Kenda Creasy Dean, Wesley W. Ellis, Justin Forbes, and Abigail Visco Rusert
Delighted: What Teenagers are Teaching the Church About Joy
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.
Available at Eerdmans and Amazon
By Laura Thierry
What is joy, and what is its value for youth ministry? Such is the central question that this short but rich book seeks to answer. Kenda Creasy Dean and her team of youth ministry veterans (Wesley W. Ellis, Justin Forbes, and Abigail Visco Rusert) draw from their many years of ministry practice and theological reflection to provide a compelling and inspiring vision of the place of joy in the Church’s ministry with young people. Originating through the Yale Center on Faith and Culture’s “God and Human Flouring” project, this work brings serious scholarship into stimulating conversation with a strong knowledge of on-the-ground ministry practice.
The introduction commences by seeking to provide a theological and existential definition of the slippery though significant experience of joy: “Joy is, first, a state of arousal, an awakening of sorts” Dean writes, “joy jolts [us] awake and activates [our] sense that [we] are human beings “fully alive”’(p. 4). Dean then considers the fascinating and foundational connection between joy and vulnerability. “But [joy] is often accompanied by practices of vulnerability that strip us of our protective layers that mask God’s delight in us and, therefore, our ability to delight in ourselves (p. 4).”
Yet, this leads us to a complexity: many youth ministry programs are (often for admirable reasons) aimed at forming “successful” young church members. And yet, what it takes to help them be “successful” often ends up galvanizing young people against their tendencies for vulnerability. If this is the case, then might youth ministry at times actually be unintentionally limiting a capacity for joy? Do our programs and approaches inadvertently add to a young person’s anti-vulnerability armour, rather than helping them remove their scales so as to be open to the reach of Divine joy into their lives?
In light of this complexity, the book goes on to explore three practices: friendship, celebration, and confession. Each of these have in common the vulnerability of active passivity or self-giving that Dean understands as the special characteristic of joy.
This is complex ground, much in need of wisdom and unable to survive on “easy answers”. The chapter on friendship considers “real friendship as a practice of appropriate mutual vulnerability.” (p. 23). The attention to and desire to push back against the “instrumentalization of friendships” in some relational approaches to youth ministry is a challenging and deeply helpful reminder. The celebration discussion provides some stimulating suggestions for how to be rejoicing pilgrims—learning to party well while still on the way. The chapter on confession provides a deeply moving discussion on the practice of faithful embrace in youth ministry, while simultaneously finding grace in confessing our finitude and inability to embrace as fully the Saviour.
The book contains a helpful number of narratives throughout, bringing the principles outlined to life and colour in the experiences of the contributing ministry practitioners. Each chapter concludes with a helpful set of discussion questions, beneficial on account of the fact that, as this book has so much to do with the ethos and vision that go far beyond practicalities, reading it in tandem with your ministry team would be repaid accordingly.
It is not a book that provides easy answers, quick solutions, or any help in preparing your lesson for next Friday night. It does make you take a long hard look, and wrestle prayerfully with the state of your soul, relationships, and perspective on the young people entrusted to your care. It’s a book that repays sitting with, conversing over, and prayerfully being vulnerable to, in hope of the gift of the divine joy that its authors seek to communicate.