In about 12 hours I'll be at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network's Extravaganza, an annual gathering of Lutheran youth workers. It will be my first time at the Extravaganza, and I'm looking forward to it.
Most significantly, I'm looking forward to immersing myself in the youth ministry conversations that are taking place today – it's theology, practice, and structure. You see, it's been about ten years since I attended a youth ministry conference … and almost as long since I've even been the primary person responsible for a congregation's youth ministry. And so I'm quite excited about this conference, and the potential for learning that it represents for me.
But I'll also admit that I'm a bit anxious …
In the past I haven't been terribly impressed with the theology or depth of youth ministry resources. In the past I've noted that much of the youth ministry conversation had a generally oppositional stance toward things "traditional," perhaps assuming that the kids of today shared the same anti-institutional angst that kids of the 1960's and 1970's did (I don't think they do).
In the past I've read about practices of a so-called "relational youth ministry" that invite the youth worker to be cool and crazy so as to get the attention of the kids, and then "duck" while pointing them to Christ. This "hey, look at me – no, I mean, look at Jesus" way of doing youth ministry seems to be a disaster waiting to happen.
In the past I've heard a generally anti-intellectual tone in youth ministry circles, wherein adults assume that kids don't want to talk theology or that they are unable to handle theology. I've heard youth workers dismiss whole parts of the Bible (such as the Old Testament, Revelation, or anything that isn't warm and fuzzy, such as 1 Corinthians 13 or Jeremiah 1:4-9) as irrelevant or "not what we believe anymore."
But that was the past … and perhaps my past experiences of the theology and practice of youth ministry are not exemplary of where the field was ten years ago. And perhaps my view of what I did and experienced in youth ministry ten years ago is skewed by my perspective as a 35 year-old curmudgeon. Perhaps. But either way, I certainly look forward to a better experience this time around.
I hope things have changed. In fact, I think they have. Since I was a youth worker, the Lilly Foundation has funded all kinds of exciting research and seminary-based programs in youth ministry. Since I was a youth worker, scholars such as Kenda Creasy Dean have published widely and shaped the field, and a new crop of scholars – including my old neighbor at Princeton Theological Seminary (where my wife did her PhD), Andy Root – have made an impact on the field. Since I was a youth worker the field seems to have changed and matured … and so have I.
I'm looking forward to this conference. I have lots to learn. And even if I'm critical of some of the theology, and even if I find some of the practices to be troublesome, I have no doubt that there is plenty I can learn by spending time in learning and in prayer, in worship and in fellowship with a few hundred people dedicated to Christian ministry with young people.
Please keep everyone at the Extravaganza – including this curmudgeon – in your thoughts and prayers this weekend.