For The Someday Book

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Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, 224 pp.

sustainable-youth-ministryBooks hang around on my to-be-read shelf for years, until just the moment they deliver right-on-time information. I went to a workshop with DeVries in 2011, got this book and tons of useful information that I still rely on. But only now, in preparation for hosting an international youth pastors’ conference and with an eye toward building our church’s youth ministry from the ground up, did I finally get around to reading his book. It was outstanding.

DeVries is a professional, long-time youth pastor, and also runs Youth Ministry Architects, a consulting firm for churches interested in building sustainable youth ministry programs. This book contains a systematic approach based on his experience–but it is not a magic fix.

DeVries begins by debunking the deeply cherished myths and prejudices held in churches about youth ministry. I confess that I have been guilty of many of them myself. He argues, effectively, that most churches’ strategy for youth ministry is to gamble–to try something (anything!!) and hope it works. If it is hot for awhile, great! If it doesn’t work or goes cold, toss it out and gamble again. Digging deeper, he warns against making program central, fearing or blaming politics, trying to hire away your problems, and believing your situation is special or unique.

After urging the reader to set down all their hopes for a quick fix, DeVries offers less exciting but (to me) feasible and necessary steps to actually building a lasting youth ministry program. He outlines with specificity the investment required in terms of dollar, staff and volunteer time, along with specific expectations for reasonable numbers of growth. Then he names the infrastructure documents necessary: a directory, an annual calendar, job descriptions, a master recruiting list, a curriculum template. (This was one of my favorite sections, because these are the exact documents I have been working to produce over the last year for my church. I didn’t start with DeVries list, but I had a sense that no growth or program development would be possible without them. Now I have confirmation on the importance of that work.)

Only with this administrative infrastructure can the task of developing vision, mission and values begin. Only then can you start the work of developing the kind of climate and culture you desire in your youth group. And only after that are you ready to pursue the right staff leadership to help bring this program plan to life, and he offers detailed information for search committees on how to go about doing this.

DeVries’ focus is on building broad volunteer leadership and support, so that a church does not rely on a superstar youth minister who, no matter how talented and skilled, cannot last without this kind of institutional framework of support. Along the way, the wisdom he offers does not just pertain to youth ministry, but to church leadership, growth and development at all levels and settings. As we consider how to rebuild our collapsed youth program from the ground up, I’ll be following this book as a blueprint and sharing it with church leaders as we cultivate the necessary capacity to build a sustainable youth ministry.

The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998, 220 pp.

Godbearing LifeKenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian was one of the best books I read about ministry in the last decade, which drew me to look back at her earlier work. Although she specifically writes about youth ministry, her insights about the way cultural forces and church practices compete to shape our souls rings true in ministry with people of all ages. This book did not disappoint. Even though it’s 20 years old, many of the illustrations obsolete, and a whole generation of youth now parents of adolescents themselves, the book holds up because it is about greater themes of how we as pastors and churches care for the soul.

Dean and Foster operate within the powerful metaphor of Godbearing, which is drawn from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a teenager herself who was chosen to carry Jesus into the world. As Christian leaders, we are invited to say “yes” to God’s request to live within us and let our lives be shaped by God’s purposes. Then we form relationships and bear witness to God’s work in the lives of others, helping them to see where God is calling and to respond by saying “yes” themselves.

They write:

I began spending the bulk of my “relational ministry” helping youth, even unchurched ones, develop a vocabulary of faith. I learned that pastors have permission, and even an obligation, to ask questions others do not ask. So I quit beating around the bush and asked up front: “What’s going on between you and God? How goes your spiritual life?” (13)

This is exactly what I am discovering, especially in this particular season of my ministry. I spend a lot of time with people who may or may not be part of my congregation, may or may not be Christian, may or may not see me as pastor or just as a friend. But my role gives me both permission and obligation to have these conversations. For many people, no one else in their lives engages these questions, and people are yearning to be asked, even though it feels scary for both of us sometimes.

They also write about evangelism not as convincing people to believe in God, but to believe that God matters.

The signature quality of adolescence is no longer lawlessness but awelessness. Inundated with options and the stress that comes from having to choose between them, contemporary adolescents have lost their compass to the stars, have forgotten the way that points to transcendence. (15)

This is not just adolescents. Every day, thousands of people pass by in front of our church on the street, and most of them–whether or not they believe in God in any way–are convinced that what we do inside that building has no relevance or meaning to their lives. Dean and Foster offer incarnational and relational ministry as a response. We don’t just build relationships in order to talk about the Gospel. We live the Gospel in our lives (Godbearing) so that others will experience the incarnation of God.

This approach is grounded in faith practices:

Practices are the constitutive acts of a community that both identify us as, and form us into, people who belong to that community. Christian practices mark us as and make us into Jesus’ followers. (107)

Dean and Foster offer a helpful rubric of organizing the variety of Christian faith practices into six major categories (communion, worship, compassion, teaching and nurture, witness, and dehabituation), highlighting particular faith practices that one uses in youth ministry, but again applicable to all ages. They devote full chapters to each category, but lift out spiritual friendship, “hand-holding and finger-pointing” (presence and direction), service, speaking in familiar language, and sabbath as particularly important.

One of the key challenges for youth ministry and all ministry is avoiding burnout. The authors introduced a helpful biblical metaphor in the burning bush.

God is most evident in our ministries not when we are “on fire for Jesus” but when we burn without being consumed. … God is not calling us to identify with Moses. God is calling us to identify with the bush. (72)

Faith practices are those things that keep our fires burning, and engaging more deeply in growing our faith so we can nourish the faith of others is a model for sustainable Christian ministry for everyone. It’s not about growing programs, it’s about growing faith and relationships.

This is an insightful read that has already helped me shape some of the work I am doing to lead a conference for youth pastors and to engage my congregation in a Lenten series on faith practices. It has also given me new language to understand my own work in ministry. I recommend it not only for youth ministers, but for clergy and lay leaders looking to understand our work in the world in a deeper way, especially around inviting others into relationship with Christ.


In recent months, I have been contemplating the slow transition into midlife. I’m not quite ready to claim the label yet (I’ll be turning 38 on my next birthday), but I’m definitely closer to midlife than to youth. It feels as though there is a subtle shift beginning in my perspective.

Precocious Kid Xmas List (

All my life, I’ve been the youngest one. While I was the oldest child in my family, I was always the youngest in my class at school. My late-year birthday meant that I started kindergarten at four and completed my first semester of college at 17. When I went to seminary at 23, I had worked for two years after college, but I was still six years younger than anyone else in my seminary class. I was ordained at 27, and did not know any ministers younger than me at the time. Even now, there are no other pastors in my denomination’s local association that are younger than me. My closest age peer is five years my senior.

In school and in ministry, in spite of my youth, I have done well. I am a quick learner, and I was able to keep up with my older classmates and coworkers. Part of my identity has always been this youthfulness, this sense of being somehow ahead for my age. Someone gave me the word for it: precocious. Being precocious has always been a part of what it means to be me.

This year, I marked 10 years of ordained ministry, 14 years of marriage, and I’ll soon have five years of parenthood. I am no longer new at any of these things. It is no longer interesting (to me or anyone else) that I should be competent at them, in spite of my age. After so much time, it is expected that I should know what I am doing, that I should be effective at my work, that I should be responsible and put-together. While it still happens from time to time, it is increasingly rare to hear someone marvel that I am “already” the pastor of a church.

For the most part, this is a great gift. After 10 years, it’s definitely old and perhaps also a bit insulting to have someone make over you for doing your job effectively. It is freeing to be normal, to have your competence no longer surprise people, to be treated with respect, and to be trusted as a knowledgeable leader. I no longer need to prove myself—people simply expect me to know what I’m doing.

At the same time, there is a corner of my ego that wonders what will be special about me going forward. Youth made me unique for a long time (probably longer than most, since I entered a profession in which the average age is 51). Being a quick learner and enthusiastic adventurer will keep youthfulness around even longer, but not with the same level of surprise and intrigue. I am no longer precocious. That is a word that belongs only to youth. The question in my mind is: what will replace it? That’s been a fairly significant part of my identity for my entire life. While I’m ready to let it go, I found myself wondering what will take its place.

Someone else gave me the word for that replacement: wisdom. Just as precocious is a term reserved for youth, wise is a descriptor that only comes with age. I’m definitely not ready to claim it yet. I’m not even sure it’s a term that can be claimed–perhaps it must be bestowed. I know it is a worthy aspiration. I aspire to be known as a wise woman, a wise leader, a wise pastor, or just simply wise. As I let go of the label “precocious” as part of my identity, I take comfort in thinking that “wise” might someday come to replace it.

For now, I dwell in between. If I think about it, I guess I have gained some insight, even a modicum of wisdom from my years of experience. It’s also true that there is a glimpse of the precocious left from time to time, since there are still many things I am doing for the first time. I am no longer precocious, but not yet wise. I wonder how long this in-between time will last.

Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean, Oxford University Press, 2010, 254 pp.

This book seriously knocked my socks off. I was expecting a sociological look at youth ministry based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, filled with statistics about how our youth are falling away and the church is threatened with greater decline. I also expected some of the traditional suggestions about revamping our church style to attract the next generation. This book was none of those things. Instead, what Kenda Creasy Dean offers here is a prophetic indictment of American Christianity, based on the perspectives of our young people and solidly grounded in theology and biblical perspective. I read it once, and anticipate reading it again.

The core of the book centers on an interpretation of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which was a massive research study from 2003-2005 into the spiritual and religious lives of youth, including surveys and extensive interviews of young people across the United States. The book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers published the initial results and introduced the concept of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as the true faith practice of most teens. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a pseudo-religious belief system that emphasizes being good and nice, feeling happy and good about oneself. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism created the world and watches over it and helps out when we have problems, but is otherwise uninvolved in our lives and makes no demands of us other than being good, nice and fair. Soul Searching talked about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a displacing substantive religious faith with “personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.” (Almost Christian, 14)

Kenda Creasy Dean does not take issue with the research of Soul Searching, since she herself was a researcher in the NYSR. What she does, however, is shift the burden (and blame) away from youth and squarely on to the shoulders of the church, parents and the example we have set. She argues that, in the interest of making Christianity appealing, we have failed to make it anything of consequence. Youth in the study generally have positive feelings about religion, because they don’t think it matters very much. We have not shown them, by the example of our lives and the missional imagination of our churches, that Christian faith makes any difference at all.

I have seen Moralistic Therapeutic Deism at work in the lives of the youth in my congregation, and I have struggled to break through it in my conversations with them. I also recognize my complicity in the problem. I have shied away from the hard truths of sin and sacrifice in an attempt to make Christianity appeal to young people. I have downplayed the reality that the God of Jesus Christ demands we give up everything to follow, that we take up our cross and abandon our possessions, in fear that such a high price might scare them away altogether.

The good news is that it’s not too late, and the church already has everything needed to invite our young people into consequential faith. Dean names the arts of “translation, testimony and detachment”–practices that help us understand our story as part of God’s story, that help us articulate our faith for others to hear, and help us let go of the things of this world and see with God’s perspective. The way to teach people that kind of faith is by example—the example of parents and church members living lives of sacrifice and service in God’s name, sharing their faith with the next generation.

Anyone who cares about youth and youth ministry should read this book. So should anyone who cares about the future and the vitality of the church. There is much more substance and sophistication than I can convey in this short review. It is a rich and compelling read. Dean’s convincing argument is that the faith of our teenagers is the faith of their parents, and the faith the church has been teaching. We all find ourselves co-opted by the power of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The power of this book is the depth of analysis Dean offers, steeped in theological, biblical and spiritual insight. Like all good prophets, she offers a scathing conviction, and then she tells us how God is going to redeem us and sets us on the path toward righteousness.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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