Book Review: Delighted: What Teenagers Are Teaching the Church about Joy

Delighted: What Teenagers are Teaching the Church About Joy by Kenda Creasy Dean, Wesley W. Ellis, Justin Forbes, and Abigail Visco Rusert. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, MI. 2020. Total pages: 128.

If you had to pick three words to describe the feelings you get from working with young people, what three words would you pick? What three words would your young people pick to describe how they think about church, faith, and following God? Would “joy” make either list?

A group of veteran youth leaders wrote Delighted to challenge the reader to consider placing joy at the very center youth ministry. Theologically rich and profound, the book’s strength, youth leaders are nudged to reimagine how to minister to young people. What you won’t find is a collection of youth ministry program ideas or quick tips, but this book quoted studies, shared research, and gave a heavy focus on theology. A casual reader may disengage easily. This isn’t a weakness so much as a “heads up.”

The authors: Kenda Creasy Dean—pastor and professor, Wesley W. Ellis—veteran youth worker and associate pastor, Justin Forbes—director of a college youth ministry program, and Abigail Visoc Rusert—director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, have collaborated to flip the script in youth ministry. Too often youth ministry success has been measured by a youth pastor’s charisma or creativity and events that results in numbers—how many kids attend or made a decision for Christ. The authors suggest a shift. What if “joy” were the focus?

The authors posit that the main role of the youth worker is to help a young person see God as someone who delights in them. Hence the book title Delighted. The leader’s role is to help the youth notice and name these moments of joy, and then to participate in them. This happens by focusing on three practices: friendships, celebration, and confession.

FRIENDSHIPS—For friendships, the youth worker can reflect on how closely their lives have intertwined with the young people they serve. Without neglecting responsible adulthood, this underscores the “importance of appropriate, faithful, nurturing friendships between adults and young people for faith formation” (page 22). This attempts a reclamation of friendships with teens because, “What they need, and what they long for, is friendship-relationships with people who genuinely delight in them, and thereby help them discover and enjoy God’s delight in them” (page 32). When we encounter God as our friend, not someone we just know facts about, and see how He delights in us, our faith can ignite into an expression of joy. Accept the challenge to rethink the practice of friendship in youth ministry, “And start delighting in young people, inviting them to delight in the joy of God’s friendship in them” (page 32).

CELEBRATION–Youth workers can easily believe they play a major role in manufacturing moments of joy. However, joy comes from God, not from youth workers. This means youth workers need step back into the space of celebrating what God does rather than one’s ego. Instead of being “joy producers” youth leaders can be “joy responders” (page 64). The authors continued, “We help young people recognize God’s movement toward them instead of mustering our energies to move them toward God” (ibid). This shift in focus sees youth ministry as “less a workshop for creating well-adjusted, thriving adults and more a crucible for celebration, where the God of joy who is working in young people’s lives is noticed and claimed” (page 65). This describes the youth worker’s role in this model. Help youth notice and name joy in their lives before they even have the tools or vocabulary to do it. This can be very liberating because, “Youth ministry is not a process of mixing and adding ingredients in just the right amounts. We can let God be the master chef when it comes to that. . . . We’re the amateurs taking cues from the master” (page 68).

CONFESSION–This section revolves around the “Theology of the Embrace” which has four acts: Open Up, Wait, Close Your Arms, Release. This metaphor illustrates our connection with God as He invites us into an embrace and as a model for how we can do ministry with youth. We need to confess how we have gotten it wrong more times than we’ve gotten in right in ministry. This humble posture of confession sets the youth worker free to reflect on one’s own embrace with God. The authors wrote, “Confession opens our arms to God, inviting God to restore the connection between human and divine” (page 88). They added, “Confession resets our ministry’s reliance on God and removes us from the center stage” (page 88). Confession, followed by forgiveness, gives us permission to love again without fear. “This frees us to fail again and again, compelled to open our arms not by fear or the need to validate or redeem ourselves, but by love” (page 89). What a beautiful expression to ponder confession!

We live in a world that tries to manufacture happiness. Even youth leaders have been guilty of this through planning concerts/events/retreats to stimulate teens (manufacture joy) rather than ground them in an authentic expression of joy. All this is a poor substitute for the real joy God has in mind for us. And we all know it. Many teens and youth leaders keep looking for the next “happiness fix” to keep them going. They look for joy, but do they find it? Teens are driven by arousal and the desire to feel alive. Youth ministry has too often come up short, trying to create it rather than helping young people discover the God who takes great joy in them. As a result, a generation of teens “share a bland, anaesthetized attitude toward religion. They’re not against faith, but it doesn’t matter much to them” (page 7). Can we do better? Is this the result we want?

What is the solution? What if we paused long enough to reflect on what youth ministry might look like if we as youth leaders looked for ways to help young people celebrate the God who delights in them? What if we focused more on God’s work than ours?

Is this book for you? Do you desire to experience more joy in ministry? Do you want to help young people delight in discovering that God delights in them? Are you open to re-assess how you think of friendships, celebrations, and confession? If so, then you will be awakened and delighted as you read this book.

Pedro Perez

Pedro Perez, DMin, serves as the director of Pathfinder and Adventurer Ministries for the Florida Conference.