Some Good News

This seems to be a week in need of some good news, as we grieve another fallen Christian leader and watch the incursion of negative campaign ads even into the usually civil political climate of Minnesota.

On Saturday night in Anaheim, after a couple splendid days with my son at Disneyland, I hosted a late night theology discussion at the National Youth Workers Convention. Shockingly, there were well over 100 in attendance. The conversation was civil (which it hasn’t always been) but robust. People talked theologically, they challenged each other, and I imagine that most everyone left thinking about something they hadn’t thought about before.

Talking to Marv Penner (another speaker) in the Santa Ana Airport, he said something with which I resonated. He, too, had a wonderful convention with many stimulating conversations. He said, “I think we can quit saying, ‘Youth ministry isn’t just about fun and games,’ because everyone now knows that it’s not.”

I don’t speak explictly about youth ministry at the conventions anymore, since I’m not currently a youth pastor — I think it would be disingenuous. Instead, I talk about more general things, like theology and the emergent church (which, of course, I hope have resonance with youth workers). In the six or seven years I’ve been at this, I can say that I’ve seen the conversation about youth ministry change qualitatively. Youth workers are more serious, more theological, more educated. It makes for great connections and friendships, that’s for sure.

  • e. v. love

    Tony, I enjoyed your workshops: post modernism and the emergent church. I did not make the late night theology discussion.I had asked a question at the first session that I have still been thinking about. Have you read “Soul Searching” the publication by the National Study of Youth and Religion? It seems that kids are overwhelmingly benign and conventional in their beliefs. There is so much talk about the flattening of of our culture and the demise of the ‘expert.’ Youth, however, seem more than willing to go along with whatever it is their parents believe without question. They may not particularly understand what it is their parents believe or be able to articulate it. But they are not that interested in straying from those beliefs at all. I am also not convinced about what pluralism will come to look like in America. You mentioned a couple of things: 1. 90% of American claim to be Christian, and 2. we live in an increasingly pluralistic world. Can both of these things be true? In Soul Searching it also reported that youth, while they give lip service to appreciating other belief systems, have minimal desire to explore what’s out there. There is no generation of “Spiritual Seekers” out there. It’s a myth.I realize that’s a lot. But what it comes down to for me is this: I am interested in the emergent church, I like a lot of the ideas of doing church in a new way. But I don’t think it’s some kind of magic bullet that kids are craving. I think to get them to do it would take just as much work, if not more, than a conventional youth group/church. Not that that is bad.

  • josh cook

    i concur. everywhere i turn in the youth world there are signs that youth workers have somehow matured as a group over the past few year. there has been a huge quailtative leap.i’m eager to see how this affects students ten or twenty years down the road.

  • James

    Tony – I think your leadership in the area of theological reflection has really helped us. Probably the thing I appreciate the most about Emergent is it’s devotion to theology. I think it’s helps all of us. It’s kind of silly, but several YP’s from my area travelled together and all day on Saturday we were looking forward to the late night theological discussion.Some of us were worried it would be like NASCAR, where some people only watch for the crashes – but there wasn’t much of that at all. It was robust and it was deep and I think it really revealed what we (youth ministers) are growing into as a calling and a profession.I hope that we continue to grow in this direction…thanks.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose that with the increased interest in theological pursuits; the notion might rise to, “quit saying, ‘Youth ministry isn’t just about fun and games,’ because everyone now knows that it’s not.” However, like flies on cow crap we will return to over simpified and ‘out-of-context-imported’ methodology. It is just way to easy for YP’s to adopt someone’s bag of trick then to do the hard work of theology. I hope we never get tired of empahsizing the hard work that we all need to do – it might be the only thing that keeps us from the gluttoous overglory of Disney like ‘ministry’?

  • Anonymous

    love all of your input at YS by the way…

  • Joel

    Tony, I agree. I remember that when I got together with you in Princeton over a year ago you mentioned (and I’m sure I won’t get this exact) that since you wrote Postmodern Youth Ministry you have seen it as somewhat of a central challenge for your life to help youth leaders realize that they CAN be theologically deep and not just have this simple, fun-filled youth ministry.Well done. Keep it up.

  • RA

    I was able to make the late night theology discussion in Anaheim. Didn’t have a headache when I got there, but did when I left. I’m not seminary trained. I have a journalism degree from a state university and somehow I ended up in youth ministry. I feel inadequate a lot of the time and am intimidated by my senior pastor at times. So when we had our weekly staff meeting this past Tuesday I shared about my experience going to the “late night theology discussion.” His response was, “What did you guys decide?” I said “not much”, meaning we didn’t come up with a definitive answer for anything. He replied, “That’s how it usually goes.” I felt about three inches tall because in my head I heard him say, “Those are useless because they have no grounding. We have our doctrine and theology that is the answer and those crazy emergent, postmodern, heretic-types don’t ever come up with anything.” I know middle and high schoolers aren’t usually great theological thinkers but I’ve grown tired of regurgitating answers that some guy decided was fact 500 years ago. On one hand I feel free to not be trapped in my denominations’ doctrine (in my personal life), but feel limited as to what I am able to pass on and reveal about my thinking.I really appreciate other leaders more interested in pursuing youth and having them think rather than pray the prayer. Especially since we decided last Saturday night that prayer is merely theraputic (not really, but we talked about it). Do I want lots of youth finding out about God and living out their faith on a daily basis? Heck, yes! But how do I communicate that I don’t want to be that superficial in getting lots of youth around to my senior pastor? Maybe I just wrote my own answer.

  • James

    RA – tell your SP we’re not trying to be answers, we’re trying to be questions. And then tell him a story about farming – it always worked for Jesus…lol

  • Robin

    Tony, thank you for challenging me in new ways during my time at YS. Our conversation over dinner not only helped me better understand Emergent, but my husband as well. Through our discussions you presented so many things about church that I so desperately crave. Thank you again for stretching my mind.

  • Friar Tuck

    I think part of this is due to the rapid increase in many of “hurting” issues, as well as the impotence that many youth ministers are feeling in effecting real change in kids lives. In other words, I see a change in the challenges that are facing youth ministry than there was 10 years ago.

  • Jeff

    Tony, I attended your late-night discussion at the Pittsburgh YS Convention in 2005, and I have to say, I was extremely encouraged by the depth and diversity of the discussion. My call to youth ministry stemmed from my own experiences in college, taking a few classes from an atheist professor who was somewhat antagonistic towards the Christian faith. I had read C. S. Lewis and a few others so I was able to handle a lot of his comments. But I was disheartened by a lot of other Christians in the class who would react emotionally to his attacks and then drop the class…rather than attempting to engage him intellectually and stand their own ground. This may be a bit judgmental, but I believe that kind of reaction is a poor witness and it only reinforces the stereotype that Christians are a bunch of mindless fundamentalists.It’s unfortunate that many traditional youth ministries have entertained teens into the faith and given them plenty of emotional and spiritual highs, but very little training (if any) to think theologically and critically. I don’t know what other people think on this issue…but I have often believed that it is more important to guide my teens in HOW to think about God, rather than WHAT to think about God. Challenging teenagers to prayerfully explore Scripture, encouraging dialogue among the students, even asking open-ended questions and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in their minds and hearts….Isn’t this ultimately a more effective way of preparing teens for a class like the one I had, rather than merely filling their minds with “orthodoxy”?


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