An Open Letter to YouthWorks

Let me join the chorus of voices welcoming Tic Long back to Youth Specialties, now part of the YouthWorks world.  Tic was nothing but gracious to me over my ten years of speaking at the National Youth Workers Convention, even though I know that some of my content resulted in him and the YS staff getting grief.  Tic took some chances involving me, including arranging debates over theological and social issues with guys like Duffy Robbins, Chap Clark, Fred Lynch, and, yes, Phil Chalmers (that last one is legendary).  Tic even patted me on the back after I bombed on the mainstage in 2008 (I wasn’t the first general session speaker he’s seen bomb).  Thanks, Tic.

In November, I wrote about my own unique vantage point on the YW acquisition of YS.  Now I’d like to leverage that vantage point to make one request of YW (and, by extension, YS).  But first, a story…

The last time I saw Mike Yaconelli was memorable for me.  I wasn’t in Yac’s inner circle, but he was always extremely kind to me.  He was in Minneapolis to speak at an event for Youth Leadership in 2003, the same year he died.  He let Doug Pagitt and me know that he’d be in town and that he’d like to treat us to a beer and a cigar.  So we took him up on his offer and met on Saturday afternoon at the Calhoun Beach Club — I could go there today and show you the table at which we sat; that’s how well I remember it.

At the time, YS was publishing books by emergent authors, an arrangement created by then-publisher, Mark Oestreicher.  Yac was taking some heat for that, particularly from the old guard at YS — some of the long-time speakers and authors.  Doug and I had heard that, and Yac confirmed it.  He said that his son, Mark’s, work on contemplative spirituality was also irksome to some of YS’s more conservative constituency.

But then — and I remember it like it was yesterday — he said, “YS has always been about pushing boundaries.  That’s why we started it.  It was never really about youth ministry; it was always about radicalizing the church for Jesus.  It just seemed to us that youth ministry was the way to do that.”

He continued, “I’ve been afraid that we’re losing our edge, becoming too mainstream.  So, you know what, if YS goes down in flames because of what you guys write, that’s great!  At least we’ll be true to ourselves.”

That sentiment, I think, was the impetus for Marko publishing my books and Tic inviting me to the NYWC.  They got some angry mail for that — I remember one letter from a church’s board of elders telling Yac that YS was apostate because they let me speak — but I hope it was worth it.

So here’s my open call to YouthWorks:

Theology Really Matters to Youth Ministry.

In other words, I hope that as YW/YS evolves, they will keep fostering the theological dialogue that YS has been known for.  Have people from the left, the right, the center.  Have evangelical stalwarts and feminist liberationists.  Invite theologians-of-color.  Get mainliners in the mix.

I know that YW/YS will continue to offer the best mission trips on the planet, as well as the finest in nuts-and-bolts training for youth workers.  I just hope there will still be a place for robust theological discussion outside of the academy, and YW/YS is uniquely poised to be that place.

It’s kind of funny to write an open letter because I know Paul and John at YW well — they’ve both served as my mentors, pastors, and friends (please, don’t hold that against them).  So I don’t really need to say this publicly — I could just email it to them.  And I’m not doing it to call them to account for anything, because I imagine they’re on the same page with me on this.  Really, this “open letter” is a foil get a chance to say to everyone involved in youth ministry: theology really matters.

I write this from the Montreat Conference Center, where I’m spending three days among youth workers talking about the theology and youth ministry, and from this vantage point, I’m even more convinced this is so.  Youth ministry as a profession is maturing, and that’s a good thing.  Let’s keep the theological conversation at the forefront of that maturation.

  • Mike Campbell

    I never met Mike Yaconelli, but really miss him. YS conferences were a changing agent in my life and ministry. My first conference was in St. Louis right after his death. At the time of my first YS conference I have never read any of Mike Yaconelli articles or books, but since then Mike’s & YS’s work has been a great influence on my life. I hope Mike’s influence will continue as they merge into YS.

  • todd

    If I can read between the lines,Tony, it sounds like you agree with Yac’s assessment that NYWC might have been “slipping.” If that’s true, I think I probably agree with you, at least over the past year or three. The mainstage had grown increasingly homogeneous, and much of the open dialogue seems to have waned…at least the in terms of the “sanctioned” stuff.

    I thought it was just me…maybe my age or the number of years I’ve been in Youth Ministry had burned me out. Or maybe the number of times I’d attended NYWC had just made me cynical or over-critical (or both). But then I’d have one of “those” conversations again, and learn that I wasn’t alone. Many of us were/are still talking in hallways and over coffee (or other beverages)…and perhaps that’s the way it should be.

    You seem to suggest that the Conversation (capital-C) needs to keep going if Youth Ministry hopes to continue growing and maturing. I, for one, couldn’t agree more…I would love to see the Conversation re-ignited. And I, for one, am truly excited to see what comes of the YW/YS cocktail.

  • Jim

    Thanks Tony. Good word. Let’s keep the theo convo going. There is so much to explore and enrich us a people in ministry (however that is defined).

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  • Lars Rood

    Tony- Good words. I think that their is a need for more theological discourse. Thank you for both being transparent and also graciously admitting that someone took a chance on you. My hope is that YS/YW continues that tradition with the desire of drawing all people closer to God.

  • Kirk Moore

    “Have people from the left, the right, the center. Have evangelical stalwarts and feminist liberationists. Invite theologians-of-color. Get mainliners in the mix.”

    4 sentences that brightened my day. Thanks, Tony.

  • Steven Burleson

    Thanks for this Tony.

    I remember my first year in Youth Ministry and my first year at the NYWC. It was 2003. I don’t know if I understood it at the time, but hearing Yac give his last talk before his death and listening in on a few of his sessions, well, that was the beginning of my emergence. Over the next 6 years I encountered people like Mark Yaconelli, Marko, Tic, Tim Conder, Phyllis Tickle, etc…(Big Thanks to YS for bringing in the talent!); all of them changing the way I thought about Youth Ministry and the Church. I also have to thank you, Tony, for inspiring me to begin thinking Theologically… it has made all the difference! Keep on keepin’ on my brother.

  • Mike King

    Couldn’t agree more Tony. I love your Yaconelli story, that is the Mike we loved and admired… fearless when he needed to be.

  • Jeff Moulton

    Wait – did I read that right? Some church wrote to Yac, stated that YS was apostate (is it even possible for an organization to be apostate?) because of inviting you to speak?

    I think I have a great ministry idea! Can you find out what that church’s criteria are for apostasy? Then we can build a ministry around violating all of those criteria! We’ll save the world, I tell ya’!

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  • Matthew L. Kelley

    That’s really awesome. I’m glad to see Tic back at the helm.

    I had a rather unpleasant battle with Phil Chalmers, too. Apparently my 100 word blurb in Youthworker was powerful enough to “ruin his ministry”. What great compliments insecure pricks like him pay to others with such accusations!

  • Tash

    Tony – I’m grateful for your words. I’ve spent a large part of the day reading plenty of dialogue on these events (Mike King and Lars Rood included – good job lads, wish I was with you in these days!)

    One of the things that stands out to me – apart from just coming out of a conversation here in NZ about just this issue of continuing theological conversation and taking risks, moving forward… , is that you have managed to honour several of the key people and elders of this tribe of youthworkers. Your words about Yac remind me of how he leapt off the pages to me and really inspired me to step outside the model I was leading, Marko – who does continue to develop and identify key theological and topical issues that need to be addressed in youthwork and Tic, who is a radical encourager, cheerleader and anchor in the youth ministry world.

    I really hope that this season ushers in a new frontier. Being in the States for 5 months this year in the YS/YW community has spotlighted for me many of the rising voices who are eloquent with something substantial to bring to the table for us all to chew on, wrestle and engage with.

    May it be a really, bloody big table ever with open chairs for all those in this family of youthworkers, motley crew as we are.

  • plhink

    Does this statement bother anyone?

    “YS has always been about pushing boundaries. That’s why we started it. It was never really about youth ministry; it was always about radicalizing the church for Jesus. It just seemed to us that youth ministry was the way to do that.”

  • Mike King

    No, plhink it doesn’t bother me. It is a holistic approach of thinking ecclesiologically opposed to compartmentalizing youth ministry. Yac longed for a church faithfully living out the Great Good News of Jesus. Is it really enough to have a good youth ministry if it is not enmeshed within a broader faithful and yes radical church community? Yac saw a bigger picture.

  • Don

    Yes, plhink, it does. You are correct in being bothered by it. A youth ministry organization should be about youth ministry. We don’t need to radicalize anything, just spread the good news of Jesus dying for our sins and doing everything to glorify God and not ourselves.

  • Joey

    Don, with all do respect, if the Good News of Jesus isn’t radical then I’m afraid your gospel is neutered. Youth Ministry is probably the best place in our culture to truly grasp the girth of Jesus message. If a ministry organization isn’t calling people to the Way of the Kingdom (which is way more radical than what you seem to be describing) then it isn’t doing God-centered ministry. It is false to equate this with glorifying “ourselves”.

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  • Don

    Let me restate myself then. I am concerned that too many are being radical for radicals sake. I know fully well that the Gospel is radical, it is a scandal to the unregenerate masses. I do not confuse what you are referring to as self glorifying. I am referring to this underlying trend for many to be different in some quasi-rebellious move and jumping on the wagon of a trendy “new” Christianity without a true conversion and making a bad image for others with a true faith. I was agreeing with plhink that the statement “It was never really about youth ministry; it was always about radicalizing the church for Jesus. It just seemed to us that youth ministry was the way to do that.” comes off as if they wanted to do something radical for the sake of it and ‘oh by the way this youth ministry stuff seems like a convenient place for doing just that.’ And one more note from me. The “girth of Jesus message” is applicable and relevant for people of ALL demographics and the message is the same for EVERYONE, repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ alone, for the Kingdom is at hand.

  • Julie

    Have you guys seen the movie To Save a Life trailer? It looks pretty incredible – going to be a great film on the impact of youth ministry in teenagers’ lives. Their website also provides a lot of ways to get our kids involved in the fun stuff like contests and grabbing cool gear, and serious stuff like teen suicide prevention. So great!

  • Don

    While I cannot deny the inspirational factor of this movie and the possibility that it could encourage a few to actually do some good, it is not youth ministry material. There is no Gospel message in it. It advocates teen sex and alcohol consumption. The only thing it really speaks against is social classes and helping the lesser among us. Joey above stated “If a ministry organization isn’t calling people to the Way of the Kingdom (which is way more radical than what you seem to be describing) then it isn’t doing God-centered ministry”. By his definition (and I agree with him), this film doesn’t fit the criteria for youth ministry.

    but it does have a really cool website.


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