I used that hash tag quite often a few weeks ago while in Chicago.
The Progressive Youth Ministry 2014 conference was my destination and reason I fly across the ocean from France back to the good ole’ U.S of A. This has been a conference many have dreamed about for years. Prior to moving, I would attend a few youth ministry seminars and conference each year. Some big and some small but each time I would discover a like-minded affinity group of “progressives”. Often treated like the extra grandchildren at Thanksgiving, we would be relegated to the “kids table” of some small room or late night pub discussion. But from these encounters and interactions, deep friendships were forged and a vision born.
PYM14 was organized by the JoPa group and came together under the leadership of Tony Jones and John Vest, and I could not have been happier.
The question left undefined, by design, was “What does ‘progressive’ even mean? Moreover, how does one describe a progressive youth ministry? While I have yet to answer those questions, I did realize a few things.
First, “progressive” does not mean liberal. I really despise those division terms of conservative and liberal anyway. Progressive also does not mean “anti-evangelical”
I was surprised to learn that approximately half of the over 200 attendees came from some form of “evangelical” background. True, the vast majority of those are no longer working in those type of contexts, but are also unwilling to completely disassociate from their heritage. The is a general belief and hope that the “left” and “right” can find beautiful points of convergence and experience a holy embrace. Yes, this kiss might look ugly and sloppy at times, but at least it implies some form of connectivity and relationality. We will see what this future looks like, but I sensed a palpable energy of openness to include those radically different.
Progressives do have a few common characteristics (in general). Most support the rights of women and the LGBT community while also welcoming and affirming them within the Church. While active in social and political issues, most progressives remain from political alignment, recognizing the importance of official separation. I would probably be unfair to say there were few Republicans in attendance, so I will not say that :)
Most importantly, the commonality shared in this conference was threefold:
1) Love for God and desire to serve the Church
2) Passion for teenagers and belief they can change the future of the Church and world.
3) Uncanny and unafraid openness to believe that God is bigger than we and the Spirit of Christ is, in fact, active and engaged in our world and future (and not just in the past)
Many attendees have blogged about their experiences. You can read some of those here:
The following is a well-worded excerpt from Tony Jones’s blog, one of the organizers and key leaders in the conversation. His reflection and sentiment cannot be better articulated, so I will let him speak for himself, and all those who attended!
“The speakers were incredible. Jeff Chu and H. Adam Ackley, a transgender theology professor spoke out of their own experience of being queer in their youth, and each of them explained how they could have been better ministered to by their churches.
And we listened.
Other speakers addressed how women are portrayed in rap and hiphop music, what “death of god” theology could mean in a confirmation class, what kind of youth pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, and why process theology doesn’t suck. Otis Moss III preached us in, and Laura Truax preached us out. In other words, the content was amazing.
But something even more important happened last week at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago.
What happened in that room was that we had a sense that something special is happening. There was an unmistakeable sense that we have an opportunity to claim a significant voice in the conversation about what youth ministry is in America, that we can fight back against moralistic therapeutic deism, and that we can start to articulate a view of God that is generous, life-affirming, and inclusive. We have a tribe — that’s a clear take-away from last week.
For myself, I knew from the opening session that I was among people whom I understood, and who understood me. Most of my own leadership skills were honed in youth ministry, so I appreciate the challenges that many of the folks in that room face. But I also knew that the energy in the room could only have been generated by youth workers. The laughter was a bit louder, the singing a bit bolder, and the tears a bit less restrained than we’d ever get at a different kind of pastor’s conference.”
People always ask me where I will “land” in ministry, and for now specifically youth ministry. I certainly receive a warm “home” welcoming back from so many friends, both old and new. The conference was fun and entertaining, especially the live podcast of Homebrewed Christianity with Tripp Fuller.
This tribe speaks my language and speaks up for the issues closest to my heart. Yet one key admonishment during the week was for this small band of progressives not to become “tribal”. Very easily that can happen.
I am glad to have feet in both camps of theological tradition and practical ministry. I appreciate my evangelical heritage and foundation but also deeply appreciate the progressive soul and lived-out gospel.
My sincere hope is to continue to converse and communion with all youth workers from all denominations, traditions, backgrounds, races, and cultures. For that is where the Body of Christ is most beautiful.
Thank you to #PYM14 for a much-needed voice and platform in the expanding world of youth ministry.
Times are changing, and as the Spirit progresses forward ahead us, so must we.