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Redefining Youth Ministry

Sunday school doesn’t cut it for today’s youth, says Professor Kenda Dean
2019 ICYM Design Lab

If you ask Kenda Dean, PhD '97, Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture, the most interesting and dynamic youth ministries are happening in churches that don’t have youth. It might seem like a paradox if your idea of youth ministry is Sunday school or Bible study. But the truth is that youth ministry looks a whole lot different than it did decades ago.

“The most interesting thing about youth ministry right now is that it has to do with the frank recognition that not only are young people leaving the church, but many of them were never there to begin with,” Dean says. “There are just as many youth in need of God, they’re just in different places. This means the church needs to change the way it thinks about working with young people.”

"The church needs to change the way it thinks about working with young people.”
Kenda Dean

For Dean, this means bringing ministry out of the church and into the spaces where youth already are. One application of this idea is social innovation, or an entrepreneurial way of looking at ministry, where the goal is to create something new that builds community. This can take the shape of educational classes for youth, a mentoring program, or offering a service like a free weight room or gym for kids who can’t afford to join one. “For most churches our students are serving, young people are in the community but not necessarily at church,” Dean says. “We have to reinvent forms of ministry with young people, ways of walking with them in their lives that don’t require them to come to youth group.”

In her classes, Dean focuses on practical community-forming tools her students can take with them when they leave. “I want them to have a theological lens on the work they do with young people, and ensure they’re not just re-enacting models of the past,” she says. “I want them to have tools in a toolkit that allow them to walk alongside people as representatives of Christ in their lives, and not just on Sunday mornings.”

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Kathleen M. O’Connor, Class of 1984

“Informal time in discussion groups with faculty and students discussing feminist theological literature altered my views, excited my spirit, and greatly influenced my teaching.”