A Thought About the National Youth Workers Convention (#NYWC)

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).

Tony Campolo

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.

The Late Mike Yaconelli

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.

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  • Frank

    Perhaps there was no one there who publicly stood up for gay marriage or ordination for the unrepentant homosexual because the writing is on the wall: there is zero scriptural support for these positions. After all not even you have been able to provide that despite being asked repeatedly.

    • JoeyS

      Frank, just because you refuse to read any of the suggested materials that answer your question does not mean that the support is not there. You have just blindly refused to check it out for yourself.

      • Lock

        You literally have to do interpretation back flips to dismiss how anti-gay Scripture is Joey. You literally have to dismiss so much of the Bible to be pro-LGBT.

        • JoeyS

          You literally have to dismiss incredible swaths of socio-cultural and linguistic themes at play to be so confident in your assertion that scripture is anti-gay. I’m not even contending that it is pro-gay. I’m simply suggesting that the majority of evidence suggests a lot more ambiguity than you or Frank are willing to admit. For instance – Show me one piece of evidence that 1st century people of any race, language, or creed even had the concept of sexual orientation in their language or worldview. You can’t, because they didn’t. It was an altogether foreign concept. Scripture deals, more specifically, with practices not orientations. So as soon as you start talking about orientations your already speaking extra-biblically.

          • Frank

            So gay couples didn’t exist in the first century only gay sex? Is that what you are implying?

          • Lock

            Joey. Sex is an act that can be controlled. Sexual orientation is a desire/mind-set that a person can be born with or developed into.

            I agree that “sexual orientation” is a modern (or postmosdern) concept. Alcoholism is also a modern concept.

            There are provisions against drinking in the bible. There are provisions against sexual behavior.

            Just because you have a homosexual sex orientation doesn’t mean that you are not sinning when you engage in homosexual sex.

            I am sexually oriented to desire women other than my wife, but the bible calls that act adultery.

      • Frank

        Joey please post your scriptural support so we can be educated if you can. It should be so simple right?

        • JoeyS

          Yes, I am suggesting that there is no concept of sexual orientation in the language of scripture. If you cared as much about scripture as you claim then you would know this.

          Not a word in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew can be found denoting orientation. Arsenokoitai – the word oft translated homosexual is an active word. It is from two word parts arseno – the plural for male and koitus – sex. Even the most conservative scholars concede that this word’s meaning is fuzzy and get’s translated “homosexual” because of its pairing with malakos or “soft-touch/effeminate.” It could as easily be translated male prostitute. It is, and there is large consensus on this, not a 1 to 1 comparison to “homosexual” but we have no word in our language that captures the same meaning.

          And what of our transgendered brothers and sisters? Are they allowed to love? The Bible is not silent on these people and seems to be very much OK with their existence. To boot, it is silent about whether or not they are allowed to love.

          If you truly respect scripture I imagine you would have actually looked into this yourself rather than just let it affirm your biases. The narrative of scripture is one that continually breaks down barriers and frees people from oppression, even those who are deemed sinful by the religious folk. The language is beautiful and complex and won’t be held down by people who would rather condemn than show mercy.

    • Aph

      Oh, now I see. I’m new here Frank and I didn’t realize you were the resident “them there gays is powerful-sinful” guy. It’s your job to stomp around on any post remotely related to LGBT issues and holler about them sinful, sinful gays.
      When cornered you prevaricate, move the goal posts then run to another article.
      You’re not helping anyone. You’re not fostering understanding or furthering discussion. You bang your drum to that one beat that you decided is true.

      • Frank

        Aph I am glad I have a new fan.

        As long as anyone errantly suggests that homosexual behavior is not sinful I will continue to ask for scriptural support for their position. It is unconscionable that anyone would knowingly deceive someone by telling those lies.

        So how about you? Can you provide scriptural support that God condones and blesses homosexual unions? It would be great because no one yet has been able to.

  • J.T.

    I agree that there was definitely a sense that the crowd is moving left, and that YS is timid at best about it. You’re right- Yac would have loved to have people rock the boat. I intentionally listed you on my evaluation for Seminars and Big Room Sessions.

    Ultimately, though, they have to make money on these events going forward. In that regard, they can’t go wrong playing it safe. Especially when it seems clear that those on the left are more tolerant of conservative views than vice-versa.

    • Frank

      JT I think people are tolerant of structurally supported views even if there are disagreements around it, i.e. baptism, evangelism, etc…

      One thing that no one has ever provided is scriptural support that God condones homosexuality and blesses it. Even if there was a hint of support, tolerance would result.

  • Jim

    Tony, thanks for your post. I found your statement that YS is retrenching theologically interesting, especially since you seem to indicate that the whole rationale for that position is the issue you perceive they are taking on gay marriage (based simply on your perception that no speaker OPENLY affirms gay marriage. Seems to me you’re accusing them of doing what you hate when others do it to you — namely assuming where a person (or organization) is theologically based on one position they hold.

    I wonder why we are so quick to jump to conclusions about other’s intentions without actually taking the time to dialog with them first? I think I know Mark and Tic well enough to know they would be upfront with you.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Jim, I was only using the GLBT issue as an example, the most pressing issue in the current church context, and one that Yac would not have avoided.

      I have talked to YS staff about this, and they have been upfront with me. I waited to post this until I had and until the convention was over. I want nothing but the best for YS, but I will keep pushing that crowd theologically, even if only from the sidelines.

      • Jim

        Fair enough then. I don’t know where they fall on the issue. And truthfully, I am not sure as an organization that they need to take a stance…they’re not a denominational body, but rather a business. You’re right…Yac would have addressed the issue, but those days are behind us now.

        Keep up your prophetic voice. Even if I’m not always in agreement, I appreciate your efforts at pushing the rest of us to think. :-)

        BTW, since you mentioned the Theology forums, can you expand what you mean when you say they need to “mature a bit”? I’m doing my own evaluation of them this week as we think about their future.

        • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

          I TOTALLY agree that YS should not a position on that — or any — theological issue. But they should provide a safe place for conversation for people on both sides.

          Did you notice that they no longer have a Catholic priest offer mass for Catholic youth workers on Sunday morning?

          • Archie Honrado

            There was a Catholic Mass-, Saturday-it wasn’t at the hotel because there was one two blocks down. When I led the Guided City-Prayer Walk a few of our walkers when we passed by the church said they were attending the Mass.

            • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

              Thanks. Glad to hear that.

      • http://kylejnolan.tumblr.com Kyle Nolan


        Do you think it’s really a sign of the crowd moving left, or just being tired of fighting about it? And in light of all the bullying-related suicides, even Focus on the Family and Exodus are talking more about compassion and grace. But that doesn’t mean they’re moving left.

        And I don’t know whether I think the crowd is actually becoming more theologically sophisticated. It was good to see that the theological forums were packed (and that the apologetics seminars weren’t, so much), but there were still multiple people in the forum I attended that mentioned how the panelists were “cerebral” because “that’s what theologians do.” When I hear things like that–and I don’t think it’s a small contingent–I worry that youth ministers who avoid being “cerebral” are teaching youth, implicitly and explicitly, things they’ll need to unlearn later if they’re going to move toward healthier understandings of and relationships with God (and themselves). This is a little off topic, I know, but I think there’s still a strong stream of anti-intellectualism there.

        • Jim

          Kyle, I agree that anti-intellectualism is a major issue. In fact, during the theology forum on “Theological Issues Impacting the Christian Formation of Adolescents” that was the primary issue I brought up. When the adults are afraid of thinking about/discussing theological issues, then youth will never be able to safely ask those types of questions. And when that happens, you’ve pretty much guaranteed they will either be stunted in their faith development or simply walk away from a faith they believe can’t stand up to critical inquiry.

  • Russ

    Tony, thanks for your thoughts on NYWC. As a liberal/progressive/mainline/whatever-label-you-like youth minister, it has really worn me out over the years to attend events where I was clearly not in the target audience (or even close to it). It drove me to WAY smaller, less flashy denominational and ecumenical gatherings that have been getting my continuing ed dollars and days over the last few years. I’ve heard conflicting stories about the direction NYWC is headed, and your post helps me get a handle on what I should expect if I decide to give it another shot.

  • http://jpserrano.com Jeremy Serrano

    Tony, I remember you being “controversial” 8 or so years ago. You caught a lot of hell from the crowd at a workshop. I forgot the topic, but remember that some real conservative folk were questioning your Christianness.

  • http://www.theseattleschool.edu eron

    Hi Tony,
    Thanks for posting about this, and thanks for continuing to go to (and wonder about the state of) NYWC. Your “controversy” several years ago in a workshop at NYWC rocked my world and I haven’t been the same since… in a good way!

  • http://www.newbaptistcovenant.org Natalie Aho

    Tony Campolo also came over to the New Baptist Covenant meeting on Friday night where he drove the preaching in much the same direction. This event was organized by Pres Jimmy Carter and was broadcast across the nation. The goal was to talk of how Baptists can be unified in addressing justice and mercy. It included all “types” and colors of Baptists – except those on the far right (though they were invited).

    When Campolo spoke of the parable of the Good Samaritan and said he thought Jesus’ modern day example for the Samaritan would have been a gay man, the room erupted in applause. And applause again when he spoke of Jesus never speaking of homosexuality itself, but repeatedly about the poor. We have some profound quotes from Campolo at http://twubs.com/nbcii.

    It was encouraging to be in a room full of people affirming the love of God over all else. We were grateful Tony Campolo came over to preach.

  • MP

    Tony, thanks for the post … interesting and timely observations…
    Just noticing Adventures in Missing the Point: “Perhaps there was no one there who publicly stood up for gay marriage or ordination for the unrepentant homosexual because the writing is on the wall: there is zero scriptural support for these positions.”
    HOWEVER, Scriptural support of compassion for “the other” or outcasts in society is abundant.
    Ditto, Natalie: “It was encouraging to be in a room full of people affirming the love of God over all else.”

    • Frank

      Yes compassion we can all agree upon. Do you believe it is compassionate to lie to people by telling them that homosexuality is not sinful?

  • http://youthworkercircuit.com Gavin Richardson

    i remember my first NYWC had Falwell as a keynote speaker and Yaconelli prefaced this with a ‘not someone i agree with, but a brother in Christ’ (or something similar. i sat through his talked and listened and clapped at the end. some people gave standing ovations, i obviously didn’t, but i did have a respect for the organizing group for stretching some of its participants to know as broad a brush of the faith as possible.

  • Lock

    Tony, culture is so GLBT that I don’t think people walk out because they are tired with sexual orientation and gender identification issues.

  • http://workingonmyrewrite.blogspot.com/ bob c

    Tony, thanks for this.

    I adored Yac, so I have a hard time channeling his PV on this.

    My 2 cents:

    People who want to make money on events and on YouthWorker Journal will likely feel that by being grounded in the old evangelical camp, their likelihood of viability will be higher.

    Youth workers are a resilient, adaptive group – how they continue to lead the church is inspiring to me & countless others.

    People will hack the gathering to follow the Spirit of, be that a Catholic mass or a prayer meeting.

    I am curious – what was your sense of attendance at this year’s shows ?

    P.S. – do they still have the smoke machines ? Because nothing says reverence like monster smoke machines, IMHO.

  • http://adammclane.com adam mclane

    I don’t really know why you were not invited, as I shared with you when we met up Saturday night. I actually don’t remember your name coming up but I also didn’t help with the planning of the forums.

    My comment is more about the anti-intellectualism. I’d like to think that this has gotten better, and I saw some signs of it in both cities of NYWC, but there is still a majority of attendees who I engage with who just want someone to tell them 3 quick tips to fix any problem.

    I lead a fishbowl entitled “Rethinking the Role of Volunteers in Youth Ministry.” I spent the first 10 minutes painting a picture of the problem with a 1-sized fits all mentality to volunteering in youth ministry and presented a new way of thinking about it. I had drawings and everything to try to make it simple. People listened, nodded their heads, and then for the next 70 minutes I tried to steer the conversation away from programmatic responses and people sharing stories/ideas from what they currently do. I was greatly disappointed that no one came prepared to RETHINK something they all agreed at the beginning was failing their volunteers.

    At one point I said, “You know it doesn’t work right?” [nodding heads] “So why do you keep doing it that way?” Their answer? I don’t want to lose my job.

    Dear Lord, will one leader please stand up?

    All of that said… there is a group of early adopters out there who are more worried about impacting teenagers than they are about running a program or buying a smoke machine for Bob C. :)

    • http://mattcleaver.com Matt Cleaver

      I love it when youth workers get together to talk about how certain things aren’t working anymore, and then when you start brainstorming ideas everyone tells what they are already doing.

      Being afraid of losing a job is why I think we need fewer paid ministry staff, at least full-time.

  • http://www.ysnetwork.com Mark Matlock

    Thanks for your reflections Tony. We are beginning to plan the 2012 conventions this year and am glad for your input. I’m late to this conversation but I’ll share some thoughts.

    I’d be careful to assume that most of the attendees have moved to the left, I don’t see that, but I do see ministers embracing a Christ like understanding of a challenging issue (LGBT), and in the past YS has engaged this conversation. This year we didn’t, but it wasn’t intentional.

    One of our goals is to continue to be a “big tent” that many theological and diverse viewpoints can gather under to share. While YS can do much better, we do try.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      I know you’re trying Mark. No question about that. And I think that you have a lot of constituencies to which you are accountable. However, I just hope you keep pushing the church out of its comfort zone.