DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The De Facto R&D Branch of Christianity

Written by: on March 31, 2020

There is something almost magical about the ages of 18 to 24. So many of life’s biggest decisions are made during that time. How people are impacted during that season will affect them for the rest of their lives. I’ve given my adult life thus far to this age group, and I love the potential of every single student. With an added bonus, college students are old enough that I don’t deal with their parents very often (though that is changing). We intuitively know that the future of the church is dependent on the next wave of youth. I want to suggest here why – and how – youth ministry is the best place to experiment with innovative approaches to ministry. 

To help build this case, I rely on the work of Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church) and Christian Smith and his collaborators (Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood). Dean will posit, “Youth ministry is the de facto research and development branch of Christianity, which is why attending to the faith of adolescents may help reclaim Christian identity for the rest of us as well” (6). Both authors will embody a “realistic concern” for the future of America’s youth, yet instead of pointing at “those kids” will acknowledge that the current generation in leadership is to blame (Dean, 3 and Smith, 4). Emerging adulthood is a mirror, suggests Smith, of our larger culture and a snapshot of the overarching values of society (7). As the students go, so goes our culture. And the reverse is also true: as the culture goes, so we will see in students. 

Translation and Testimony

Dean offers the practices of translation and testimony as effective means of working against moralistic therapeutic deism. Her work resonates so well with innovation theory. In a lot of ways, she is using synonyms or at least congruous ideas with empathy and user-centered design. Translation (over conquest) is about understanding, being present, and having a deep understanding of the problem (89-93). She also relies heavily on the incarnational nature of Christ’s work and the power of relational presence. These are the building blocks, not only for healthy ministry, but for innovative postures.


One of my mentors tells the story of a student showing him his key chain with key after key after key – almost resembling a proverbial janitor’s set of keys. This student says (as the story goes), “I am a facilities manager. I am trusted with access to each of these buildings, in charge of managing security with multiple people reporting up to me. What are you asking of me? To bring snacks to the Bible study?” My mentor realized he was not fully trusting students to lead, lead boldly, and lead significantly. Students must be part of the creation process of solutions. While Smith calls for a pause for “premature activism” (245), I’m suggesting reflective, but rapid prototyping, while co-creating with students themselves.

I am so thankful for my personal experience as a high schooler. I came to faith at 17 largely through the ministry of a youth pastor who treated us like adults in our desires, our relationships, our questions, and our ideas to reach our peers. We developed a “Saturday Night Live” event with (attempted) comedic sketches, musical pieces, and a host  – all from our own initiative. Dean agrees that the best source of learning and engaging others is the group of highly devoted teenagers themselves (192). Co-creation with students will be a necessary step for effective, fresh approaches to youth ministry.

A Practitioner

I want to take a moment to highlight a group in John McLarty’s neck of the woods (Texas Methodists) – the Center for Youth Ministry Training’s Innovation Lab. When they dream of embodying what Dean calls “missional imagination” (104), they describe their desire to innovate: 

What do we mean by ‘innovation’? We don’t mean just coming up with a new idea to replace the lock-in or a creative way of doing Sunday School.  Rather than seeking tweaks or incremental enhancements to existing models and processes, the Innovation Laboratory for Youth Ministry seeks to foster innovation that dramatically changes assumptions about the nature of youth ministry, upends expectations, and develops groundbreaking means and disruptive methods for ministry with young people in the American mainline church (CYMT).

These practitioners help churches reimagine youth ministry through their theological innovation process. They are one of the few sources that integrate theological thinking with a structured process of innovation. They are cut from the same cloth as Portland Seminary – reflective practitioners. 

Looking Forward

While Dean and Smith are helpful in helping create a realistic concern, one should note that Smith’s work was written mostly about the millennial generation and some of the concerns have shifted. Generation Z (or the iGen) are much more risk averse and the numbers of youth engaging in sex, alcohol, and drugs are decreasing at a statistically significant amount. As I read Dean, her heavy reliance on Smith at times seemed like a recapitulation of his work and left me thinking my time would have been better spent reading Smith’s other works directly. Regardless of those critiques, Smith (et al) and Dean are helpful voices for prioritizing youth as the defacto research and development of the church, as well as a careful analysis of the environment by which older generations are creating.


Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford, 2010).

Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hillary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford, 2011).

“Innovation Lab,” Center for Youth Ministry Training, (accessed March 31, 2020),

About the Author


Shawn Cramer

6 responses to “The De Facto R&D Branch of Christianity”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Shawn, I agree that it’s important to engage in the act of co-creation when it comes to young adults. A big part of this mindset is that it moves young adults away from simply consuming what’s given to them to giving them active participation in their faith. I was talking with the youth coordinator at my church in Hong Kong about the future of the youth group a while back. One of the things he’s mentioned is that we lack leaders in the youth group (most of the youth are middle schoolers now). I asked him if there are any potential leaders who could be given more and more responsibilities, but he said that he feels none of them are spiritually mature enough to begin any type of leadership. While I agree with him that at this life stage it may not be wise to give them huge responsibilities, at the same time there are plenty of things the youth can do that would begin to kickstart their leadership potential. I wonder what it would look like for this church to have student leaders who are actively creating with the church and how it would change the environment of the youth group.

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      Students tend to live up to (or down to) the bar we present to them. Great example from your local church, Dylan.

  2. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    As I consider your thoughts, I wonder to what benefit or detriment has there been to have demographically isolated discipleship models within the church, i.e., kids, youth, emerging adults, young adults, etc.? How are these various age groups able to envision their role in Kingdom work if they don’t really see those ahead or behind? Do your innovation models seek to incorporate inter-generational opportunities when it comes to “reflective, rapid prototyping, while co-creating with students themselves”?

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      Demographically isolated churches are unfortunately the norm in my city. There’s the hip, 20-something churches, the young family churches, and so on. The models don’t propose specific solutions (like inter-generational models), but promote a deep understanding from the perspective of the student, which would hopefully bring to surface the need for inter-generational discipleship.

  3. mm John McLarty says:

    I really appreciate the thoughts here, but I’ve noticed, both from my time in student ministry and as a senior leader that church members often speak about youth ministry as a vital aspect of the church and delight in seeing young people actively involved in worship and other ministries, but stop short of entrusting students with an actual set of keys or offer meaningful participation in decisions. Youth often feel separate and patronized instead of respected and valued.

  4. mm Steve Wingate says:

    “So many of life’s biggest decisions are made during that time.” This is potentially what could happen. I think the authors were attempting to say that the decisions were not being made until later in their twenties, but maybe beginning in the mid-twenties. Did you see something like that as a theme?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *