Did You You Know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer Was a Youth Pastor? [Book Week]

Last Friday I was wandering through my old stomping grounds, the National Youth Workers Convention, in Sacramento. Beside me was Andrew Root, a friend since we were both Ph.D. students at Princeton Theological Seminary. Later that day we would sit together on a theological panel considering the state of the science-and-religion dialogue, but at that moment we were wandering through the conference book store.

Andrew Root

Root is among the top rank of theologians working in youth ministry today, and he is undisputedly the most prolific author in the field, often publishing two books per year. Virtually an entire table was committed to his books, but one book was no where to be found. Root’s latest book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together was sold out, and the conference wasn’t even 24 hours old.

The popularity of Root’s new book is testament to a couple things, not least of which is the ongoing interest in Bonhoeffer, a 20th century theologian, activist, and martyr. Root has long studied Bonhoeffer, and he’s used the content of Bonhoeffer’s unfinished masterpiece, Ethics, to argue that relationship is not a means to an end in Christian ministry — relationship is the telos of ministry, since that’s where Christ enters the human situation.

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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.

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On My Return to Youth Specialties

What does a trainwreck look like? Like Tony, Mark, and Doug attempting to reprise the Church Basement Roadshow at the National Youth Workers Convention in 2008.

Tomorrow will mark my return to Youth Specialties as a content-provider. And I’m thrilled.

My publishing career began under the tutelage of Mark Oestreicher, who was then the publisher at YS. He signed me to write my first and second books, and he advocated for me to speak at the National Youth Workers Convention. Tic Long, who I’m guessing was as uncomfortable with my evolving theology as his peers at the heart of the YS world, invited me to speak at the convention for ten years straight, culminating with my crash-and-burn experience on the Big Stage.

Since that fateful day, I have not been asked back to speak at the NYWC.

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Full Circle at the National Youth Workers Convention

In 1994, I drove a rusty old van from Minneapolis to Chicago for Youth Specialties’s National Youth Workers Convention.  I was an exhibitor for a little start-up mission organization called, YouthWorks.  I had purchased a used display, blown up some photos of our mission trips, and put velcro on the back to hang on the display.  I’d also made up a brochure on my Mac Powerbook 100 and printed 1,000 copies on some leftover paper in the office that we’d been given.

When I arrived in Chicago, I didn’t have the money to pay for the union workers to rig up the YouthWorks booth, so I drove up to the front entrance of the Hilton and flagged down an elderly bellman.  I handed him a $50 bill and said that if he could get all my boxes to my booth space without being accosted by union workers, I’d give him another $50.  He did, and I did.

I set up the booth and handed out brochures all weekend.  As I dropped the brochure in youth workers’ bags I’d say, “Affordable mission trips.”

I did that for three years until I left the employ of YouthWorks to work as a pastor in 1997.  In 1999, Tic Long of Youth Specialties and said that YS had added a third city, St. Louis, to their offerings, and he was wondering if I’d teach a “critical concerns course” with Brian McLaren on “postmodern youth ministry.”  I think Tic may have gotten the idea from Mark Oestreicher who was at that time the publisher at YS and had contracted me to write a eponymous book.

That began a 10-year run of speaking at the NYWC, culminating with a turn on the big stage in Pittsburgh in 2008 that was, um, shall we say, memorable.

This year I’m back at the NYWC, and back in the Exhibit Hall.  I’m here to promote and network on behalf of sparkhouse, for whom I work part-time.  More specifically, I’m telling folks about re:form, which is, quite honestly, the best confirmation curriculum ever created.  I know I sometimes hyperbolize, but in this case I’m not.  It really is the best.

While it’s not as emotional for me to be back as it is for Marko, I do feel his pain to a certain extent.  Speaking on the big stage was a high, for sure, and an affirmation that my message was appreciated and valued by the community of youth workers.  But when I was a speaker, I made a point to walk through the exhibit hall every year and talk to the exhibitors, since I knew those were my roots.  Now YouthWorks owns Youth Specialties, and I’m back in the exhibit hall, again with a product in which I strongly believe.

If you’re here in Nashville, stop by the booth!