Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to attend 2 different conferences geared towards youth ministry training (and a board game convention!). The first was the NEXT Conference, put on by Alliance Youth and held at Lancaster Bible College. The second was the National Youth Worker’s Convention, put on by Youth Specialties in St. Louis (I’m writing this post as I fly back from that – so as a side note, I’d like to inform you that I’m happy to accept donations to a travel fund. You’ll receive minimal returns on your investment, in the form of more timely blog posts haha 🙂 )
There were similarities and differences with these two conferences, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share a few things about them and about the idea of continuing to learn. I’d strongly suggest that our foundational theology includes the belief that we are not perfect on this side of heaven – we’re continually being sanctified. If that’s the case, then how can we assume we’ve ever learned all we need to? One of the things I remember being emphasized in my studies was that the moment we stop learning, we stop leading. So continue to learn, even (and especially) if it makes you uncomfortable! And learn how you learn best, so you aren’t banging your head against the wall trying to do that.
The NEXT Conference was a one-day conference, from about 9 am-4 pm, and was dirt cheap – just $25. If there’s one near you, you need to consider it seriously (Click here for info).That incredibly low price point did not mean it was lacking in content or value, though – just that more of the speakers were regional to eastern PA. One of the primary reasons I went to the NEXT Conference was because Ron Belsterling, my former professor, was going to be there. Ron’s commitment to excellence and to youth ministry has been a strong influence in my development in both of those, and being able to continue learning from him made the several hour drive worth it. Ron has a book coming out in 2019 that you should buy as well. (It’s titled “A Defense of Youth Ministry”)
One of the things I really enjoyed about the NEXT Conference was seeing friends and peers in ministry, who understand what it’s like to be in youth ministry specifically. It was smaller in size than the NYWC as well, so it felt like more of a community of people than a crowd. One of the seminars I went to was on abuse in the church, led by Wade Mullen, a faculty member at LBC and Capital Seminary. Wade has done extensive research on how churches respond to abuse, and I would recommend looking at his stuff. (I realize I’m recommending a lot – but I think that’s good. I’ve been blessed by these resources, and found them highly useful, so I want you to know about them too. I’m not getting paid for any endorsements either, they’re just that good.)
In the seminar on abuse, Wade discussed how churches often respond negatively in two possible ways – overhelping or under-helping (I’m summarizing). We need to be seeking the truth, understand how we should respond and how we should stay out of the proper authorities way, and how we act in a way that is faithful to God. One of the things that angered me about the seminar was that at a conference of about 300 people or so, only around 10 were in this seminar. HOW?! How is there not more of a broken heart over this issue and a desire to know all we can about how to act? If you’re in a ministry position, I want to challenge you and possibly give you a holy discomfort – abuse is a reality and we have screwed up so much. Abuse used to be something we would point our fingers at the Catholic church about, and as truth comes to light we see that it’s everywhere. Wade showed us a bibliography of news articles detailing pastoral arrests from 2016 and 2017 – it was 25 pages long. The vast majority of those were related to sexual abuse, and were either from pastoral abuse or pastoral failure in response to abuse. If you haven’t seen the movie Spotlight, stop reading this blog and go watch it now. May our hearts be as broken as God’s is over the abuse that has happened and may we be so motivated to do things with integrity and truth.
Sorry for that rant haha (I’m not actually sorry) – as you can tell that seminar really struck a chord with me. And I hope that as I express some of it, it can strike a chord with you too.
As I mentioned, one of the major differences between the two conferences was the size. The National Youth Workers Convention was over 5,000 people, from all across the country, coming together. While this meant I didn’t know as many people and it was bigger and flashier, there were also some great unique things. First, it was more than just one day. I was able to attend 5 breakouts over a couple days (and that’s even using some of the breakout slots for rest, refreshment, or conversations with fellow youth workers). There was more to choose from, and there were speakers from across the nation. One of the speakers who spoke my language was Crystal Kyrgiss, who’s in Indiana and I had never come across before. (more about her below) It was put on by Youth Specialties (which was recently bought by Download Youth Ministry and Orange), so there were more resources available to share and it was a blessing to be united across the country with that many youth workers.
One of the things that came across so clearly at NYWC was how appreciated youth workers are, and that we should be affirmed in the faithful, steady work we do. Some of the moments they had on stage were so focused on blessing youth workers, especially those in tough situations, and it was awesome to see that be possible in such a big way. The seminars I went to were spot on, from the LGBTQ panel, to the round table conversation on learning as leaders. I have been to big youth ministry conferences before but never NYWC, and it’s great to see some new life being breathed into this conference that’s been around for decades.
Some big takeaways
So now that I’ve rambled for 1,000 words or so, let me offer you some of my big takeaways in a clearer manner lol. These are some things I’m taking away from this “con season” (many are things I’m being reminded of).
There are people who get me
One of the big emphases at the NYWC was how it’s nice to be with our “tribe” – to be with many youth workers who understand what it’s like to be in youth ministry. There is something true about that, but I also found it great to be around people who get me more specifically. If you haven’t been able to tell from my blog so far, I find some pieces of modern youth ministry to be mis-focused. I think we need to emphasize theology more, doing what we do with excellence, and less on some of the things that are trendy, the fads. At the NEXT conference, that came in the time I was able to talk to Ron and to be reminded of our common desires for youth ministry.
At the NYWC, there were more people I was able to resonate with as well. Whether it was Sean McDowell expressing how everything we do is theologically informed, Kara Powell leading a panel through a practical theology process to think about depression and anxiety, or the wisdom of Walt Mueller and Crystal Kyrgiss on how important it is to be reading, learning, and to be focused on the truth, it was a huge blessing. Check out their blogs here and here.
I need to be less critical of those who I disagree with
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I go against the grain of some of the modern trends or emphases in youth ministry. My blog is titled “Uncomfortable Youth Ministry” after all. When I was at the NYWC, I was with 5,000 people – so I’m bound to encounter people who prioritize different things in ministry.
While I could go on and on about some of the issues with modern youth ministry, in terms of an emphasis relevancy, style, and all this stuff you have to buy, I was convicted that I need to be less critical of those who I disagree with. Simply because I have a desire to see youth ministry done with excellence, consistency, and faithfulness doesn’t mean that someone who does things differently doesn’t desire those things as well. And especially when I’m not even in dialogue with that person I’m critical of, that’s not helpful one bit. In the first big session at NYWC, Doug Fields really set the tone for the convention when he told us that the one rule was to not ask anyone about the size of their youth group. Comparing myself to others without even knowing them and being able to dialogue with them either results in pride or dejection, neither of which is good and necessary.
Continue to be faithful and consistent
This takeaway is connected to the first – the people who get me. Through both the NEXT Conference and the National Youth Worker’s Convention, I was reminded and encouraged to continue to be faithful and consistent in what God has called me to do. One of the main seminars that I was encouraged in this regard was at NYWC. It was on “longevity in ministry”, and was a panel discussion with Walt Mueller, Duffy Robbins, Crystal Kyrgiss, Doug Fields, and Marv Penner.
The discussion between them and the subsequent questions and answers were all about how they have been committed to being faithful and consistent for the long haul in ministry. They are all regular people, who have strengths and weaknesses and have had to make adjustments in their lives and ministries to have longevity. A quote from Rich Van Pelt was highlighted, which hits the nail on the head: “You take care of the depth of your ministry and let God take care of the breadth.”
Learning is a lifelong pursuit
The final takeaway I want to share with you is that learning is a lifelong pursuit. Both these conferences were a time of learning, both in the formal sessions and seminars and also in the informal conversations. As most of us tend to do, I can become busy and be so focused on the items on my to-do list that I toss aside some of the items that aren’t task-oriented, like reading and continuing to learn.
One of the seminars I attended at NYWC was directly on this topic – it was a roundtable discussion led by Walt Mueller and Crystal Kyrgiss (seeing a theme?) on learning as leaders. It was a fantastic reminder of the importance of being a lifelong learner, and the relationship between learning and longevity in ministry. The conversation also focused on the different ways that we learn, and the need to be reading books from many different spheres and that stretch us.
Well, that’s about enough for now I think lol. I started writing this post on my flight back on November 18, and finished it more than 2 weeks later, so I don’t want to delay that any longer. If you are in vocational ministry, I want to encourage you to see the value that continual learning has on your ministry. If you’re not in vocational ministry, I want to encourage you to see the value that continual learning has on your ministry. Whether it’s something local and smaller in scope or a national convention, seek out those opportunities to grow in your knowledge and passion for serving teenagers.
And most of all, thank you for doing just that. Whether it’s as a youth pastor, parachurch worker, teacher, parent, grandparent, youth leader, or in any other capacity, thank you for loving and serving teenagers. I am grateful for the many people who are doing youth ministry across our country and around the world, and am eager to see how God works through us in that.