Delighted: What Teenagers Are Teaching the Church about Joy
Kenda Creasy Dean, Wesley W. Ellis, Justin Forbes, and Abigail Visco Rusert
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). 176 pp. ISBN: 978-0802877802.
There are certain authors who, when they release a new book, you wait in eager anticipation because you know it’s going to reframe, or in some case, completely change, certain beliefs or practices you’ve previously held. One of those authors is Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. And her newest book, Delighted: What Teenagers Are Teaching the Church about Joy (cowritten with Wesley Ellis, Justin Forbes, and Abigail Visco), is just such a book.
This book comes out of the “Joy and the Good Life” project, sponsored by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and funded by The Templeton Foundation. One part of the project was focused specifically on “Joy and Adolescent Faith and Flourishing.”
Building on one of her previous works, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Eerdmans, 2004), Dean writes in collaboration with these three seasoned youth workers who are also in various stages of their PhD work in practical theology and all of whom were involved in the “Joy and the Good Life” project.
In one sense, one could argue that if you’ve read Practicing Passion, you could make some (by no means all) of the logical next steps concerning joy as an expression of truly enjoying God and one another as explored in <emDelighted. While that is true to an extent, the real value of Delighted is its practicality. Whereas Practicing Passion was a vital academic treatise on the necessity of the church to recognize the passion young people have and to connect that to the passion of Christ as expressed in the church, this book has a more practical side to it. Each of the authors offers helpful advice on what this looks like in practice, especially in the Intermezzos that follow each of the first three chapters. The one by Ellis, following ch. 1, is particularly instructive as it reminds us that joy in adolescence doesn’t always come from where we in youth ministry leadership want to think it does. True joy, regardless of its source, is a godly trait we can embrace as we help students understand God’s role in their lives.
Chapter 1 explores the connection between joy as a theological category and how adolescents are designed by God to experience joy in profound ways. Of course, the problem, as the authors state, is that much of what we’ve done in youth ministry actually blocks teenagers from experiencing God’s delight in them. Pointing to three key factors of joy (friendship, celebration, and confession), the authors help frame why joy is so essential to doing youth ministry.
Chapters 2-4 explore each of these factors of joy in detail. Building on the work of Andrew Root, ch. 2 specifically calls youth workers to reframe our understanding of what friendship with teenagers looks like. Citing it as a theological issue, the authors contend that we’ve made friendship a transactional relationship. This doesn’t invite vulnerability on the part of either party, but instead seeks to exploit the relationship as a way to help youth to encounter Jesus. Only as we learn what it means to truly honor the other as a friend while also valuing the differences of the other can we begin to befriend someone in the way of Jesus.
Chapter 3 is a punch-to-the gut as the authors contend that we in youth ministry have spent so much of our time trying to manufacture a facsimile of joy in an effort to draw teenagers in that we have failed to actually help them discover and experience God’s joy. Only as we assist teenagers in learning to truly celebrate God can we experience the intimacy of God.
Using the metaphor of foster parents, ch. 4 calls us to “step provisionally into young people’s lives as God’s surrogates in order to stand with them on a cliff where they need tangible signs of God’s grace” (78). Of course, none of us, no matter how gifted we may be, have the ability to offer this type of belonging on our own. All we can do is offer youth God’s hospitality, what theologian Miroslav Volf refers to as “a theology of embrace.” In this, we offer our love and time sacrificially to youth, even if they don’t join us in pursuing Christ. This is hard, especially when so many churches base success on the numbers of youth who attend, or the number of converts or baptisms. But true joy reminds us that even if youth never come to know Jesus or become a member of the church, even if they simply blow us off or even hurt us, our ultimate goal is offering open arms to youth, which demonstrates both our vulnerability to them but also models the openness necessary to be in true relationship.
Chapter 5 is the most pragmatic chapter in the book. Drawing on the concepts of the first four chapters, the authors present multiple snapshots of what this theology of joy looks like in practice. Drawing from real-life scenarios, we see the hard, often painful work of youth ministry borne out in ways that allow teenagers to encounter the God of joy.
The final chapter helps us name why doing all these things is so important. While doing youth ministry often involves suffering, we recognize that when we are truly enveloped in God’s joy, it “beckons us to the front line of suffering, to passion—to a love worthy of suffering” (115). This joy also frees us from anxiety, as we are no longer primarily concerned with achievement.
Delighted reminds us all that much of what we practice in youth ministry is counterproductive to creating a culture of joy in and among adolescents. In fact, many of the suggestions the authors offer seem on the surface counterintuitive to our training and experience. But that’s why they are so important. Its tone helpfully reminds us there is a better way, one that causes us to pause and to rethink what we’re doing and why, then invites us to join the authors in embracing a new reality that more closely mirrors the ministry of Jesus. May it be so.