How Youth Ministry Can Change Theological Education — If We Let It

youth-minKenda Creasy Dean and Christy Lang Hearlson, editors
Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 320 pages
Reviewed by Rachel Landers Vaagenes

In this collection of essays, Dean and Hearlson attempt to pull off a near-Copernican shift in how we understand youth ministry by putting vocational discernment for youth at the center of theological education. This book asks the question, “Are we properly preparing new young leaders to lead the church of the future? Or the church of the past?” Each chapter is written by leaders from High School Theology Programs (“HSTPs”). In describing these HSTPs, Dean states that while each are unique, “what unites them all is a profound confidence in teenagers’ capacities for theological leadership, and a commitment to giving young people concrete opportunities to practice this leadership.”

The book moves through four parts. Part one defines HSTPs as places that prepare youth for being bearers of Christ’s image in the world, not simply leaders in a congregation. The editors note that this requires a great deal of trust, and that HSTPs “routinely operate with this level of hope.” In part two, “More than a Job Fair,” we learn four “anchor practices” that can be used in faith communities to assist the discernment process. One of the strongest essays is by Katherine M. Douglass on “holy noticing” and the power of commissioning and naming in the formation of youth. In it she makes explicit the important but underutilized practice of seeing a calling in another. Part three lays out the pedagogical benefits of challenge and disruption (vs. acceptance and inclusion), using the themes of “adventure” and “awe” to inspire risk-taking and sacrificing for a greater goal. Part four addresses the issue of vocational discernment at the leadership level, asking how we form the professors, pastors and counselors who form the youth. Brent A. Strawn writes a great piece on the “both and” evolution of his teaching at the seminary level after teaching high school youth. Assume nothing, teach everything and build catechesis and critique together.

The gift of this book is the permission to challenge — rather than cater to — our youth. But that road comes with risk. Challenging and empowering our kids will inevitably lead to some soul-searching for the current leadership. The book sets our sights squarely on Christ and asks how we can lead a new generation into leadership of his church. It does not offer “tweaks” to current systems, but challenges Christian leaders to crucially examine just what exactly it is that we are doing in the “church business.” The authors regularly lift up vulnerability, experimentation, disruption of the normal and getting out of our comfort zones. They remind us that, despite 2000 years of history, God is doing something new, and if we aren’t looking for it, we risk letting it pass us by. But along with this challenge, Dean, Hearlson and their writers offer us something more: hope in a way forward. Hope in a God who has accomplished and is accomplishing all through Jesus Christ. And they offer us all — church veterans and youth alike — a chance to embark on this costly adventure with them. I for one don’t want to miss that chance.

Rachel Landers Vaagenes is associate pastor at Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.