We recently interviewed Youth Ministry Professor Kenda Creasy Dean about her new book, Almost Christian: What The Faith Of Our Teenagers Is Telling The American Church. At the conclusion of the conversation, we asked her to reflect on the changing landscape of youth ministry and the major challenges and opportunities youth ministry faces in the twenty-first century. Her reflections follow.
By Kenda Creasy Dean
Youth ministry today is the "research and development" arm of the church. Here we have room for experimentation of what it means to "be church," and that's a hopeful thing for us. These small enclaves of teenagers often reclaim a part of our ecclesial identity and ecclesial practices like prayer or community engagement that have been overlooked by the larger congregation.
For example, a lot of missional churches (I use the term with caution -- since technically there is no such thing as an un-missional church) have their roots in youth ministry, partly because a disproportionate number of "outside the box" church leaders seem to come out of youth ministry. A number of years ago, there was the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project, a project that involved youth groups who helped make contemplative practices central to the identity of their congregations. Who piloted that? A bunch of teenagers on a Lilly grant -- and it became contagious.
There is a theory called the diffusion of innovation that basically points out that innovative change does not happen by beating people over the head and saying, "Do what the innovative churches are doing." Instead, people become exposed to innovation horizontally, by seeing its effects on the "early adopters." That encourages more people to try it out, until it becomes contagious. Youth ministry is a really good example of how the diffusion of innovation can take place in churches.
I see a few other changes in the youth ministry landscape as well. One is that what constitutes youth ministry has steadily grown over the past fifty years. Adolescence has expanded to such a degree that we are no longer under the delusion that youth ministry is just for junior high or high school kids. We have long known that you cannot do effective youth ministry without involving families, but the age of adolescence itself has made the scope of our work even broader. Adolescence has stretched out on both ends -- puberty starts earlier and adulthood starts later -- so youth ministry spans the first third of the lifecycle.
For instance, whereas we might have given a nod to college students a couple decades ago (usually we were under the delusion that "they'll come back to church when they have children"), now we've got emerging adulthood as a distinctive life stage. But they're not adults -- in the same way adolescents aren't children; they are still dealing with the developmental tasks that, fifty years ago, people dealt with at sixteen. That means today's twenty-somethings are still gluing together their identities at the same time they're having to make the vocational, ideological, and relational commitments of adulthood, which is a perfect storm for anxiety.
Emerging adults are also the most absent age cohort in churches; in fact, they are noticeably underrepresented in all social institutions except the media/entertainment sphere, which means they are making the most life-shaping decisions of their lives -- jobs, worldviews, marriage partners -- without the benefit of institutional support or intergenerational wisdom. I see a growing sense of urgency in churches to address emerging adults, which usually falls under the youth ministry umbrella, though it is a very different kind of ministry than the kind we typically offer teenagers.
I'm seeing a renewed interest in children's ministries as well. The attention youth ministry has garnered in the past two or three decades in churches has inevitably led people to say, "Hey, we can't just arbitrarily start taking young people seriously when they turn 11 or 12." Resources for children's ministry have always outstripped those in youth ministry, but now that youth ministry has spent two decades aiming for theological substance, children's ministry is poised to do the same.
Maybe the most dramatic change in youth ministry since I started as a youth leader has been the professionalization of youth ministry as a field. When I was in seminary, I was the only person I knew who wanted to do youth ministry on purpose; it was the classic "stepping stone" position, and almost all pastors farmed it out to unsuspecting lay people, or to the youngest volunteer they could find. Today, youth ministry is a legitimate vocational option, complete with degrees, resources, guilds, training processes, certifications, you name it. Personally, I'm a little bit mixed on whether all this professionalization is a good idea, but in fact it is happening. People always develop specialty fields to reclaim whatever is being overlooked, and youth ministry is no exception.