What I Learned at Youth Specialties: Youth Pastors Want to Talk about Gay Marriage

Steve Argue, Chap Clark, Andrew Root, and Danielle Shroyer talk about eschatology on a theological panel moderated by Eric Leafblad at the 2012 National Youth Workers Convention (photo by Gavin Richardson)

Please pardon the Sunday post. Usually, I don’t post on Sunday and try to keep a sabbath, but I’m not bound by the law! Also, I’m sitting in the DFW airport, reflecting on my time at the National Youth Workers Convention.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen scores of old friends, given talks on culture and the atonement, and sat on theological panels discussing sexuality and the nature of scripture. It’s been since 2008 that I’ve spoken the NYWC, and I didn’t know how it would go: would people remember me? would my message still resonate with youth pastors, even though I haven’t been one since 2003? Well, it was really fun. We had great conversations in each of those venues.

But here is the most intriguing takeaway for me: youth workers want to talk about GLBT issues, gay marriage, and issues of human sexuality.

Here’s why I think that. After the aforementioned seminars and panels, my NYWC experience culminated with an open theological conversation at a pub in the Dallas Sheraton. Any youth workers who wanted to talk about any theological issues were invited to join us for a drink and a chat, and several dozen showed up.

I had been vocal in earlier panels about my support of gay marriage and other LGBT rights, and had said that I had worked through those issues theologically. After being graciously handed a Maker’s Mark by a youth pastor, I was asked to visit with table after table of youth workers — they’d gathered around tables and they wanted to talk. And each group wanted to talk about the same thing: homosexuality.

One said that he had an aunt who is a lesbian. He loves his aunt, but she is sure that God hates her because she’s gay. He wanted to know what to tell her.

Another said that she’s still pretty sure that homosexual sex is a sin, but she wanted to know how I came to my conclusions on the issue.

Another asked me about a couple specific Bible verses.

Another wondered how to tell his senior pastor that he was coming to a more progressive opinion about homosexuality.

And so it went all evening, with person after person wanting to talk to me about these same issue.

If I have a hope for Youth Specialties under Mark Matlock, it’s that the NYWC can be a place for evangelical youth workers to have conversations that they can’t otherwise have. This is not a posture without dangers. If we keep having these conversations, some youth workers won’t come to the NYWC; and some senior pastors will forbid their youth pastors from attending.

But others will come, and they’ll come in spades, I think.

Thanks to all of you who said hi at the NYWC, and thanks especially to those of you who came to seminars, panels, and conversations with an open mind and a generous spirit.

  • http://hearthetension.com Curtis

    You had me at Maker’s Mark and theology…. Sounds like an awesome time.

  • http://www.twitter.com/astatum Andrew

    I become more thankful every day to serve in a community where I am free to ask questions such as these. If I’ve learned anything from the past seven years in youth ministry it’s that asking hard questions not only serves as a sort of theological pressure valve (i.e. people are glad to have a space to ask questions and are relieved to know that they’re not the only ones asking them) but is also a way of strengthening faith. Thanks for continuing to ask these questions! Hate I had to miss NYWC this year!

  • Bryan

    One of the reasons I stopped going to NYWC is the lack of anything for progressive minded youth workers. While I’m sure it hasn’t changed much, this is pretty hopeful. Maybe I’ll go next year.

    This, however, is tragic: “One said that he had an aunt who is a lesbian. He loves his aunt, but she is sure that God hates her because she’s gay. He wanted to know what to tell her.”

    Tell her you love her!

  • http://www.facebook.com/wbjamison The Rev. Wes Jamison

    Thank you for coming back to NYWC this year. It was also my first time back since 2005. I struggle with NYWC for many reasons, but I also know that it’s one of the best places to see where youth ministry and culture are headed. As an openly gay pastor who has worked with youth and young adults for more than 15 years now, I was impressed that Youth Specialties and NYWC agreed to the conversation. I was also incredibly impressed with the numbers of people who showed up at the panel discussion. I counted. The room was packed to overflowing several times over. People were sitting and standing in every available space. Many came and left because there wasn’t room for them. There was tremendous interest in the discussion and much of it was positive, especially for evangelicals.

    I was impressed in other areas of the conference as well. This year we were all assigned to small groups called Family Groups. By meeting four times during the course of the conference and working through reflections on our calling and our struggles in ministry, we were woven together in real community. My group consisted of two Anglicans, two Baptists, two Methodists, and me, a United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ pastor on loan to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Three members of our group were from non-European-American backgrounds. One was Hispanic and one was African-Caribbean. The diversity was impressive. I came out to my group in our first session. One Baptist member left at the end of the group, never having commented about my revelation. The rest of the group admitted to being in different places on the issue, but by the end of our third session, they’d asked me to pray for them. After our final session today, we all hugged each other and traded contact information. Four members of the group offered incredibly heartfelt thanks to me for being honest with them and two admitted that they were struggling with their views about homosexuality after having met me. They asked for the conversation to continue, an invitation that I have gratefully accepted.

    There were at least nine other openly LGBT youth ministers at NYWC this year and more supportive people than I can even count. If I learned anything years, it’s that evangelical attitudes about homosexuality are changing. There is a new openness and our presence and honesty at events like NYWC can only help to enrich the conversations. As one of the members of my group said today, “I don’t know where I’ll end up yet, but I know you’re doing good things for the kingdom of God and that’s something for which I give thanks to God.”

    So, if you’re a progressive youth minister, please come back to NYWC next year. Let’s keep this conversation going. Let’s continue to talk about hospitality, justice, sustainability, and building the beloved community of God’s reign through empowering children, youth, and young adults to embrace the way of Jesus, the Christ.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Wow, Wes, amazing. I am so, so glad that you were there and that you were open. I’m glad we got to at least say hi. Hope to see you again soon.

  • Chaz Snider

    NYWC was a great time this year and it was because we could ask those questions. Tony, I was sitting around one of those tables with you Saturday night and I appreciate you taking the time to engage in conversation. You spoke honestly and passionately, thank you for that.

  • http://erikullestad.blogspot.com Erik Ullestad

    My only NYWC experience was St. Louis 2003. Jay Bakker was a keynote speaker (this was in the wake of his autobiography). He was the only speaker who spoke of God/Jesus in terms I was accustomed to hearing — gracious, compassionate, loving, forgiving. Jay took a lot of heat from attendees; in fact, some people were so angry in their disapproval that I was completely turned off from the NYWC scene. Maybe there’s reason to reconsider.

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