Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church

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Every stage of life brings out certain human characteristics, and according to Kenda Creasy Dean, adolescence is particularly characterized by passion. If the church is to speak meaningfully to youth and in turn reap the many benefits that young people have to offer, then its ministry must be predicated on passion — the Passion of Christ, the passion of youth, and the passionate faith that results when these two things come together.

The uniqueness of Practicing Passion lies in its relocating youth ministry in practical theology rather than in educational theory or psychological or social development. While youth ministry has routinely capitalized on the passions of adolescents, little attention has been given to the theological mooring that youth need to connect with the church and hold firm amid the growing demands of popular culture. Focusing on the theological resonance between the Passion of Christ and adolescents' experience of passion, Dean develops a framework for youth ministry that draws on the historic practices of the Christian community as a “curriculum of passion.”

Offering a compelling new model for reaching, discipling, and empowering today's young adults, Practicing Passion is a vital resource for anyone already engaged in or preparing for youth ministry.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book is not a typical how-to manual for youth groups…. Dean offers a theological prescription not only for youth ministry but also for the whole church.”
— The Christian Century

Kenda Creasy Dean is the liveliest theologian of youth culture in the United States today. Youth ministers who read this book will see how adolescents are theological, and theologians who read this book will see why theology should be more adolescent.
— Tom Beaudoin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802847126
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 4/26/2004
  • Pages: 276
  • Sales rank: 748,690
  • Product dimensions: 6.24 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Kenda Creasy Dean is associate professor of youth, church, and culture and director of the Tennent School of Christian Education at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is also coauthor of The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry and coeditor of Starting Right: Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry.
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Read an Excerpt


Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church
By Kenda Creasy Dean

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-4712-9

Chapter One


The Subversive Power of Passion

[The S.S. hanged two Jewish men and a young boy in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour.] "Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.... The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive.... Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?" And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging here on this gallows." Elie Wiesel

Love doesn't sound so dangerous until you've tried it. Paul Wadell

People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. C. S. Lewis


Somehow I had missed the news that morning. I strode into my class on April 26, 1999, to find a room of grim, silent seminarians staring back at me. One by one they filled me in on news gleaned from CNN, the Internet, The New York Times. A high school in Colorado. Two teenagers, black trench coats, gunfire, bombs, a cafeteria under fire. Students huddled in closets, calling CNN on their cell phones; one student, crazed with fear, leapt from a window into the parking lot below. How many shot? No one knew yet, but fifteen bodies still lay in the school, mostly in the library, including those of the two boys who finally ended their killing spree by committing suicide. All the victims were teenagers but one, a teacher: Dave Saunders died while protecting his students.

For awhile, no one spoke.

"Where was God?" one young man finally asked, his voice cracking. He said what the rest of us were thinking. We wept silent tears together.

There was one more thing, someone remembered. She had received an email that morning, forwarded by one of the girls in her youth group. According to some of the kids who witnessed the shootings, there had been a girl in the school library. One of the gunmen asked her if she believed in God. When she said yes, he killed her.

Dying for Something Worth Dying For

The electric speed with which teenagers - not the press - circulated "the Cassie Bernall story" made it urban myth within hours, long before the media (who were presumably busy checking sources) reported it. It did something else, too: it transformed a massacre into a martyrdom. We now know that many students witnessed to their faith during the Columbine High School tragedy, some in word, some in deed, and some at gunpoint. Cassie's "yes," in fact, may have belonged to classmate Valeen Schnurr. But all of this was quickly beside the point. The lightning speed with which adolescents claimed Cassie's story as their own - and the tidal wave of public soul-searching that followed - revealed our collective hunger for a story of faith in the midst of profound evil, just as it revealed teenagers' desire for something heroic to redeem their lost innocence. If nothing else, Columbine brought a theological perception to public consciousness: Young people are dying for God, any way you look at it.

Cassie Bernall "put a teenage face on martyrdom." The label became fixed the following summer, when Cassie's mother released her daughter's biography, an instant bestseller among teenagers. Adolescents read Cassie's journey from troubled teen to Christian convert as the saga of someone who had found something to live for that was "worth dying for" - and she was one of their own. The question flooding Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards following the Littleton shootings was stark: "Would you die for your faith?" A Florida girl's response on an Internet bulletin board typified hundreds of others: "I haven't totally pledged all of my being to God. When I heard [Cassie's] story I realized she gave up everything. She DIED for Him.... Would I have done the same?"

The Columbine story turns on the question of passion: the twisted passions of two lonely boys who thought they had nothing to live for, but also the holy passion of faith - fidelity, as Erikson called it: "a disciplined devotion," the strength of having something "to die for." When young people ask, "Would you die for your faith?" what they really want to know is, "Is Christianity worth it? Is it worth staking a life on, and not just a Sunday night? Because if it's not - if God isn't worth dying for - then I'm outta here."

But listen closely. Behind these youthful ultimatums is a plea: Please, please tell me it's true. True love is always worth dying for. Please tell me I'm worth dying for. Please tell me someone loves me this much and won't let me go, even if the Titanic sinks, even if the library explodes, even if the towers fall, even if the world ends. Please show me a God who loves me this much - and who is worth loving passionately in return. Because if Jesus isn't worth dying for, then he's not worth living for, either.

Theological Canaries

To suggest that youth are searching for something to die for, on the surface, seems irresponsible, if not downright dangerous. Adolescents are known for dying for the wrong passions, being co-opted by the wrong causes. Furthermore, the theological drift of the twentieth century has been to minimize the place of passion in Christian theology, thereby eliminating much of the tension between Christian faith and culture. Not that American teenagers don't believe in God; a staggering 95 percent of adolescents consistently say that they do. They just don't believe God matters - or cares. At issue is not their conversion; adolescents convert as a matter of course. But to what, or to whom, will they be converted? Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela won passionate followers, but so did Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. Passion can be co-opted by evil as well as won by God - and by any number of deities in between.

By the end of the twentieth century, children's advocates had begun to think of postmodern young people as canaries in the mines, whose fading voices warn of an increasingly toxic cultural environment. Church and culture analyst Lyle Schaller predicted that "[making] this a better world for children" would constitute the number one social cause for Christian churches in the first half of the twenty-first century - as important to churches in our era as the abolition of slavery was for nineteenth-century churches, and as the Civil Rights movement became for churches of the twentieth century. But Columbine legitimized a new issue in the public debate over children's well-being: theology. Until Columbine, theology rumbled beneath the surface of much American public policy, but lawmakers, educators, social critics, and even church leaders avoided explicit reference to religious faith as a factor in public health. The Columbine story, by contrast, was rife with unapologetic Christian testimony. We could not tell this story without reference to God. Unfortunately, it took tragedy in an upscale, suburban high school where things like this "just don't happen" to force a public revelation: without something to die for, adolescents have nothing to live for, either.

Salvation is not an eschatological category for adolescents; it is a near and present hope. Their newfound capacity for self-reflection also gives them new capacities for faith, hope, and dread. For the first time, youth recognize that they are dying a thousand deaths they cannot stop - a condition Christian tradition chalks up to sin, and developmental theorists attribute to identity diffusion. Either way, youth realize that they could live or they could die, and they do not want to live or die for nothing.

The Adolescent Menace to Society

The passion we associate with adolescence - the raw desire for an object for which we are "sold out," for which we would risk everything - is often viewed as a sign of trouble. After the Littleton shootings, Channel One (a TV station beamed into the nation's classrooms) and the National Association for Mental Illness posted a web page identifying symptoms of teen manic depression. The list included "unrealistic highs in self-esteem - for example, a teenager who feels especially connected to God." The line between adolescence and mental illness has never been abundantly clear; Joan of Arc was accused of witchcraft, Victorian medical journals classified adolescence as a form of insanity, and by 1989 the fastest growing sector of the hospital industry was private psychiatric beds for teenagers. James E. Loder writes, "Because of their totalism, their deep ideological hunger, their heightened awareness of their potential nonbeing, and their sense of urgency about the meaning of life, adolescents are especially capable of the kind of commitment and 'fidelity' in self-sacrifice that life in the Spirit calls for." Apart from a sense of identity, warns Loder, this commitment may come too easily and be misleading. But, he adds, "given clarity about the object of faith, Jesus Christ, and the transformational work of his spirit, the struggle to work out who one is only in relation to why one exists at all forges an identity of theological proportions."

The problem is that an identity of theological proportions runs counter to the expectations of society, and therefore it actually impedes our ability to succeed by the standards of contemporary culture. Consumer culture depends upon ideologies of self-fulfillment, and upon the electronic media's ability to convince teenagers to buy into them (literally). But young people who identify with Christ's Passion enact self-giving love, the kryptonite that undoes ideologies of self-fulfillment. Youth who bear witness to the suffering love of God subvert the ideologies on which consumer culture stands, as the life, death, and resurrection of Christ becomes a filter through which youth begin to recognize efforts to co-opt their passion for the market. Alas, human society has a long history of suppressing subversives, even when they are our own children. And so we demand that passionate youth contain themselves, put limits on their passion, relinquish their desire for full humanity so they may succeed in a culture where limited, partial, and fragmented selves rule the day. But there is a price. For passion will not be boxed, and the tension created by tamped-down desire inevitably seeps through the seams in mutant forms or bursts the dam altogether, only intensifying society's desire to keep adolescents "under control."

So it is true: Adolescents who develop Christian identities really are menaces to society. An adolescent who knowingly shares in the freedom of God, who participates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, inevitably unmasks culturally accepted forms of domination, greed, and fear. This makes her dangerous to the dominant culture, and to human institutions like the church that depend upon these deceits to function. Faith founded on passion - from Joan of Arc to Martin Luther, Eric Liddell to Cassie Bernall - always exposes our cultural underwear and reveals our stripped-down emperors, even the Christian ones. Christian identity in young people reminds us, often awkwardly and overtly, that self-fulfillment without self-abandonment is a sham. Selfish desire is patently not worth dying for. True passion has a price.

The Church's Invitation to Oddity

Every culture is predicated on the expression of some passions, the exploitation of others, and the denial of still others. The very fact of living in human society requires passion to be artificially curtailed - starting from the time we are young. "It is a regrettable fact of our cultural situation," writes sociologist Peter Berger, "that capitulation to permanent dishonesty is often interpreted as a sign of 'maturity.' By contrast, the intellectual passions of rebellion are seen as simply a symptom of 'immaturity.'" For Berger, adolescence represents the "one moment in an individual's biography when questions of truth and authenticity are at least glimpsed," but this becomes neutralized when we pass off adolescents' rebellious passions as just "sowing wild oats." Adulthood, says Berger, "becomes a more or less comfortable settling down with the half-truths or even the organized delusions which are embodied in the various social institutions."

Berger maintains that adolescents' passionate refusal to accept a "comfortable settling down with half-truths" is a sign not of immaturity, but that the young person has reached a crucial decision point. Religious faith comes into play at the very point that this passion comes to the fore; in fact, Berger observes, Christianity by definition must be interpreted in light of "intellectual passion. "Growing more "mature" - i.e., capitulating to social dishonesty - stands in direct contradiction to the passion of faith, so "maturation" holds no advantage in the formation of Christian identity. Notes Berger, "The Christian faith itself forbids its being interpreted as the religious rationalization of a process of 'maturation.'"

The decision facing adolescents (and by implication, the rest of us), then, is whether to capitulate to the kind of dishonesty Berger describes as part and parcel of socialization. Just as the passions of human existence become explicit during adolescence, society clamps down on them. And since adolescents have to learn how to function in society, they have little choice but to relinquish their nascent search for passion in the name of "growing up," repressing the inner compass that directs them toward coherence, wholeness, and holiness.

As we will see, when youth ministry finds its moorings in the practices of Christian community - practices that have the force of the cross behind them - it challenges the social forces that clamp down on passion. Consequently, Christian practices heighten the tension between youth and their culture, and mark them as people who belong to a community "set apart." From the perspective of a culture of self-fulfillment, whether in the first or the twenty-first century, imitating Christ is unavoidably dangerous. In the words of Madeleine L'Engle, for Jesus the "rules don't hold," which accounts for his continuous appeal (especially for teenagers) as well as his deep subversiveness:

Read the Gospels. Read what this guy was really like. He had a strong personality, he told jokes, his friends were all the wrong people, he liked to go to parties. He didn't start a lepers' rights movement, he just healed lepers in his path.


Excerpted from PRACTICING PASSION by Kenda Creasy Dean Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prelude : parable of a parent
Introduction : youth ministry is not just about youth 1
1 Something to die for : the subversive power of passion 29
2 The world's greatest lover : the unifying power of passion 54
3 Longing for fidelity : if it stays, it must be true 73
4 Longing for transcendence : if it feels good, it must be God 93
5 Longing for communion : if it's sex, it must be love 116
6 Vessels of grace : Christian practices as scaffolding for faith 145
7 The art of "being there" : exhortation as a practice of fidelity 176
8 The art of awe : pilgrimage as a practice of transcendence 196
9 The art of intimacy : spiritual friendship as a practice of communion 222
Postlude : the passion of martyrdom : why youth ministry needs theology 246
Index 258
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