Youth Ministry Myths—the Full Interview
Learning to Learn the Language of the Liberal City
Today we’re chatting with Kenda Creasy Dean, Princeton Theological Seminary’s Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture. Here this wise guide reveals who lasts in youth ministry, why a youth group might not be necessary, and the particular challenges women face in youth ministry.
Kenda, we’d love to hear about your calling to write and teach. How did you discern it? How has the call unfolded in your life?
I have a colleague who teases me about being an “accidental intellectual”—which is pretty close to the truth. I didn’t set out to do anything besides youth ministry. My calling was, and is, to be a pastor, and to be a pastor means to tend a flock. Whether that flock is in a church or a classroom or through the media doesn’t really matter to me; it’s still ministry, you’re still forming disciples, you’re still preparing them, as best you can, to go into the world as Christ’s envoys.
But eventually tending the flocks God had given me (which invariably included lots of young sheep) grew into helping other people tend their flocks of young sheep as well, which is where teaching and writing came in. When I started my Ph.D. program, I’d never heard of anybody getting a Ph.D. in order to teach youth ministry. Part of that was the era. I started ministry in the late 1980s, when youth ministry was still considered a holding tank for teenagers and immature pastors, who presumably would hang out together in the church basement until both grew up enough for “real” ministry. The resources that existed in youth ministry at the time tended to fall somewhere between harmless and insipid. (“The cherry on the ice cream sundae represents the blood of Christ…”) Part of my motivation for getting a Ph.D. was simply to help change people’s assumptions about youth ministry. I thought—and I still think—young people deserve theological substance.
I was lucky; I grew up in a small church that didn’t have the budget for an “entertainment”-focused youth ministry. For most of my adolescence, our youth leader was a sunburned farmer who, inexplicably, volunteered to walk alongside a bunch of teenagers who were intoxicated by our own self-declared coolness. Trox didn’t know a thing about youth ministry. He just knew that he had a bunch of kids on his hands who should be in church. So yes, we had hayrides and retreats, but we were doing preaching and worship leadership and busing tables at ice cream socials and hosting food drives and teaching Bible school and helping to wallpaper the parsonage. In the summer, when Trox was busy with farming, we went to camp, which is how I became involved in my denomination’s leadership development program for teenagers.
The upshot was that I was formed by a very different kind of youth ministry than the kind described in youth ministry literature. I grew up thinking that youth ministry meant “youth who do ministry” and that adults came along to help us, not vice versa. The bad PR that still plagues youth ministry didn’t dawn on me until much later. As a young adult, when I finally got the courage to start the path toward United Methodist ordination, my district superintendent was excited until he found out that I wanted to do youth ministry. “Oh,” he said, deflated. “Well…you’ll grow out of that.”
For some clergy, youth ministry has been the first job, almost a “stepping stone” on the way to ministry among adults. What’s that about? Can you say something about the nature of God’s calling to minister to youth? Is it sustainable?
Across professions, the more closely you work with children, the less prestige you have in your field. It’s why pediatricians get paid less than surgeons; it’s why preschool teachers get paid less than professors. People who work with children and youth in ministry often have fewer required credentials, smaller paychecks, and less prestige than people who work with adults. It’s wrong, but it’s real.
Obviously, it’s an insult to everyone involved to consider youth ministry a “stepping stone” toward so-called “adult” ministries, especially since the big “secret” of youth ministry is that it’s just ministry. Teenagers are people, after all, not a separate species. The needs of adolescents are simply the needs of human beings, in acute form. Of course, youth ministry has to be contextualized, but all ministry requires contextualization.
The truth is that youth ministry isn’t a job description; it’s a vocation. So you can be a youth minister in many, many different kinds of jobs. Every pastor and every parent is a youth minister; if you’re in a tradition that practices child baptism, every congregant is a youth minister as well. Ministry is never a solo proposition; it’s what the church does, not what professional leaders do on behalf of the church.
But we’re part of a culture that likes professional labels, so we like to hire our help. As soon as somebody with the title “youth minister” shows up on the staff roster, people think it’s that person’s job to “minister” to their children (which is usually interpreted as “meet their children’s needs”). That suddenly turns ministry into a service profession; it becomes what Mark DeVries calls “light bulb youth ministry,” when you install a bright light who attracts youth…until she or he burns out. Then you uninstall the old youth minister and install a new light bulb instead, and the cycle continues. So while the average tenure in youth ministry is longer than it used to be, burnout, stagnation, and exhaustion are still rampant. (They’re rampant among all kinds of ministers, not just youth ministers).
People who “last” in youth ministry do so not because they’re superstar youth ministers, but because their churches have provided the necessary infrastructure to allow youth ministry to become ministry—i.e., part of the mission of the whole church—rather than an extracurricular activity. (If you want a game-changing book on the subject, try Mark DeVries’ Sustainable Youth Ministry—a book on youth ministry written for senior pastors and congregations, not just the youth team.)
Tony Jones has reflected what research has shown about youth ministry today: “It’s pretty darn benign.” Can you describe, for our readers, the alternative? How would a family that’s moved to a new city identify this type of solid youth ministry?
We’re entering a period in which the alternative to “benign” youth ministry (and church in general) is just beginning to be explored. Some people view the alternative as a back-to-basics movement in Christian education (“Teach the Bible and doctrine and all will be well”). Some people view the alternative as a socially relevant, evangelistic church (“Be missional and all will be well”). Some people view the alternative as a humble effort to simply live the Christian life among our neighbors who don’t have faith (“Preach the gospel, and when necessary, use words”). I tend to think it’s all of the above.
One thing, I think, that is less necessary than we once thought is the presence of a youth group. It’s important that young people have opportunities to develop relationships with other Christian young people as well as Christian adults, but that can be fluid—Bible studies, small groups, mission projects, church projects—as long as it is intentional. You can’t ax the youth group without another plan in place (this is where having a youth minister is really helpful). But we are learning from sociologists that youth groups, while they do lots of important things for teenagers, have not proven to be reliable crucibles for forming faith. Far more important to adolescent faith development are families (especially parents), intergenerational congregations, and significant relationships between teenagers and faithful adults.
And is the congregation where you worship that type of place?
A few years ago, our family decided to leave the large program church we had been attending—a painful decision that felt a lot like jumping off a cliff. It was a busy, successful, well-off church with something for everybody, including a large youth ministry program. But while the youth group had given our kids many opportunities, their faith—and our faith—stagnated.
To our surprise, our 15-year-old daughter, Shannon, was drawn to a tiny one-room church on the outskirts of town, a church Kevin and I had appreciated but had not considered joining because there was “nothing for teenagers.” But we decided to jump—feet first—into this 25-member congregation with a leaky roof and a part-time student pastor where everybody, literally, knew your name. Shannon laughed about meeting the “youth group” (herself and one other student) for pizza after church. But within a year, Shannon had been confirmed, had preached twice, had participated in multiple mission projects, had served on the worship committee, had been commissioned by the congregation to go to Taize, and was as likely to share a prayer request during “joys and concerns” as any adult in the congregation. When an adult from our former church asked Shannon what her new church did with teenagers since there was no youth group, Shannon told her, “Well, they pretty much just treat us like everyone else.”
Let’s talk about women doing youth ministry. Are there particular gifts which you see women bringing to the table? Opportunities?
I once overheard a male pastor tell his pastoral colleague (a woman): “I just have one piece of advice: Don’t play like a girl.” Playing “like a girl” meant don’t whine, don’t cower, don’t seem weak, don’t doubt yourself (notice that negative qualities were “girl” attributes). Instead, he was advising her to act assertive, project strength and confidence, and suck it up when the going gets rough (notice these positive qualities were considered “not girl” attributes).
It was offensive—but the very fact that I knew what he meant revealed how deeply I had been conditioned by gender expectations. I’m wary of associating particular gifts with gender, especially because it seldom ends well for women. Do women bring particular gifts to the table in youth ministry? Probably. But many of the skills that we once associated with “women’s” styles of leadership (collaboration, relational authority, consensus-building, etc.) are now recognized as important leadership skills across the board—and they’re utterly necessary where leadership needs to reflect the self-giving love of Christ.
Can you say anything about the particular challenges faced by women engaging in ministry to youth today?
I think the greatest challenge for many women in youth ministry (which is increasingly becoming the greatest challenge for men as well) is the family-ministry balancing act. In part because we so easily let ministry morph into a “service” profession (meaning, we buy into the myth that “ministry exists to meet my—or your—needs”), we have created an impossible bind for ourselves. We can never meet the needs of the young people we love. What they need isn’t us. What they need is Christ.
What's the greatest opportunity and the greatest threat of social media to youth ministry?
My perspective on this subject has been shaped by Andrew Zirschky, whose dissertation was on this subject. Zirschky’s insight is this (and I think he’s dead-on): teenagers turn to social media for connection—but what they long for is communion, oneness with God and others, which is uniquely available through the Body of Christ. The threat, of course, is confusing connection with communion, thinking they are one in the same—a conflation that happens mostly because the church is so silent in proclaiming the difference, and media culture so unabashedly proclaims the mystical virtues of internet communication. But teenagers intuit the difference; they know that a connection is just that—and that real friendship, true communion, comes from being deeply and profoundly known, and not just known about. This kind of knowing is the way God knows us—intimately, deeply, pre-consciously. Being “friended” on Facebook doesn’t come close.
So while I don’t think social media is an adequate substitute for face-to-face relationships or holy knowing, I do think being connected with others through social media is an authentic form of community for young people (and many youth pastors) that should not be taken lightly.
Any practical tips for leaders using social media?
Cautions abound: separate accounts should be established for youth ministry business, and youth ministers should not share their personal social media pages with anyone under the age of 18. And of course, we all need to assume that “once posted, always posted”—and act accordingly.
But social media can also be a useful practical tool (i.e., sharing information), a vehicle for testing various identities (note the profile updates), and a safe space for both inane and vulnerable self-disclosure. My general advice for social media use is the same advice your grandmother gave you for interpersonal relationships: Do more listening than talking, and you’ll be fine.
Margot Starbuck is a frequent contributor and editorial advisor to Gifted for Leadership, an author, a speaker, and a volunteer among friends with disabilities. Her most recent book is Permission Granted: And Other Thoughts on Living Graciously among Sinners and Saints. More at www.MargotStarbuck.com.