutychus, the young man who falls asleep in the window and falls out while Paul is preaching (Acts 20:7-12) [//]. We read that story as an injunction against long, boring preaching, and I am against long, boring preaching. But that's not what that story is about. That story is about Paul's failure in ministry, because he didn't notice that somebody on the margins of the church was about to fall out of it. Almost every preacher shares this failure: We don't notice the people at the edges of the congregation who are about to fall out.

Paul's actions are really instructive. As soon as he realizes Eutychus is gone, he stops preaching and he goes looking for Eutychus until he finds him. How often do we do that with youth who have dropped out of our congregations? And then he throws himself on Eutychus — the Greek word means that he throws himself in an undignified way, which says to me that Paul holds nothing back, not even his dignity, to get Eutychus back. Are we holding back when we say we want teenagers in our communities?

One of the instances of passion we see in Scripture is in Song of Solomon. Have you ever thought of that book in terms of youth ministry?

I have, and actually I got the idea from Bernard of Clairvaux, who used Song of Solomon as confirmation material for young monks. His order, the Cisterians, trained boys at age 12 or 13 to become monks. That was Bernard's confirmation class, and the curriculum he used was the Song of Songs. He assumed sexual experience among young men. So he tried to reframe that in terms of an intense, almost erotic relationship with Christ.

There's a lot of good material from the medieval period about using Song of Solomon in the formation of Christian communities. And I don't think all of it is sublimated sex. Bernard was basically trying to reframe Jesus' love in terms of people's human experiences of intense love. So he said, "Look! The Bible is about how God loves us. We can be intimate with Jesus because Christ became intimate with us."

I thought it was interesting when I learned that the Greek word for "worship" is proskuneō, which literally means "kiss toward."

I didn't know that! That's really interesting. I love that!

How important is biblical literacy in teen faith? How can biblical and theological instruction be incorporated into youth ministry without being obnoxious?

Definitely, we need to not be obnoxious. A homiletitian named Anna Carter Florence put it to me this way: "It's not that kids can't read the Bible; they can. But really, why would they want to?" When was the last time they saw their parents read the Bible for the joy of it? When was the last time they saw anybody read the Bible and relish what they were reading in the way that people relish reading a best-seller? When was the last time they saw somebody read the Bible and then do something because of it? In other words, when was the last time they saw the Bible matter?

Kids have all the skills and tools they need to get into the Bible. What they need is to fall in love with reading the Bible.

I'm a Wesleyan; I take the Wesleyan Quadrilateral [Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as sources for theological reflection] seriously. Scripture is the largest side of that quadrilateral, so I don't think there's a chance that we can do youth ministry well or faithfully without Scripture playing a significant role.

Biblical literacy is massively important. But you become literate when you use the language, when you speak it, when you enact it, when it becomes part of your way of viewing the world. I think it boils down to making Scripture something that informs who we are and what we do in joyous and life-giving ways, so that people are going to want to know, "Where did that come from?"

One criticism of the way the data from the National Study of Youth and Religion was interpreted is the assumption that because teens weren't able to articulate their faith, they didn't have faith. Do teens need to be able to articulate their faith in order to have faith?

First of all, it's my theological conviction that God can act in teenagers who don't have a language of faith. However, for faith to really take hold of your life, you need a language for it. This is not to say that children cannot have a relationship with God that precedes their ability to speak. Certainly they can. But language is part of what it means to be human in the world. As human beings, we are symbol-using creatures.

God certainly can act in ways that we can't describe, but that does not let the church off the hook for helping young people have a language of faith. We call Scripture the Word of God. God speaks creation into being. When you can speak your faith, you lay claim to it.

I remember sitting across the table from one girl I was interviewing for the National Study on Youth and Religion. She talked about how excited she was about her church, and about her youth pastor. But when I asked, "So tell me what you think about God," she just looked at me. She had grown up in the church. It was astonishing to me that somebody who was raised in the church would have no way to talk about God. We would be horrified if teens didn't have a language to identify their family. The first thing we teach them when they get old enough to talk is: What is your address? What is your phone number? Who are your parents?

We see examples of youth passionately engaged in gangs and in terrorist groups. What can we learn from those examples?

I talked with a man yesterday who works with gangs in a town not far from here, and his comment was, "The church needs to give them an alternate gang." Gangs teach loyalty, what it means to lay down your life for one of your own. Gangs are their families. It's diabolical, of course, because gang membership is manipulative, not freely chosen. What would a church look like that thought of itself as an alternate gang? Evelyn Parker, who teaches at the Perkins School of Theology, has written about this topic.

I think we learn something specific from terrorist groups, namely, the difference between a terrorist mentality and a Christian one when it comes to martyrdom. To die for our faith means precisely that we would never kill for it. "Martyr" means "witness." We are called to be witnesses, so we need to be ready to die for our faith. But Paul didn't mean stand in the street and let yourself be run over to prove a point.

The bottom line is martyrdom never involves killing, ever. That is the gospel: I love you so much that I will sacrifice my life for yours if necessary. Of course, the point is that Christ did this for us because, apart from him, we couldn't do it for one another.

We have to ask ourselves, "Do I really believe that Jesus is the answer and that he can change lives?" And if we really believe that, and we act according to that belief, then lives will begin to change.

A sociologist named Rodney Stark studied the effect of world religions on the way people live, and he found that the religions that made a difference in people's daily lives were religions that viewed God as either powerful (and therefore could smite you) or personal (and therefore would come along side you).

Christianity has both those elements. Where we get into trouble is thinking that God is powerful because God is judgmental and wrathful. What makes the God of the gospel powerful is love. In Christian tradition, God's power comes in the willing vulnerability of love, a force so powerful it overcame death. The powerful God and the personal God are fused in Jesus Christ.

You can watch the Passionate Faith Conference on iTunesU.