1. Kenda Creasy Dean - Reclaiming Innovation in the Church
Luke: Welcome to the first ever episode of the Next Church podcast. I’m Luke Edwards, the Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. Until recently, I led a network of fresh expressions of church that met in bars, coffee shops, the homeless shelter and county jail in Boone, NC. In my new role, I get to help churches imagine what ministry can look like today in our increasingly post-Christian world. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with folks I’ve met along the way and wanted y’all to be able to join these conversations, so here we are. Episode 1, here we go. In today’s episode we talk to Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.
We talk about how her 2010 research on moral therapeutic deism relates to what we are seeing in the faith of young adults today. We look at innovation in church history, and how the church can reclaim social innovation as a part of our identity. I’m excited for you to meet Kenda Creasy Dean.
Kenda: I just got tired of young people who wanted to, you know, make the world better thinking they had to work for Tom’s Shoes instead of the church.
Luke: You’re listening to The Next Church podcast—a podcast in search of a more hopeful future for the church in a post-Christian world. Every week, we explore how the church is innovating in light of the rich wisdom and tradition of our past. This week’s episode is brought to you by the church development office at the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. I’m your host, Luke Edwards. Kenda, welcome to the podcast.
Kenda: Thanks. Great to be here.
Luke: I would love to start just having you tell us a little bit about your work over the past few years.
Kenda: Yeah, anybody who works with young people will not be surprised by this. This is, as somebody who has been in youth ministry, the first thing you do in youth ministry is try everything and then after you realize that all the things you thought would save youth ministry don’t, you get in the business of trying to invent new stuff and then you realize that the stuff you’re inventing isn’t really what they need but they, the people you’re actually serving know what they need better. And so you stop doing that and you start listening to other people and eventually you get into doing new things. I mean, a lot of people I think would agree that you ministry has always been the R&D department of the church. So it’s not surprising that the conversation on innovation and Christian social innovation comes out of people who have done youth ministry in some way or campus ministry, or worked with young people who are not yet jaded about how things ought to be. They are happily reimagining it so I’m very happy to follow that.
Luke: That’s great. So your book Almost Christian that came out about 10 years ago . . .
Kenda: (gasps) Is that right? 10 years ago? Oh my God.
Luke: (laughing) The research on moralistic therapeutic deism was even earlier than that, it was 2005. Could you say a little bit about what moralistic therapeutic deism is and how this research has aged? Are we still seeing similar trends today?
Kenda: Such a good question. Well, moralistic therapeutic deism is simply Christian Smith’s term for the, kind of the default religious position found among most American teenagers in this massive random sample of students or young people who were interviewed for that national study of youth and religion. It’s longitudinal. It started in 2005 and they went back and, I forgot exactly the years, but they basically go back every five years to that same group until they ran out of funding. So, it’s a common question about whether the data from that study, which was pretty influential, is still relevant. And, for one thing, there’s not been another study and there won’t be I don’t think, for another generation that is of that size. So we’re not gonna replicate that research. It does seem to still ring true with people. When I talk with people they immediately recognize it, but I’ll tell you what I think is the more significant finding is that as you know the pew research which looked at young adult faith that this is the research that has rolled out all of the data about the NONEs, you know, the people with no religious affiliation and how that’s particularly high among young adults. Well, if you go back 10 years those were the same kids interviewed for the National Study of Youth and Religion who were moralistic therapeutic deists. And the bottom line is having an understanding of God where God is nice, (moralistic), makes you feel good (therapeutic), and is deist (basically God is in the background and doesn’t really do much actively)--that’s not a very robust or sticky understanding of how God interacts in our lives. You can feel nice and feel happy without God, and if God basically stays in the wallpaper anyway, let me just live my life. And so, what it appears is that kids who held this default religious position, which was about 60% of them, grew up to become NONEs because they just sort of thought, well I don’t need this. I can just leave this behind easily. So it turns out that religion was easy to break up with. And as they got old enough to find that they could accomplish many of the same goals that they thought religion helped them get, they just shed the trappings. So personally I don’t see this as a huge act of apostacy because you get fewer social points these days from being religious that you used to. So I think the pressure to kind of fake it is not as strong as it used to be. I just think it’s basically people getting honest about where they’ve been for a long time. And it also says something bout the fact that we have really misconstrued, I think, what our job is in terms of faith formation. Instead of trying to make good church members out of people, trying to find ways to open people to an encounter with the living God. That’s a very different approach to how we do faith formation with young people. So it’s sort of shedding light on that in ways that probably are good for us. You know, I don’t think we’ve done good faith formation for a very long time.
Luke: Right. So you mentioned that youth ministry has been the R&D dept of the church. Is that kind of how you’ve gotten a stronger focus on innovation in your work?
Kenda: Absolutely. I mean, I just got tired of young people who wanted to, you know, make the world better thinking that had to work for Tom’s Shoes instead of the church. The church never even showed up on what would be part of young people’s vocational direction if they wanted to do good in the world. And so I feel like, there’s plenty of good data on this, young people in particular will say that the social institution most likely to accomplish good in our society is small business. I know that’s counterintuitive, but that’s where it is. And I think it’s partly because they feel like they’ve got some control of that sector a little bit more but, the long and the short of it is, young people were not in the church, where were they? They were doing a lot of entrepreneurial stuff trying to make good in the world, trying to change things socially. The long and the short of it is I think I chased young people into social innovation. And, I just am not willing to leave all of the good ideas to the secular sphere. I mean, there’s plenty in our own history, actually the church really started social innovation. You can trace lots and lots of social history and even product development and things to monasteries. And the entire enlightenment way of government was based on how monasteries were governed. So, we gave it away and I’d like to get it back.
Luke: So, say more about the monastic movement and innovation. In your school for congregational development presentation presentation this year you said that the monastery was a beehive of innovation.
Kenda: Yeah, it was.
Luke: So, say more about that because I think that’s something that we’ve forgotten.
Kenda: Oh, I know, we always think of the monasteries as being these conservative places but in this history of the church they were the reformers. True of convents as well. I mean, if you were a woman, in particular, and you wanted to do anything besides participate in whatever arranged marriage was there for you, you went to the convent. And so what was happening was the people who were creating these communities of the monasteries, they were trying to figure out ways to improve life for poor people, really, and they didn’t want to be a burden. For example, even back in Benedict’s day he joined the monastery with, I don’t know, 60 or 80 of his closest friends, and he was like a raging extrovert so he brought this whole community with him. But if they couldn’t figure out how to support themselves they were going to be a burden on the poor people and they were trying to help poor people. So they created sustainable agriculture basically. There are lots and lots of educational innovations, hospitals, hospices, all of these things were innovations started by Christians who were just trying to figure out ways that they could serve Christ given the needs of their communities. And then what would happen is, after they started the hospital they would look around and go, hey you know what, we probably need a priest or somebody to lead these people in prayer because this work is hard. So then they’d start a worshipping congregation. And we’ve sort of flipped that—we go plant the church first and then figure out what the mission is. But, historically it was the other way around. At least early. And there are lots of things, I think my favorite product developed in monasteries was cheese. So in Germany, in particular, muenster cheese means Monk’s cheese. And wine, obviously. And they sold the leftover communion wine to help support the monasteries. But also other kinds of daily work, they figured out how to make it sustainable and how to do it in different and new ways. How to reduce the stress on the poor, how to not be a burden on their communities. So there was a lot going on.
Luke: What I loved about that particular aspect of your presentation was how it breaks down the bifurcation of tradition in innovation and claims that innovation is our tradition.
Kenda: I love that. That’s really well said.
Luke: How did we lose that?
Kenda: Yeah, how did we lose that? I’ve tried to figure that out. I think a big part of it is it’s, okay, so we can blame modernity for a lot of things, but one thing that the modern period did was it created separate spheres for everything. So, instead of business and agriculture and education and the church all being one entity they all got specialized. And after we split up we sort of got suspicious of each other’s motives and, let me use business as an example. When you split business off from the church, the church doesn’t benefit from business’s way of interacting in the community. And business doesn’t benefit from the church’s concern for moral practice. And so they each kind of go their own way. And so I think a lot of what we’re dealing with right now is just the consequence of hyper-specialization and we’re in a period now where we’re trying to bring that all back together a little bit and people who work in churches are the first ones to say, you know, I don’t know a thing about social innovation, I wasn’t trained for this. This isn’t what churches do. Meanwhile, you’ve got people sitting in the pews who are scientists and tech wizards and businesspeople and they’re like oh my gosh, the thing that I am gifted at can be used for the glory of God, not just for my Monday through Friday job. So we’re in kind of an exciting period, I think, of bringing some of these spheres back together again.
Luke: So what does that look like on the ground for those spheres coming back together?
Kenda: There are so many people experimenting with this. There’s no one answer to that but you of all people know this given your work with innovative churches. But I love the stories of former students of mine who’ve gone out, a lot of them to do youth ministry and they get into it and they realize that if they keep doing youth ministry the way they’ve always been doing youth ministry they’re only going to be talking to people who are already in the church. There’s no way to get beyond that and evangelism doesn’t make any sense to anybody unless you can sort of walk the talk with them and meet people’s felt needs. John Wesley was all about that. I know many people who are turning youth ministry into opportunities for job training for teenagers who are working with, well the sustainable agriculture movement is something that churches are very into right now in terms of being able to transform a community lot into something that produces not just food, but also relationships between people in the community as they garden together. One of my favorite stories about this is a guy who, he and his wife co-pastored a church out in Washington on the Columbia River and the church was running out of money and they came to Matt and said listen, we have to cut your hours. We can’t pay you as much. And he was like, okay, I guess I’m going to find a summer job and then he found out that the Fish and Wildlife people were paying $8 a fish to pull pikeminnow out of the Columbia River because they threatened the salmon hatcheries. And the long and short of it is he turned that into a ministry with junior high kids. They all go fishing all summer long. He does a lot of Bible study on the boat and everybody gets paid by the Fish and Wildlife Commission and it’s turned into an entire curriculum on creation care. He’s got those kids out at the crack of dawn finding bugs for bate and all the way through the cycle. Meanwhile, the relationships are so strong that are formed there that the local police have figured out that Matt’s the go-to guy. If they’ve got a kid that’s in trouble the one person they can count on who will know them is Matt. And so it’s a job training program, sort of, but it’s also a faith formation, stewardship program, it’s relational. It’s got all of these things deeply embedded into the grain of the community in ways that a normal youth group never will be.
Luke: Hmm. So it brings elements of the church into a space that has been a secular role. Job training.
Kenda: Yeah, our church, the church that I attend is a little tiny church and we might have 50 people on a Sunday. You don’t really get a pass on doing missions just because you’re broke. Our church is broke all the time. And we’ve got a lot of college students in our county and we had to figure out a way to do some outreach that could pay for itself so we created a food truck. The long and short of it is that because of the food truck, our church knows people in our community that we just would never know otherwise. College students aside, we know farmers, we know zoning officials, we know every mechanic in town because the truck always breaks down. And these are all people who wouldn’t know us and we wouldn’t know them if we were not involved in the economic life of the community.
Luke: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is just seeing how many churches are broke, of all sizes really, that are living paycheck to paycheck in a way. And so I think an important part of the church moving forward in the United States is to find ways to be sustainable. So do you see a connection between social entrepreneurship as kind of a mission but also as a way of keeping the church present.
Kenda: Well, sort of. I want to qualify that by saying we see 3 reasons why people tend to get involved in Christian social innovation. The presenting reason is usually money. They often, well, for one thing they want to be able to pay for the ministry that they’re doing but sometimes they think this is going to fund the church. We have found that that is not true. It’s true, you have to be able to pay your bills, but it’s very unusual for a social innovation to have enough coal to fund other things in the church too. Every now and then that happens, but by and large, and this is true for secular social innovation too, it doesn’t pull in the profit margins that people who are not trying to do good in the world at the same time are going to get. And so it’s, I think it would be a disappointment to most people if they thought that this was going to solve their church’s financial problems. But what it does do is it creates a presence in the community that was not there before. Which allows for, sometimes it allows for more people to know about your church and they might want to come and be part of it. But I think more often it presents opportunities to be present as the church in new ways. So it’s possible that maybe your church is not going to continue to be a worshipping community that meets in one place all the time, but you’ve got a bunch of foodies in the church so the fact that it might become a roving dinner church or something like that is a possibility. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a church, it’s just a church in a new way. And you know, there was a time when funding through the offering plate was a social innovation. That was a solution to a problem that was created when the government stopped funding churches in the early 19th century. People freaked out—how are we going to fund this? So somebody said, I don’t know, let’s pass the plate. And it took them 70 years but finally that became kind of a general practice.
Luke: So you’re saying Jesus didn’t pass the plate?
Kenda: Jesus not only didn’t pass the plate, he didn’t even invite people to church.
Luke: (laughing) I think even that, we have such a short memory with forms of church that we forget that even that’s not that old.
Luke: I’m also curious where you’ve seen a church passing on their unique faith tradition through these forms of innovation. Not just Christian witness, but bringing their particular tradition into innovation. Have you seen that?
Kenda: I have, but I have to say that this is the most vulnerable part of the Christian social innovation movement. If we don’t pay close attention to faith formation as part of this, and are intentional about it, I think we risk a lot of cheap grace basically. Where it happens, it happens because somebody is being very intentional about saying this is part of who we are, so we’re going to learn what that involves and we’re going to practice things that people like us practice. It’s a youth ministry that is now a pie bakery. I know, because, isn’t everybody? It’ in Iowa and it was the result of an effort to address racism and social class divides in this particular community. And they also felt like girls needed some special attention. The youth minister charged with this had no idea what to do so she called the girls together and said, hey here’s the deal, here’s what we’re trying to address. What should we do? And they said I don’t know, let’s bake pie. And that’s what started it. So what they did was, they were very careful about the way they did this. They brought kids together after school. First of all, there was a long learning curve on this. But, they brought kids together after school 2 – 3 times a week. One night, of course, they were baking pies. But another night they were doing what amounts to ramped up confirmation. I mean, they were doing life skills and what’s interesting is there’s a common fusion of faith and life skills going together. I don’t know what your Sunday school experience was, but a lot of times those get broken apart, you know? Here’s the faith stuff, here we’re going to learn about Jesus. And then over here we’re going to talk about how to live our lives. These go together. And that’s a common thread because what they’re trying to do is address the felt needs of these folks. So that’s one way that they do that. I mentioned Matt and the curriculum on creation care and all the fishing Bible stories and all that kind of stuff that are part of his role. I mean, he’s a pastor so he’s intentional about that. And there are many other examples. There’s a coffee shop in Dallas that’s excellent at this. They have one of the best, in fact they were profiled in a confirmation study as one of the exemplary models. They have a very strange model, it looks a whole lot like the early church in terms of they have mentors and you get involved in practices and study and you serve the congregation, you serve the community all at the same time. It’s pretty sophisticated. The long and the short of it is there’s really good faith formation going on in that. But it’s our growing edge. That’s not the common way things go without intentionality.
Luke: Can you tell us a little bit about ministry incubators and what that is and what y’all are doing and offering?
Kenda: You know, we didn’t know that it was so hard for churches to think new things. And when we first started doing continuing education events for people who wanted to try new ideas we had a guy working with us who had an MBA and we walked out after one of the days of hatch-a-thon and he said (remember he was a business guy), he goes, you know this is kindergarten, right? And we’re like yeah. But then he said, I just can’t get over the power of a yes. People just need somebody to say yes, it’s okay to do ministry in different ways. Yes, it’s okay to have a financial plan. Look, churches have financial plans too and they don’t work, that’s why we’re having this conversation. But, to think about the money part, that’s not a high crime in Christian circles. It’s a necessary thing if the ministry is going to serve the people that it needs to serve. So, people just needed permission. And so this is what we do, we run around helping congregations or conferences or systems, schools sometimes, give permission to people to try some new things. And then we give them tools to try to make that happen. It’s really not rocket science. But it seemed to be the gap that needed to be filled.
Luke: Can you tell us what a hatch-a-thon looks like?
Kenda: Well, we called speed dating a business plan. It’s 3 days of pretty intense, “Here’s an idea. Oh you don’t have an idea? We’ll help you get an idea.” Because sometimes people come in with a problem they want to solve but they’re not real sure how to tackle it. Turns out people have way more to offer these sorts of things than they know they do. So we spend part of the time helping them clarify that then part of the time basically walking them through the steps of a business plan or a grant proposal depending upon how they approach it and by the end of it they’ve worked with a team to kind of sharpen things up a little bit. They have a sketch, they don’t have a finished business plan but they have a sketch of all the pieces they really need to be able to go back and pitch this idea to whoever it is that needs to give them permission or funding or volunteers or whatever it is. So sometimes they’re thinking about taking it back to talk to their churches about it, their administrative councils or whatever, sometimes they’re thinking about how they’re going to write a grant proposal or how they’re going to get some donations to help fund it. A lot of times they’re just trying to figure out how to clarify what would be an idea that we could actually address this problem with? Lots of people come in with their heart just bursting with wanting to do something to address something that is really deep on their hearts and they kind of smell a direction they can go, but they’ve never felt like they had the space or the permission to chase that dream down.
Luke: Right. I’ve been to one of the hatch-a-thons and I like the aspect of speed in it.
Luke: I mean, you think about how quickly businesses are innovating and how slowly the church is. You know, you go to a committee for a year.
Kenda: Yeah, we have to warn people it’s not a retreat. So, there’s lots of coffee and you’re gonna need a good night’s rest before you come. But you’re right, we’ve got to get people to not think themselves to death. We learn the most when we do things.
Luke: Well, as we close, who are you reading or learning from as a source of inspiration in this work?
Kenda: Ugh, see, here’s the thing: my day job is teaching so all I do is read stuff I’ve assigned to my class. Theology of Failure is what I’m reading right now. There’s a book by that name. And I’m fairly new into it so I can’t even remember who wrote this thing. I’m going to be teaching a con-ed course this spring on failure and all of the promises it has for us as Christians and as people coming up with new ministry. So, I also think it’s one of the most important spiritual practices we can have is learning how to fail, if not fearlessly, at least trusting that God’s got the net.
Luke: Right. That’s awesome. Yeah, at our annual conference this year we had an Epic Fail Award.
Kenda: Oh, that’s good.
Luke: We celebrated some pretty good fails.
Kenda: Well, and it’s not like I think the whole objective is to fail, but the thing is we’re so risk averse that we miss a lot by not wanting to do it. Okay, so there’s this guy named Jia Giang who has a TED talk about this. It talks about rejection therapy, that’s his name. But he talks about having 100 days of rejection. And, I was just in conversation with a pastor in Alabama who, they’ve created a whole, really robust, curriculum around this. And the first thing they challenged people to do was go fail 60 times.
Kenda: And, I’ll tell you what—that exercise will transform a congregation. And after that, you’ll try anything.
Luke: That’s awesome. Well Kenda, thank you so much for taking time to be on the podcast and thanks for all your work that you do for the seminary and the church.
Kenda: Thank you for leading the way and giving some of these new models some fresh air.
Luke: You’ve been listening to The Next Church Podcast, a podcast in search of a more hopeful future for the church in a post Christian world. Every week, we explore how the church is innovating in light of the rich wisdom and tradition of our past.
A special thanks to Kenda Creasy Dean for joining us. In the show notes you can find links to her book Almost Christian. In addition, you’ll find a link to her consulting group Ministry Incubators, and a link to the ted talk and book about the importance of failure. Our Music is Macarray Bay by Kevin MacLeod. Today’s episode and many other resources for the next church can be found at thenextchurch.org
If you have a question about the future of the church that you would like for me to research or have a suggestion for a future guest you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a voicemail at (980) 320-0568 and you might end up on the podcast.
We’ll see you next week and remember, God is making all things new!