YS Unconference Wrap-up
By Mark Matlock Posted on June 05 2013
13 cities, hundreds of youth workers, 30 denominations, 13 days of conversations all in about five weeks time. That was my YS UnConference experience. I’d fly in the night before, late in the evening, try to find a cheap place to sleep (even slept on a few couches), then wake up knowing a group of fellow youth workers was gathering to put on a conference with no speakers, no music, and no theme. At first it was unnerving. Would it work? Would people have enough to talk about? Will people show up?
And yet, morning after morning, somewhere around 10 a.m. in whatever time zone we were in, the agenda wall would be filled with topic after topic of conversations hosted by those who dared show up to such an unconventional gathering, and the circles began to buzz.
The question that launched the conversations was:
“What do we need to learn, share or create that will help teenagers find and follow Jesus?”
I want to talk about some of the themes that stood out to me. All of the topics suggested by youth workers around the country make up a picture of what is on the minds of youth workers today, and at YS you'll see we’ve taken some of these themes and tried to help them shape NYWC this fall and our YS Team Training events coming this spring.
1. They split the hair, They split atom, but I defy any person to split my youth min budget.
A common theme that transcended many topics across the country was how the economy has impacted the church’s resources. Youth ministry budgets have never been large to begin with, but the impression I received from our conversations is that resources are tighter than ever, but somehow it's not as distressing as it could be. The cut in dollars may mean less money for those things that maybe were never essential in the first place. Youth ministers seem to be focusing on leveraging community, service, and relationships more than ever. So even though dollars are tight, its not as defeating as it might have been in a previous era of youth ministry. (we at YS are aware that these budgets are limited, and we are working on changing our models of ministry.)
2. Youth Ministers Are Reading Books About Keeping Teens
There are a few books that came up many times in conversations. Sticky Faith, by Kara Powell and You Lost Me by David Kinnaman were mentioned multiple times. Andy Root’s new series of four books on theology and youth ministry also came up, as did Kendra Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian, and Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0. This doesn’t surprise me. In almost every city some topic about losing kids after high school graduation came up, and the groups were well attended. The only other topic that came up with great frequency was about equipping and incorporating parents as part of the youth ministry program. (These are dominant frames in youth ministry today, if you haven’t read these books, you might want to do so.)
3. The Need For Theologically Driven Youth Ministry
In many of the conversations what stood out most was the disconnect from “what we do” to “why we do it”. Some think of theology as being lofty and sometimes not practical, yet a variety of the topics eventually led to questions of theology. Andrew Root’s new series came up in some places regarding this (Taking Theology To Youth Ministry). This is the beauty of UnConference. In a circle you might have a youth minister who literally just started a month ago, sitting next to the high school pastor at mega-church, sitting next to a veteran youth worker of 30+ years, next to a youth ministry professor (yes this actually happened). Each had value, and each led the conversation around practical application and the theological questions. When these moments happened they were brilliant! I believe this kind of alignment of practice and theology will prove to be very powerful as youth ministry progresses. (not to plug NYWC too hard, but we’ve redesigned our Theological Forums this year to really focus on the integration of practice and theology--they should be great!)
4. Our Teens Are Busy Teens
The topic of overcommitted teens came up quite a bit. In Denver, there were two perspectives on the issue, and it was really wonderful to see people hash out their differences. Some saw the lack of commitment to attending church functions as a sign of spiritual deficit, while others saw time-stretched teens as an opportunity for youth workers to come alongside them and adapt to their pressing schedule. Some even saw teens' involvement in other activities as a mission field, and helped to equip teens to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the band, or on their athletic team. In time, the conversation turned to a theological one. What is church? What is the body of Christ we invite teens into and what is their sign of commitment?
5. Helping Gay Teens Follow Jesus
No surprise this came up in several UnConferences, and it was interesting to see people come together from different points of view to discuss how this was impacting their youth ministry. Conversations rarely got into debates about whether homosexuality was a sin or not; rather, the focus was more on helping teens follow Jesus. It seems that the issue of where a teen found their identity was at the heart of the conversations. (To help deepen our understanding of this issue YS will be hosting Mark Yarhouse and two other therapists to discuss Teens and Sexual Identity as Pre-Conference events at NYWC this year.)
6. Youth Workers Like and Need Other Youth Workers
Some drove great distances to be with us just for part of a day! From Canada, it took 7 hours to drive to the event and back home again! So in the closing circle, I asked what was most valuable for them. For the majority in attendance the UnConference provided a refreshing and needed mode for learning. There will always be a place for seminars and experts to share from their wisdom, but the conversational mode with practitioners sharing with each other was highly valued. YS plans to continue hosting these events around the country, if you’d like more information on attending or hosting visit YSunconference.com.