A Feature Review of
Delighted: What Teenagers Are Teaching the Church About Joy
Kenda Creasy Dean, et al
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2020
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Reviewed by Seth Vopat
It’s no secret the institutional church has been in decline in the United States of America for years, more likely decades. This reality has even brought into creation a new niche market as there are now no shortage of church conferences and speakers out there who promise church renewal and growth after buying into their programming. Youth ministry has its fair share of these pitches due not only to the decline of church but also in part to the largest study ever undertaken to understand the religious faith of young people in the USA by Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton.
Delighted: What Teenagers are Teaching the Church about Joy is a book born from the minds of four talented youth ministry scholars/professionals in response to the present circumstances. The authors include Kenda Creasy Dean, Wesley W. Ellis, Justin Forbes and Abigail Visco Rusert. Even though this book is written by four authors it is well organized and reads like a cohesive book written by one author.
Smith and Melina Denton released their findings in 2005. Over the next decade they would create a shockwave in youth ministry circles as they suggested denominations of all sorts were not so great at getting young people to believe in God. Rather they were better at putting young people in touch with moral therapeutic deism—basically the belief that what God wants one to be is a good person and find happiness and fulfillment in life. Ministry programming for young people may have been good at getting families to commit to a church, but they were found to struggle at the development of a theological depth which turned into life long belief for those who participated in their programs.
The main premise of the book is to answer the challenges presented by Smith and Denton’s work and the continued decline of youth ministry in churches across the United States of America. What do they propose for an answer? What do they suggest youth ministry should focus on in 2020?
Their answer is joy!
Make no mistake the joy the authors are talking about is not the fluffy feeling I get from an emoji icon and a slice of my favorite pizza. Rather, throughout their book they explore together through vulnerable first-person storytelling and theological and psychological wrestlings a robust concept of joy. Kenda Creasy Dean writes, “Joy moves beyond itself; just as the triune God moves beyond God’s own self to reach out to creation, rejoicing moves us to reach back toward God.” I don’t want to give away too much of the book so all I will say further on the development of their concept of joy is they draw from several great Christian theologians of the present and past to make their point.
As a person who has worked in youth ministry for almost twenty years I have come to recognize I serve in a privileged profession. I cannot deny that at times their book made me a bit anxious as their book does not sugar coat the church’s present reality in the United States of America. They write, “In the United States shrinking church budgets and staffs suggest that professional youth ministers will be job hunting in the not-so-distant future…” Like any husband and father who wants to help support and take care of one’s family how can I not help but feel some angst when hearing the news? Although, let me also say I know I am not alone as technology advances many professions are in the midst of great upheaval presently.
And yet, it is the authors’ willingness to be transparent and hold nothing back which is refreshing and truly the greatest strength of their book. They don’t pretend to have all the answers. They fully admit taking youth ministry in this direction will not guarantee one’s youth ministry will grow—numerically at least. There is no six step program to copied and pasted into church after church.
What they do provide is questions at the end of the chapters to get us to ponder and think deeper about what could be if we are willing to take a risk. What they do provide is their hearts on the page to show these are not simply theoretical “bright ideas” they have read in a theological tome and dropped down from the proverbial academic office into ministry settings. They come from the realities of lives lived in the pursuit of being faithful followers of the triune God. They come from both their successes and failures. Again this transparency is what makes the book real and probably one of the best youth ministry books I have read in recent years.
Whether the church in the United States of America continues to move further into decline or not is a question some still debate. Youth ministry is no exception. Youth group—the most popular form of youth ministry—only works in churches with large budgets who can afford to hire a youth ministry professional. This is a number which currently shrinks each year. A new concept is needed for the church moving forward. This book is an asset for any church wanting to move forward and face the realities of diminishing budgets head on.
And as much as I hope present youth ministry professionals will read this book. I have a deeper desire this book will be picked up by senior pastors, associate pastors, deacons, elders, and teachers who work in the church-at-large. If youth ministry is to change it cannot be done by youth ministry professionals alone. It has to be a larger conversation within the whole church and not simply those invested in the youth ministry—which too often is only the parents, paid and volunteer youth ministry leaders. This book provides a rich conversation partner which can have an impact in a variety of ministries in the church because as the authors propose, we all need joy.
So do not judge a book by its cover and assume this title only has something to offer to the youth ministry workers—it’s something we can all use as we live out our faith in a complex world.
Seth Vopat works at Lee's Summit Christian Church in Kansas City. He graduated from Central Baptist Theological Seminary with an MDiv and has a Youth/Theology certificate from Princeton Theological Seminary. When not working he can be found biking, cooking, and living life with his family.