Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church
Kenda Creasy Dean. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004. 257 pages.
There is no place for adolescent passion in the contemporary North American church. So Kenda Creasy Dean contends that youth ministry must bring together Christ’s passion and teenage passion, resulting in passionate faith.
Creasy Dean, Associate Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, believes that a “passionless church will never address passionate youth” (69). Drawing upon historic Christian practices, the author offers a “curriculum of passion” for mainline Protestant youth workers.
Creasy Dean examines three dimensions of passion: fidelity, transcendence, and communion. The human longing for fidelity is expressed in the adolescent desire for steadfastness and acceptance. However, the fragmented self, brought on by Postmodernity, has impeded adolescent identity formation. This dimension of passion is authenticated in ministry through community. The practice of the Christian conference—small communities of mutual exhortation—effectively addresses the teen longing for fidelity.
Adolescent passion is also expressed in a longing for something beyond themselves. Tragically, the desire for self-transcendence is clouded by culture’s preoccupation with self-fulfillment. This longing can best be shaped in the practice of worship, specifically praise and lament, which helps teens experience God’s immediacy.
Contemporary teens also long for intimacy. The adolescent yearning for communion is often erroneously expressed sexually as an “in-the-body” experience. Creasy Dean asserts that it is difficult for teens to distinguish between their desire for God and their desire for one another. By “being known,” today’s adolescents are touched by practices of spiritual friendship such as chastity and prayer.
The unique contribution of Practicing Passion is that it moves the practice of ministry to practical theology. Most youth ministry praxis intuitively and superficially capitalizes on teen passion. However, Creasy Dean proposes a more theologically intentional formation of passion.
In an age in which teens intuitively sense adult abandonment, Practicing Passion offers a form of Christian counterculture. Creasy Dean rightly champions the idea that Christian adults must “scaffold” around teens during their passionate adolescence.
Sympathetic to Anabaptist theology, Creasy Dean contends that the imitation of Christ is the primary objective of youth ministry. She argues that Christ’s passion transforms adolescent passion from self-fulfilling to self-giving love.
Practicing Passion does raise a few questions, however. Is passion the sole, or even the primary, shaper of ministry praxis? What about other dimensions of formation, such as self-sacrifice and daily discipleship, which tends to work in opposition to what’s commonly understood as exuberant-but-short-lived teenage passion?
While Creasy Dean relocates youth ministry praxis in practical theology, she does so at the expense of minimizing the profound effects of teenage psychosocial and developmental issues. Culture-wide adult abandonment, the rise of family-like peer clusters, and the emergence of a separate world in which teens feel safer and prefer to relate, all have significant effects on how adolescents respond to theologically-focused ministry. It would be interesting to compare Creasy Dean’s theories with Chap Clark’s ideas in his recently released book, Hurt: An Inside Look at the American Teenager (2004), which documents the ways in which the changing face of adolescence has influenced teenage spirituality and ministry methodology.
Creasy Dean urges the church to surround teens, working theologically at identity and spiritual formation. Such a call is one which can be embraced by biblical theology and its concern for community. It is also a strategic shift which must be made in our contemporary cultural context if we have any hope for effective, long-lasting ministry to youth.