The summer Kenda Creasy Dean was 15, the women in her tiny rural church sent her to camp.
“That was the place where I realized it wasn’t just that I believed in Jesus, but that Jesus believed in me,” she recalls. “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.”
In the decades since, Dean has become one of the foremost theologians and teachers in youth ministry, spreading the message to mainline Protestantism that churches must be authentic and passionate to capture the imagination and faith of young people.
What kids understand, says Dean, associate professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary and director of the Tennent School of Christian Education, is that true love is something worth dying for.
“Of course, as Christians, that’s our shtick,” she said. “We’ve got the uber-story on passion, but we never tell it that way. The onus on us is to be the passionate church we’re meant to be.”
Early in her career, she saw the need for additional spiritual depth in youth ministry and has been a leader in not only developing that theological foundation, but sharing it with others.
Dean’s books, “The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul-Tending for Youth Ministry” and “Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church,” are often used as textbooks for aspiring youth pastors. And as founding director for Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry, she established a resource for theological education to youth pastors already in the field.
Most mainline youth pastors know of Dean, and if they haven’t read one of her books, they’ve heard her speak, said Andrew Root, a former doctoral student and now assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary. She also is a leading personality within evangelical academic circles, he said, where she’s well-respected, if not as well-read.
“Within the mainline world, I think her impact has been humongous,” Root said. “She’s been really speaking to them about things they need to hear, about understanding young people and being church in a way that addresses who they are.”
After following her summertime revelations to the Methodist Conference Council on Youth Ministry, Dean attended Wesley Theological Seminary and took a position as a youth pastor in Washington, D.C. It was there that she realized 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, she says -- and serious reflection that youth ministry is ministry. The people involved just happen to be young.
Dean realized that if she wanted theological depth, she would have to start digging herself. She pursued her Ph.D. at Princeton, where she also founded the Institute for Youth Ministry as a doctoral student.
Yet Dean is frustrated.
“Youth [pastors] are better prepared and better trained and longer-lasting than ever before, but kids’ faith is less sure, less widespread and less influential than it's ever been before,” she said.
Figuring out why there is such a disconnect is something the church has to take seriously, Dean said. But she still sees far too many churches that 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 said. “They're going to walk.”
The church has to start seeing youth as one branch of the body of Christ, she said.
“The whole body has to function for it to work, but we’re seeing a lot of dysfunction,” she said. “Youth ministry might be the issue that wakes us up by pointing to deeper problems in the church as a whole.”
Dean admits she has been accused of overplaying the theme of a church in trouble, and sometimes she agrees with her critics. Then she remembers her own church experiences and those of her seminarians, and her frustration with the church as an institution is renewed.
Such warnings are easier for mainline church leaders to stomach when they’re coming from Dean, who thinks of herself as a pastor first, Root said.
Indeed, despite her years at Princeton, Dean still considers academics her second language.
“The language I joke in, the language I fall in love in – that’s the language of the church,” she said.
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.
A mother of two and self-described “Methodist to my toes,” she says John Wesley’s theology of grace guides her daily life.
“God is gracious beyond belief and is present in the world in ways that we seldom recognize,” she said. “We’re challenged and we’re called and we’re blessed by looking for God’s fingerprints that are over everything.”