Practicing Passion
in Youth Ministry

“If adolescents and Christianity are both so full of passion, then why aren’t young people flocking to church?” (p. 4). This is a central question of what is to be considered one of the most important books on youth ministry ever written.

Practicing Passion

Kenda Creasy Dean’s Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church marks a turning point in youth ministry—away from just trying to get young people to stay in church and toward learning from and partnering with young people in ministry.

PRACTICING PASSION:

Youth & the Quest for a Passionate Church

by Kenda Creasy Dean

Eerdmans Publishing (2004), 260 pages

Dean ushered in a new conception of youth ministry as coming alongside young people and listening for the voice of God in their experience. Instead of locating the problem somewhere in the young person or in the “culture” in which they are situated, Dean locates the problem of youth ministry in the church itself. Dean argued that God is already at work in the lives of young people, whether or not they come to church, and that “if youth invest their passions elsewhere… the church must receive this news as a judgment not on adolescents, but on us” (p. 25).

The church, through youth ministry, should not assume itself as the norm to which young people must assimilate, but should discern that God is doing something in the lives of young people and that we can be a part of it. Dean’s great discovery was, in essence, the theological discovery that youth ministry is ministry—active and faithful participation in God’s passionate action in the world.

Shared Passions

So, to return to Dean’s question, “If adolescents and Christianity are both so full of passion, then why aren’t young people flocking to the church?” The answer, though it may not be as obvious as we may think, is that the church has failed to take young people seriously and to take young people’s experience seriously as a location for divine action. “We are facing a crisis of passion, a crisis that guts Christian theology of its very core, not to mention its lifeblood for adolescents” (p. 7).

The church, along with the rest of society, has not looked to young people’s passion as a source of meaning, but as a problem to be solved.

An integral component of this crisis is that it doesn’t occur to the church to ask Dean’s question in the first place. The church hasn’t adequately accounted for the analogy between young people’s passion and Christianity’s passion. The church, along with the rest of society, has not looked to young people’s passion as a source of meaning, but as a problem to be solved. Dean writes, “In passion, desire meets will, and since young people possess extravagant quantities of both, society has long viewed adolescent passion as dangerous—too risky to allow, much less encourage… Yet something crucial is lost in this defensive posture…” (p. 3).

Later she writes, “Most congregations confine passion to Holy Week, and view adolescent passion as a hormonal rite of passage, not as the fingerprint of God. Prevailing wisdom suggests that passion, like algebra and acne, should be endured, not exegeted” (p. 10). This “defensive posture” of the church toward young people’s passion blinds us to the analogy between Christ’s passion and theirs, and prevents the church from learning anything from young people. Dean’s task is to do just that— to “exegete” and to learn from young people what God wants to teach us.

Dimensions of Passion

Now, in order to exegete young people’s passion, Dean relies heavily on developmental psychology, especially the work of the great theorist, Erik Erikson. This is why, throughout the book, the term “adolescents” and “young people” are conflated into synonyms. This can hardly be considered a real weakness, since it is one shared among the vast majority of people writing about youth, but it is something to note as one reads the book.

Practicing PassionDean, though she openly critiques much of what’s given to her from Erikson, is still deeply sympathetic to his interpretive framework—seeing adolescence as a stage of development preceding adulthood. (For a critique of this framework, see Wesley W. Ellis, “Human Beings and Human Becomings” in Journal of Youth and Theology 14, no.2 (2015): 119–37.) But in taking up Erikson’s interpretive lens, Dean is able to see what society and the church refuse to see—that with theological awareness we can discover that youth itself is a source of new meaning.

She examines, in particular, three important elements of adolescent development or “three dimensions of pathos—fidelity, transcendence, and communion…” (p. 24). When these are not nurtured in the social life of the young person, the process of “identity formation” is thrown off course. “The hunger for fidelity, transcendence, and communion lies at the core of human identity, and therefore becomes acute when the ego is in flux.

While youth ministry cannot ‘create’ passion in young people, when adolescents experience steadfast, ecstatic, and intimate love in communities that practice Christ’s passion as fidelity, transcendence, and communion, the Holy Spirit uses these communities to awaken young people’s awe, invite their wonder, and inspire their reach toward God and others through acts of costly love that both anchor the formation of faith and ground the transformation of the emerging ego” (p. 24).

Passionate Fidelity

According to Erikson, “‘the cornerstone’ of adolescence [is] the strength of being utterly true to oneself and others amid competing and contradictory value systems” (p. 76). He wrote, “The mental and emotional ability to receive and give fidelity marks the conclusion of adolescence” (76n11). For young people to establish their own fidelity, for them to commit themselves to something or someone, they need the fidelity of others. They need unconditional relationships that endure in the face of whatever may come.

“The truth is, despite the gospel’s claim that Jesus will be with us always, young people usually assume—correctly—that the church will not be.” -Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion

Fidelity is the “even if…” kind of relationship. In essence, it is friendship. It’s about remaining true for the sake of the person, and not for the sake of some other goal or standard we might have for them. Dean notes how natural this should come to the church, since it proclaims Christ, a person whose love endured even in the face of torture and execution.

But, as she writes, “The truth is, despite the gospel’s claim that Jesus will be with us always, young people usually assume—correctly—that the church will not be” (74). The church’s reputation precedes it. It is not known for being a hospitable, let alone an enduring community for young people. This rings true now, perhaps even more than when the book was originally published.

Fidelity or Accountability?

When the book was written, the likely culprit for the dissonance between the faithfulness of Christ and the (at least perceived) infidelity of the church to young people was probably its moralism. Young people need relationships that endure regardless of inadequacies, relationships that are not conditioned upon adherence to moral or religious standards.

Preoccupied with behavior—don’t do drugs, don’t have sex, don’t look at pornography, etc.—the church was more interested in young people’s fidelity to it (and its moral standards) than to its fidelity to them. “‘Accountability’ frequently eclipses ‘fidelity’…” (p. 188). In other words, there was a big “if” in the relationship between young people and the church—“we’ll be with you if you behave yourself and believe what we believe.”

The result was that young people took the hint. As Dean writes, “…many contemporary young people simply have not experienced enough fidelity on their behalf to acquire it themselves” (p. 77). But now this is inflated by a growing awareness of the church’s institutional existence that has collided with an increasing cultural distrust in institutions. The church, like every other institution, will fail and forsake the young person. Young people are acutely aware that when offering is taken in church, for example, it’s not going into Jesus’ robe pockets.

So, when it comes to fidelity, if the church is going to offer young people the kinds of relationships they need, they have to work against moralistic, exclusivist, and institutional associations. But somehow, in Dean’s view, the church needs to offer unconditional relationships, not just for the sake of young people—though certainly for that—but for the sake of the church. Through fidelity, the church can tap into its own passion for faithfulness and into the passion of the God who is so passionate about the world that God will never leave or forsake us, no matter what.

Getting High

The second dimension of adolescent passion, another thing that young people long for and that the church is failing to offer them, according to Dean, is transcendence. She writes, “The adolescent search for transcendence is both developmentally necessary and spiritually essential” (p. 110). Dean’s attention to young people’s search for transcendence is important and it’s also important to pay attention to how she pays attention. This is a part of adolescence that has traditionally been seen as especially problematic and threatening to adults and to adults in the church—even youth workers.

We are quick to condemn the emotionality—the need to feel something—in adolescence. It’s what leads to “drama” in their relationships, dangerous spontaneity that leads to “bad decisions,” and even drug use. Taking cues from Erikson, Dean writes, “young people are constantly ‘on the go’; they take drugs to ‘get high’ or ‘take a trip’; they ‘lose themselves’ in sports or dance or music; they are ‘swept off their feet’ by romance and they ‘get a rush’ from fast cars, extreme physical challenges, or lightning paced action movies” (p. 100–101).

Young people are more in tune than ever before to the “human need to break through the self’s boundaries to be ‘transported’ to a new place, from which they may glimpse a larger, more encompassing world that invites their participation” (p. 101). Again, this should come naturally to the church, right? After all, God is transcendent. But again, it does not.

The church has become so committed to certain traditions and rituals that, instead of inviting young people into the mystery of God and the ecstatic experience of God’s life giving Spirit in worship and mission, the church invites them to get confirmed and join a committee. Adolescent passion for transcendence, if we can get past our negative perceptions of it, promises to draw the church into its own passion and into the passion of God by transforming worship and mission into not just a stoic ritualistic (or sometimes bureaucratic) activity, but truly an ecstatic and astonishing encounter with the Living God.

Passion for Communion

A real sense of transcendence should lead us deeper into relationships, deeper into fidelity, and draw us into communion with others. Quoting the theologian, Catherine Mowry LaCugna, Dean writes, “Ecstasy ‘provides a mystical experience that draws us beyond the self, outside of time,’ into communion with others” (p. 106–107). This, again, is a part of adolescent development, as Dean sees it. Young people long for experiences of intimacy, physical and emotional communion with another. “Intimacy carries with it the gift of ‘being known’…” (p. 118), so it makes sense that young people, who are still trying to know themselves, would long for intimacy.

But young people know, in their bones, that if the gospel isn’t about bodies and blood, then it’s not worth dying for—it’s not worth giving their body and blood for it.

The church is especially squeamish about this dimension of adolescent passion. But it too holds promises for the church. Intimacy is the bridge from knowing about someone to actually knowing them. This should make sense to the church, even though it is scandalous, because her transcendent God has come into the world in a human person, even the man Jesus from Nazareth. “God… comes to us concretely, and communion with the Incarnate Christ—God-in-the-flesh—provides the objective of Christian faith” (p. 121). As Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “The mission of Christ achieves its purpose when [humans] and creation are united with God” (121n13).

“If transcendence draws young people beyond the confines of self, communion invites them to live radically within the boundaries of being human, starting with their own bodies” (p. 120). Communion is about bodies. We confess this every time we practice Communion (or Eucharist or the Lord’s Table or whatever else you might call it). At the Lord’s Table, we confess that we are taking the body and blood of Christ into our bodies, being made one body in communion, and we do it physically by ingesting actual bread and actual wine (or juice). The “in-the-body” experience of communion is indigenous to the church. Yet, we have managed to disembody the gospel of Jesus.

We’ve made Christianity less about an encounter with Christ and intimacy with others and more about getting out of the body, into heaven after death. But young people know, in their bones, that if the gospel isn’t about bodies and blood, then it’s not worth dying for—it’s not worth giving their body and blood for it. The church desperately needs to learn this lesson from young people’s experience. The passion of young people promises to reawaken the church’s participation in God’s passion for actual flesh and blood.

A Passionate Theology for Youth Ministry

Now, as one reads Practicing Passion it can be easy to miss an important aspect of Dean’s theology—the theology of the cross. There are overtones of empowerment throughout the book. Youth workers will certainly catch Dean’s vision of a church that enlivens passionate young people, comes alongside them as partners, and empowers them in their own passionate ministry (especially in the final section of the book in which she outlines actual practices—including exhortation, pilgrimage, and spiritual friendship). This makes tons of sense for ministry with passionate young people. But what about ministry with young people who are burnt out and all out of passion. How do we practice passion with them?

It’s important to remember that Dean’s primary theological dialogue partner is Jürgen Moltmann, who had a robust theology of the cross. Passion for Moltmann and for Dean has a double meaning. As Moltmann puts it, “Christian faith lives from the suffering of a great passion, and is itself the passion for life which is prepared for suffering” (p. 19).

Practicing Passion is not just about ascending into divine passion, but God’s passion descending into human experience. “Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ” (p. 16). Therefore the church’s passion is not one for upward mobility, but for the humility of love. To miss this would be to miss the whole project of Practicing Passion.

Every page of this book is dripping with theological insight. And that makes it unique. Few others have been so deeply theological in their approach to youth ministry, actually demonstrating that ministry with young people is itself constructively theological. Anybody can slap a Bible verse at the beginning or end of a paragraph to justify a point. But Kenda Creasy Dean is inspiring in her ability to actually bring ministry to bear on theology, to teach us something new about who God is and who we are.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

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