I attended the National Youth Workers Convention over the weekend in Atlanta. I’ve been going for many years — first as an exhibitor (for YouthWorks, who now owns the conference), then as a speaker for 10 years, and now as an exhibitor (again).
I went to a couple sessions this year, in addition to having many meetings. The new Theological Forums were a great addition, in my opinion. They’ve got to mature a bit, I think, but they’ve got real potential. I was supposed to be on some panels this year, but my name was removed from the list (more on that below).
Another session I attended was Tony Campolo‘s, “Recasting Theology for Postmodern Students.” Tony premised his remark on what I have called evangelicals’ “Paulophlia.” Evangelicals, he argued, see the gospel exclusively through the lens of Paul — specifically through the first eight chapters of Romans. Not coincidentally, this is also the conflict at the beginning of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, which I’m reading now and will blog about next week.
Campolo used this problem to introduce his concept of “red letter Christianity,” in which the words of the New Testament that are attributed to Jesus take precedence over the rest of the text. This is a hermeneutical principle that Campolo is introducing, and as a hermeneutical principle, it’s got some problems.
But that’s not what I’m thinking about today. I actually have a sociological observation, instead of a theological one:
As he often does in his talks these days, Tony talked about the differences that he has with his wife, Peggy, on the acceptance of homosexual sex in the church. But, after proclaiming that he’s traditional on this topic, he goes on to argue strenuously for the church to reach out to, and show grace and compassion for, gay and lesbian persons.
I’ve heard Tony give talks like this many times, often at the National Youth Workers Convention. And every time I’ve heard him do this, I’ve watched youth workers get up and leave his session. Until this year. Not one person left that I saw, and it was a room with several hundred people in it.
Not only that, I heard audible agreement with Tony’s support of love for gay persons, and even a couple applause lines.
I really cannot overstate the change in tone and tenor that I experienced in the room. These youth workers, unlike their peers even five years ago, did not accuse Campolo of going soft on sin, nor did they walk out in disgust.
My conclusion: As a whole, youth pastors at this conference are moving slightly to the left. Not radically, and there are exceptions, but as a whole, they are becoming more theologically sophisticated and, as a result, slightly more progressive.
My worry: That YS is retrenching theologically. For example, there was not one speaker on the 60+ speakers giving talks this year who is publicly supportive of gay marriage or ordination (I know several who are privately, but have not said so publicly). YS has announced a group of “thought partners” who will challenge them to grow, and I’ll be interested to watch what that group does — but it is noteworthy that the group is made entirely of evangelicals (except Mike King, who is post-evangelical).
As I mentioned above, I was supposed to be on some of the theological panels this year, but I was removed for being “too controversial.” At least that’s what I was told. I imagine that has to do with my position on GLBT issues, because I don’t know what else it could be.
But this I know with certainty: If Mike Yaconelli were running the show, there would be a variety of speakers on the roster, including those to his left. I am certain that Yac would have a pro-gay speaker or two, even if he didn’t hold that position himself.