Princeton Seminary | Professor Kenda Dean Discusses Christian Social…

Professor Kenda Dean Discusses Christian Social Innovation, Youth Ministry and Theological Chutzpa

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When you talk to Kenda Creasy Dean, PhD '97, Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, her passion for adolescent spiritual formation and youth ministry shines through. The author of numerous books on youth, church and culture, Dean argues that young people are essential for churches to thrive.

“The church cannot be whole without everyone,” she says. “So if an entire demographic is mostly MIA, something is wrong.”

Among other things, Dean views youth ministry as an “innovation lab” for the church. Her most recent book, Innovating for Love led the Wesleyan Impact Partners to name Dean the first recipient of the Distinguished Locke Innovative Leader Award (2024), thanks to her impact on innovation across the Wesleyan ecosystem.

“Young people no longer consider being part of a church important to faith, but they long for connection and purpose,” Dean says.

Her research suggests that churches that are willing to innovate also tend to be more open to young people. She views innovation as participating in the “new thing” God is doing – and loving people well requires us to innovate. “Christians aren’t called to have great ideas, we’re called to have great love,” she says. “Our job is to participate in God’s great ideas, not con God into blessing ours. We’re not going to out-innovate God.”

For that reason, Christian social innovation is different from innovation in big tech.

“In Silicon Valley,” Dean explains, “innovation aims for ‘bigger, faster, stronger’. But Christ’s story is about God becoming human – God got slower and more vulnerable.” To Dean, this suggests that the most faithful innovation might be to resist our culture’s bias toward growth and speed, and “slow down, de-center ourselves, and become more present to one another.”

Dean thinks Princeton Seminary welcomes innovative work. She points to a current emphasis among her colleagues to make research more accessible to the public, resulting in numerous imaginative faculty projects. She calls Princeton Seminary’s Institute for Youth Ministry (IYM), led by the Rev. Megan DeWald, “one of the R&D departments of the Seminary,” along with the Farminary, directed by Dr. Nathan Stucky. Both have piloted practices that the Seminary now uses across the curriculum. The IYM’s Certificate in Youth and Theology, for instance, was Princeton Seminary’s first foray into online education more than a decade ago. The Farminary originated the Seminary’s Table-to-Table groups to strengthen connections across the Seminary community.

Dean believes that Princeton Seminary’s work with young people has been critical to its attitude toward innovation. The Zoe Project (2017-2021), which Dean directed, was one of the Lilly Endowment’s original “innovation hubs” to bring churches and young adults together in ministry, followed by The Log College Project (2017-2022, directed by Rev. Abigail Rusert) on innovation in youth ministry. Those grants were followed by five more – all focusing on young people, innovation, or both – that Dean currently oversees or has helped guide.[1]

Dean began her professional journey teaching at Ball State University, then received her MDiv at Wesley Theological Seminary to become a pastor. “I had great youth ministers growing up and I felt called to pay it forward,” she says.

In 1991, Dean started her PhD at Princeton Seminary with a new professor, Richard Osmer (now the Ralph B. and Helen S. Ashenfelter Professor of Mission and Evangelism Emeritus), who was interested in youth ministry. At that time, she says, youth ministry was lacking in “theological chutzpa.”

“Youth ministry mostly focused on keeping kids entertained,” Dean explains. “Few people were talking about it theologically. I thought a PhD might help.”

Though the IYM has been a fixture at Princeton Seminary for nearly thirty years, when Dean graduated in 1997, the job of teaching youth ministry didn’t exist in most seminaries. “I never heard of a seminary position focusing on youth ministry,” she says.

She served as the IYM’s founding director from 1994-1997, and then as Princeton Seminary’s first Professor of Youth, Church and Culture. In 1995 Princeton Seminary added a two-year Master of Arts focusing on youth ministry, and a dual degree program so students could simultaneously complete a Master of Divinity and Master of Arts focusing on either Christian education or youth ministry.

“PTS decided to treat ministry with young people as a vocation like any ministry,” Dean explains. “We became a place where people openly championed ministry with young people and gave it theological backing. Other seminaries took note and began similar programs.”

Dean notes that youth ministry leaders at Princeton Seminary have influenced more than youth ministry. The Revs. Dayle Rounds and Abigail Rusert, for instance – both former IYM directors – are now, respectively, associate vice president for advancement and associate dean of continuing education at Princeton Seminary. Former IYM director Dr. Chanon Ross now serves as a program director at the Lilly Endowment, Inc., which funds much of the research in youth ministry today.

When asked to reflect on her experiences at Princeton Seminary, Dean says, “I’ve felt a lot of freedom here to explore necessary subjects that weren’t always on the academic radar. I’ve been fortunate to have the leeway to experiment and try new things.”

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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.”