For the last three days I have been attending the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference held at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, IL. As the inaugural event there were highs and lows. First off, let me be clear, no conference is perfect. What is important about a conference is that it helps bring about change for the better. If people come away enlightened, educated, energized, and informed, then I consider it a success, even if there are some not-so-great things happening. That’s just the nature of the beast.
The event was put on by Fourth Presbyterian Church and the JoPa Group. If you were to ask me what the JoPa group does, I would say they are a couple of mid-western white guys who used to be more conservative evangelical Christians and now have turned away from that and call themselves “progressive” Christians and they put on conferences, give talks, and overstimulate audiences. They are not unlike so many others out there. I’m not saying that as a criticism but based on what I witnessed and what many others I spoke with saw as well. They have good things to say, and they talk really, really fast.
I’ve never heard of the JoPa group but apparently they are all over the place when it comes to the emergent Christian scene of ex-evangelicals. It made a girl feel pretty out of the loop when it came to the cool kids club. But then I got a hold of myself. Overall, the conference was organized and was really, really interesting. I give lots of kudos for them and to Fourth for talking about such topics as gender theory, queer theology, issues of LGBTQIAS at a conference like this for youth leaders. That in itself was enough for me.
Based on my observations and those who I spoke with at the conference from all over North America, here are some pro and con things that people witnessed:
Pro: Good session presenters for individual sessions./Con: Pretty much male-dominated (are we surprised?).
Pro: Lots of talk about queer theology, sexuality, and gender. These are topics that so many youth workers want and need to know about. Just because you might support the gay kid in your youth group doesn’t mean you necessarily know what to do next. With so many church conferences going on, this is the first time I have ever witnessed this conversation and this alone, for me, made the conference completely worth while./Con: Many of the presenters (primarily associated with the JoPa group) focused in on the “hipster” vibe of many youth leaders and tended to drop some swearing that was awkward and made even a sailor like myself uncomfortable at times. Not all youth leaders are white men who are trying to rage against the man.
Pro: Lots of multiple learning styles used. Rev. Shawna Bowman was on hand with her iPad and Page 53 app that allows one to make some incredible works of art. These were displayed on a screen at the front for all to see as she created them./Con: Lots of inside jokes used by co-host Tony Jones that only those in his circle would understand which left the rest of us in the dark and feeling like we were missing out on his beer-drinking and cigar smoking with his other buddies.
Pro: Relevant topics. Gender, sex, sexuality, talking about the harsh realities of the Bible, how to teach youth and kids so they don’t have to un-learn things later, addressing the horrible youth ministry games that most should be fired for, and more here. Many of these topics get glazed over in other spaces, but not here. /Con: Where was the prayer? Where were the sacred spaces? I overheard one of the presenters ask, “where’s the prayer in this place?” With a plethora of conversation and idea birthing, where was the sacred space? The opening worship began with Rev. Otis Moss Jones III preaching and he brought it. I mean, Jesus went up the hill to calvary my friends. It was awesome. But between opening and closing worship, where were the moments of breath where we could soak it all in. Some of the presenters spoke so fast without pause that their attempt to cram into 30 minutes as many ideas as they could get out, simply left most of us bewildered and unable to grasp the ideas they were trying to share.
Pro: Homebrewed Christianity. A regular podcast, these guys like beer and apparently Neihbur. Give it a listen sometimes./Con: Homebrewed Christianity. It wasn’t as exciting as you wanted it to be. While fun, it was still pretty pretentious. But nice choice on the beers guys and sweet glasses.
Pro: Ironically, one of the movers and shakers in the NEXT Church movement in the PCUSA, Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner, is about to become the new Head of Staff at Fourth Presbyterian Church. What’s ironic about this is that this youth conference covered topics that many crave from the NEXT conferences. NEXT can’t do it all, and it shouldn’t have to, but this conference helped to fill in that gap from those who are part of NEXT or are longing for just a little more holistic ministry besides the young adult movement./Con: There seemed to be a good bit of evangelical bashing happening from some folks speaking. Look, I get it. If you came from that then it can and probably has been traumatising in some way. You found the light and you came over to the dark “progressive” side. But not everyone has that experience. I didn’t. I grew up with reformed theology in a conservative church in the middle of the suburban Bible-belt and I was never shunned, told I wouldn’t be loved or that there was something wrong with me. Heck, they even helped pay for my Northern, uber-liberal theological education. For some its important to look at those other churches and say, “I don’t want to be like that.” But I think the point is that we should be looking at the churches and communities that are doing it right and instead say, “How do we be more like that?” I like to have an occasional evangelical bash once and a while in the privacy of my own personal circle, but there’s a point where the joke isn’t funny any longer and we need to move on.
Pro: Everyday Sunday. Christian music that’s not Michael W. Smith (He’s great and all but one can only handle so many of the same line repeated over, and over, and over, and over…). It’s good music and they were a group many of us had never heard about.
Pro: There was some good practical advice in the seminars. Not so much in the larger group sessions.
Pro: The resource room. You had folks like Ministry Architects, the Thoughtful Christian, and sparkhouse among others. The book resources provided by TC were great and a good selection. It was small but I look forward to see who else gets on board in the future.
Pro: Social Media. Look, anyone who isn’t your great-grandfather is using social media. And even he’s dabbled in it at some point. It was used well. The event was promoted on social media and it helped everyone stay connected.
So, there’s my list. There were some Cons, but more Pros. At the end of the day, this was a success. No conference is perfect. No conference like this has been done before. People came away with good, solid, positive things. Will I go next year? Yes. I look forward to it, wherever they hold it (although, I must admit, it was nice to have it just a mile or so from my apartment). This was not all of it by far. Visit the website, read the stuff there. It won’t be a waste of your time.
Nice job Fourth and JoPa. And an especially “good job” to Rev. John Vest. Not many can pull off a conference like this AND serve their incredible Holy Smoker barbecue at such a high quality and maintain their sanity.