Turning the Kaleidoscope

October 10th, 2009

The dictionary definition of theology (“the study of God”) is general at best—not quite sufficient as a guide for youth workers who desire to impart to teenagers the truths of Christian faith and to see those truths grow into fruitful action.

So we called on Kenda Creasy Dean—assistant professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary—to help us dig a little deeper for ways youth workers can use theology with their kids. After talking with Dean, it’s clear that theology isn’t such a pointy-headed, far-off topic after all. In fact, it’s inextricably tied to our day-to-day lives. And to passion. Real, biblical passion. But it’s up to the church, as Dean notes in the forthcoming interview, “to name our theology, claim it, and do something with it.”

Dean has been at Princeton seminary for nine years. Before joining the faculty, she was the founding director of its Institute for Youth Ministry and—before that—a Ph.D. student who, as she puts it, “simply failed to leave.” Previously she spent eight years as a volunteer and full-time youth pastor. An ordained United Methodist minister, she’s coauthor of The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry (Upper Room) and an editor and writer for Youth Specialties’ forthcoming academic text on introductory youth ministry.

YOUTHWORKER: To what extent do you see youth workers equatingtheology with heady subject matter—in other words: “Teenagers really don’t care about it or need it, so why should I teach it?”


KENDA CREASY DEAN: I think contemporary youth ministry is headed back into theology. But if youth ministers shy away from theology, it’s for two reasons. First, we misunderstand it. Theology really isn’t heady, intellectual subject matter—because all decent theology begins and ends with practice. Any theological worldview requires us to go to the other side of the lake from time to time to renew and reflect—but we also have to come back! Theology is something we do, not just think about.

Theology is what emerges from living the Christian life. And you can’t separate the two: On one hand, you can’t practice the Christian life without turning your theological kaleidoscope—to refract the light differently, to view the world through God’s lens. But on the other hand, you can’t develop your theology without practicing the Christian life.

The second reason youth pastors shy away from theology is that we’ve failed to view youth ministry as a calling. That is changing, but we still don’t have many models that help us connect youth ministry with the theological mission of the church. We still see it as that thing that happens in the church basement on Sunday nights. Yet youth ministry is about soul-tending—not keeping students busy, off the streets, or entertained. That’s what makes theology dangerous—it causes us to start defining ourselves as youth pastors, not youth workers.

YOUTHWORKER: So the way youth workers perceive their ministry roles can inform the theology they impart to kids?

DEAN: Absolutely. When I teach youth ministry classes, there’s one discussion that makes students go bonkers. I ask them to formulate two artificial lists—characteristics of missionaries and characteristics of program directors. Before you know it, they realize that they’re being asked by the church to be program directors—even though they perceive themselves primarily as missionaries. And everybody suddenly remembers why they got into youth ministry in the first place!

That’s why I’m reluctant to equate the pastoral role with a professional job description. Pastoring young people has little to do with our job titles or the way the position has been professionally designed—it has to do with being a shepherd for one of God’s flocks. A lot of churches still don’t understand what youth workers do nearly as well as they understand what foreign missionaries do, for example. We haven’t asked churches to think in terms of youth ministry instead of youth work—or to consider their youth pastors as missionaries instead of program directors.

YOUTHWORKER: Tell me about your experiences with kids in relation to teaching and embodying theology.

<b style=”margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 0px; margin-bottom: 0px; margin-left: 0px; padding-top: 0px; padding-right: 0px; padding-bottom: 0px; padding-left: 0px; “>DEAN: Like a lot of people starting out in youth ministry, I got by for a long time on intuition. We didn’t spend much time on theology—the “whys” of the faith. We just assumed students would figure it out—that somehow God would sneak in through the cracks of all the wholesome activities. But while we were stepping around our theology, I realized that Hollywood and MTV were stepping in to fill the theological gaps. Meanwhile those of us in the church were alluding to faith a lot better than we were proclaiming it. And since kids were latching on to what culture was saying about God, for better or worse, I began realizing that “God stuff” mattered.

Again and again, what kids responded to wasn’t the razzmatazz of my programs, but the simple, pastoral questions: How should I be praying for you this week? Why has God given you these gifts, if not to use you to change the world? How can we respond to these homeless men who keep showing up at our Sunday night suppers—not because we’re good, but because we’re God’s?

YOUTHWORKER: What did you do about those realizations?

DEAN: One example comes from my days as a college minister. When I took students to lunch, I used to start conversations with the typical, “tell me about your life” kind of openers. Lunch took forever because I kept skirting the theological issues that were practically popping through the surface. And the students didn’t seem to think lunch was over until I sounded like their pastor instead of their guidance counselor. Finally I just quit beating around the bush and started making my last question my first question: What’s going on between you and God? And you know what? Every single student willingly—eagerly—talked. I learned from that.

It seemed no one else was raising the ultimate questions, helping young people figure out what they’re doing here in the cosmos—and they really want to know. It seems to me that there’s a sacred trust given to pastors that lets us into deep places where others are not always easily invited. I began to take that seriously.

I think the church undersells teenagers, quite frankly. Kids really do want to stake their lives on something. They want to fall in love, to turn the world upside down, to be part of a radical “we.” But most of the time the church just offers them pizza!

Instead we should be meeting their desires with, “Hey, there’s a guy named Jesus who did all that. Why don’t you get on board?”

YOUTHWORKER: Perhaps the church just doesn’t know how to get them on board—or maybe it’s reluctant to let them?

DEAN: It wasn’t until I was an adult—when I took part in a church camp that was run completely by adults for teenagers—that I realized a lot of youth ministry fails to invite teens into primary ministry. At this camp, none of the kids were helping to minister among their peers in any capacity. I’m not saying these adults didn’t mean well, but they lacked the vision to call kids into primary ministry. Instead they viewed them as objects of ministry, not agents of ministry.

Pastors are agents of God’s ministry—and I’m a lot more interested in helping young people become pastors than members of a church. Not that they shouldn’t be in church, but as I understand it, the church is where we gather on Sunday to worship God and encourage each other in ministry so we can go into our worlds on Monday and shepherd the flocks God’s given us. That’s why I want kids to have the ability to go into their schools and “pastor” their friends around the lunch table. I want young people to understand that they’re called to do ministry, not just consume it.

I was lucky as a teenager to be surrounded by adults who just assumed teens were supposed to be in significant, real, responsibility-to-lead-God’s-church kind of ministry—and doing it alongside them. That warped me forever.

YOUTHWORKER: Your teen experience seems atypical of what happens in most churches today.

DEAN: Well, I don’t know. I suspect there are a lot of churches out there that operate like that, but perhaps encouraging the ministry of youths themselves isn’t named or claimed very well. Or it gets reduced to having them set up the tables and chairs. It’s frustrating because the essence of practical theology—the essence of our theological calling as youth pastors—is engaging teens in theological practices: Will we minister to kids in ways that allow them to consume ministry the way they consume culture and material goods—or will we minister alongside them in ways that invite them into direct contact with the sacred?

That’s what changes us—when we feel what it’s like for God to use us. And kids want that!

YOUTHWORKER: I wonder if perhaps the trend away from entertainment-based youth ministry—in favor of focusing harder on the Bible and theology—is one way youth workers are responding to the questions you just raised?

DEAN: My suspicion is that most of us want to take the road less traveled—away from entertainment-driven youth ministry—it’s just that we don’t know what’s on that road. I think the hesitancy has a lot to do with not knowing the difference between entertainment and passion. Young people really want the latter. Passion—Christ’s passion—is what the church is supposed to be about, after all. But still, passion and entertainment can be easily confused.


DEAN: Passion is all about love—and not cheap love. Passion means Jesus loves us so much that he’s willing to suffer on behalf of his beloved. I’m not just talking about the passion of Holy Week, but Christ’s whole life, death, and resurrection. God loves us that much! That’s the kind of love kids are literally dying for—someone who loves them enough to go the distance for them, even to the cross and back.

Unfortunately, the entertainment industry seems to be the only place where kids see passion explicated, illustrated, and involving them. A lot of churches shy away from passion—it’s very messy, unreasonable, and unfathomable—or we squeeze passion into the 48 hours between Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday. So the result is that we leave passion to the entertainment industry to figure out—where most of the time it’s reduced to entertainment. And since we’ve bought into the entertainment model, we as youth leaders have let the entertainment industry define passion for us—even though the church had prior dibs on the term!

YOUTHWORKER: How can that affect our theology?

DEAN: The church already has a window into what kids are seeking—and I think passion sums it up pretty well—yet we’ve abandoned all things passionate. In other words, we’ve abandoned our theological roots! And when we pull away from theological language, we’re unable to define passion in a biblical way. So what happens? The entertainment model is substituted.

YOUTHWORKER: How might youth workers—by getting back to theological roots and language—help their students understand and harness true, biblical passion?

DEAN: Teenagers want to change the world. They crave direct, sacred experience. They want to stand in God’s presence. But they may not be able to tell the difference between a true encounter with God and a profound rush—which is one example of why we need to offer them theological perspectives.

But they don’t want merely knowledge —they want to know who they are, what they’re doing here, and how to make sense of a world in which peers gun each other down in school libraries. These mysteries beg nothing less than the ultimate questions—the God questions.

Adolescence is a very theological place in the life cycle. There you have to figure out who you are, name the “gods” that will orient your choices, make sense of your world, and find your purpose for being in that world. These are theological questions, and every teenager in history has had to be a theologian to answer them. There’s no shortage of theology in adolescence because there is no shortage of gods out there vying for the adolescent soul!

That’s why we’re wrong-headed if we think theology is an “add on” subject in our youth ministry curricula—theology is alive and well in the halls of every high school on the planet. It’s the stuff that motivates the deepest joys and cravings in teenagers’ hearts—and drives them to find their places in the world.

So we need to go in and scratch the surface—to unearth the bones of theology already out there. That means we have to know our sacred traditions well—and we have to be willing to make connections between those traditions and the theological relics present in the average adolescent experience. And as soon as you have a theological language—a God-story you can tell—you can take the fragments you discover and build a skeleton. And who knows? You then may be able to stretch a life across it!

YOUTHWORKER: Still, the idea of theological language seems a tenuous subject with so many denominations out there. Is it just a matter of youth workers identifying the truly indispensable aspects of Christian theology and figuring out how to help their kids incorporate those elements into their walks? Even that feels like a tall order.

DEAN: It’s simpler than we might think. As in Acts 17, many teens are worshiping an unknown god—whether they know it or not. If we can help these teens ask, “Who is God? Who am I in relation to God? What are we all doing here?” that’s really the core of theological reflection.

But we don’t come to our answers alone. We’re all part of a sacred tradition. That’s why we need to come alongside students and encourage them to come clean about who they’re worshiping—Is who you’re worshipping worth staking your life on? If the answer is “no,” then it’s not worth it—and it’s not the God of Jesus Christ. The other gods don’t come close!

And despite the many denominations that make up Christianity, the church has a remarkable unity on these questions. What’s more, youth ministry is the one place under the church umbrella where varying theological perspectives can really come together. Even though we argue all day long about side issues, our core values remain the same: We all go home and pray for our kids.

This is an old way of talking about ministry—a very New Testament understanding of ministry. It’s the way we’ve been called to be the church since Paul became Timothy’s youth minister. The people who’ve loved kids forever in the name of Christ have used theology in their ministries, whether they’ve recognized it as such or not. But now, it’s up to the church to name this theology, claim it, and do something with it.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.