A scholar leading conversations on the theology of youth ministry
A professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dean has written several books on youth and the church and is working on another as she supervises interns at a student-run church in Kingston, N.J. She also co-founded Ministry Incubators to help young church leaders turn entrepreneurial ideas into sustainable ministry.
Kenda Creasy Dean went to church camp as a teen to get a tan; she came home with a sense of purpose that, three decades later, she still hasn’t been able to shake.
“Believing in Jesus wasn’t the issue; I got hit with the fact that Jesus believed in me,” she said. “That framed my vocation.”
Seminary didn’t factor into her plans until later, after she’d gone to college to become a high school teacher. A few years after seminary, while she was a pastor and director of a Wesley Foundation, she felt dissatisfied that the literature on youth ministry had no theological connection and had nothing to distinguish it from what she might learn at a secular university.
“I thought, somebody’s got to do something about this,” she said, “and as soon as you say that, you get elected.”
She applied to Princeton Theological Seminary for a doctorate in practical theology. She had heard about the John Wesley Fellowship but didn’t think it would be a good fit until she discovered that two people she was akin to theologically were John Wesley Fellows, and one encouraged her to apply.
A young mother then, she couldn’t pastor and pursue a doctorate and still fulfill her responsibilities at home. The fellowship enabled her to immerse herself in her scholarship full time and be a part of the academic community while maintaining her family life.
While the John Wesley Fellowship made it financially possible for her to earn her Ph.D., “you don’t become just a recipient of funds,” she said. “You have the benefit of a network of people who will support and love you through it. From the very first meeting, it was clear we were stepping into a model of lifelong collegiality.”
Today an ordained United Methodist pastor in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dean works closely with Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry. She has written several books on youth and the church and is working on another as she supervises interns at a student-run church in Kingston, N.J.
“I started my doctorate because I wanted the church to take young people seriously,” she said. The default position for youth ministry back then was to put kids in a holding tank in a church basement and entertain them until they grew up enough to be considered contributing members of the congregation.
But young people began leaving the church, fast. Some churches tried enticements like praise bands to attract young people, but that didn’t matter to many teens.
“Kids don’t care about style as much as authenticity,” Dean said. “They care whether they can sense God is present and is as big as we say God is. If we proclaim God as awesome or significant, young people assume the church should reflect that kind awe or significance.”
In her mentoring of students, she sees her role as “chief fire-starter.” She and colleague Mark DeVries (president of Youth Ministry Architects) have launched Ministry Incubators, in which she serves as a “permissionary” for young church leaders who want to turn entrepreneurial ideas into innovative and sustainable forms of ministry.
“We want to help people with great ideas for innovative ministry get them off the ground, so the church becomes a culture of permission, not a culture of no,” she said.
The John Wesley Fellowship, through its ability to embrace many different conversations about what it means to be a Wesleyan scholar, nurtured that innovation and energy. Her students, all young adults, have no patience for the church as think-tank.
They want to create and be part of a church that embodies the theology and does not just talk about it. Wesley himself — by being an Oxford scholar, a tireless evangelist and a pastor all at the same time — modeled a way of integrating theory and praxis in ministry.
Because she became a fellow through the encouragement of other fellows, Dean takes seriously the role of opening others to the possibilities of the John Wesley Fellowship: “If you understand yourself to be a Wesleyan scholar — and there are lots of ways to be a Wesleyan — this is a community you want to be part of.”