I spent last week in Washington, DC for a conference called Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity. Though I wasn’t sure I would be able to attend until the last minute, I had been looking forward to this conference for a year or so. It promised to bring together the two theological areas in which I spend most of my time these days: youth ministry and the emerging church movement. I’m grateful to Dave Csinos and the conference planning committee for bringing together a large number of people interested in how to do children and youth ministry in our rapidly changing world. There were a lot of speakers packed into four days; it was a stimulating and exhausting ride of a conference. As with every conference I attend, I walked away with some good ideas to chew on. Others have already blogged about it, and I encourage you to check out their posts to get a sense for what it was all about: Chris Rodkey, Adam Walker Cleaveland, and Carl Gregg.

While it was obvious that many in attendance were really being fed, there were several of us wondering what was “new” or “emerging” at the conference. Given Brian McLaren’s invitational video and some of the primer readings like this one from Dave Csinos, I expected that the conference would really explore what it means to do children and youth ministry in a postmodern context informed by the probing questions and paradigm shifts of the emerging church movement. But relatively few speakers addressed these shifts (or addressed them well). There were some big name speakers who really didn’t have anything unique to say about children and youth ministry, even if what they did talk about was really good. There were many presentations about what people are doing in their particular contexts, but not many of them really pushed the needle toward a postmodern or emerging perspective on children and youth ministry. At the halfway mark of the conference, I posed the question on Twitter: what have we heard that actually reflects or engages a “new kind of Christianity”? I didn’t receive much of a response.

When I asked Brian McLaren about this during one of the breaks, I think he thought I was talking about what “emerging church” as a brand has to do with children and youth ministry. But that wasn’t my concern at all. I completely agree with his recent post about “emerging” not being about style. But what I found missing at this conference was a deep engagement in the theological issues Brian and others (like Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt) have been wrestling with for the past decade or so. There were nods to important issues like narrative, missional youth ministry, environmentalism, and multiculturalism. But there were a lot of issues left untouched or barely scratched.

Again, it was obvious that the overwhelming majority of those in attendance thought the conference was great and that it really met their needs and expectations. Perhaps I just had the wrong expectations about what the conference would be like. As with some other conferences I have been to recently (NEXT Church comes to mind), I have two primary frustrations: 1) we keep asking the same open questions without working toward robust responses; and 2) church leaders (especially youth workers) are too quick to focus on best practices rather than dig in and explore the big theological issues that inform our practices. Don’t get me wrong, I like big questions and best practices, but by now I come to conferences with a good sense of the driving questions and I think best practices ought to be a side dish rather than the main course.

As I mentioned on Twitter during this event, I’m thinking quite seriously about hosting a children and youth ministry conference in Chicago in the fall of 2013. The particular focus is still gelling, but I want to gather together practitioners and academics to think about the following three questions:

  1. What does religious education/faith formation for children and youth look like in a postmodern context? For example, what is the purpose, role, and shape of confirmation in a church context that embraces uncertainty and ambiguity?
  2. What does children and youth ministry look like in a post-denominational context? Are we raising emerging generations in particular faith traditions or are we reinforcing the post-denominational trends? Does it matter?
  3. Even more broadly, how do we effectively minister to children, youth, and families in a post-Christendom context in which church is no longer at the center of culture?

I’m thinking of calling it something like “Children and Youth Ministry in the Posts.” Chris Rodkey (somewhat) jokingly suggested “Children, Youth and a New Kind of Post-Christianity.” Whatever we call it, if this sounds interesting to you, let me know.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. Thanks for this! Please also address “post-professionalization” of the educator/youth worker.

      • This would be an excellent idea for a panel about any of the following: division of recognized ministries and labor for r.e. professionals, crisis of profession for r.e. folks, the contributions of irrelevance for many r.e. professional organizations, and creatively re-thinking who is doing the pan-generational r.e. work.

  2. As I said in DC, I’d love to be in these convos. I’ll ponder your questions and maybe even blog about it. On first blush, though, I think Bend Youth Collective might be able to speak to post-denominationalism, but maybe I’m biased…and a broken record.

    Can’t wait to engage.

    Also if we are moving to post-professionalization, I may be screwed as some one who’s only professional experience is in youth and camping ministry.

  3. John,

    I stopped going to a lot of Youth Ministry conferences years ago because of exactly what you say–same stuff, sometimes different language, but still not getting to the core issues of what informs “how” and “why” we do what we do.

    I entered seminary believing my call was to youth and young adult ministry. Since 1990, that’s pretty much what I did, including my first two calls out of seminary. The questions you raise, however, are not particular to youth ministry, but ministry with youth in the larger context of Church and community. I’m no longer involved in youth ministry solely, but still feel drawn to walk with our youth (and adults) as we struggle with what it is that God is inviting us toward and into, and I do believe it is different from what previous generations felt called toward.

    I dig the idea of what you want to do and would welcome the opportunity to engage other people in youth ministry on those areas. My experience as a volunteer in youth ministry, staff youth director, associate pastor for youth, and solo/head of staff pastor working with volunteer and paid staff, is that youth ministry can often be a catalyst in introducing or helping shape and re-shape a community of faith to think differently about “going” to church and move toward seeking to truly “be” Church.

    Keep us posted! I’d love to bring some of our adults to something more than just a big commercial (pretty much what YS has become) or a re-hash of former conversations.

    Thanks for your voice!

  4. Thanks for these thoughts. You are asking the right questions. I’d love to be part of further conversations about getting to the core of why we do what we do and then help dream of the best ways to do that in today’s post-Christendom culture. Keep me informed as your thoughts/ plans take shape.

  5. You could invite deans of local seminaries in Chicago to talk about why r.e. is not taken really seriously at the seminaries. And when they don’t show, we could have an open panel about why denominations tolerate, encourage, nurture, and promote what is going on. Namely, as I said on my blog, they and the clergy know that the theologies we are indoctrinated to promote are not theologies generally worth passing on.

  6. I spent many years in ministry with children, experiencing and learning amazing things in a faith community that consisted primarily of people under the age of 12. While that isn’t my primary ministry context now, it is still a passion — how do we engage in genuine formation with children in the real world? When I’ve given presentations along those lines at national conferences, the response of the participants tells me that there are myriad ways to invite children into a Christian journey. However, it can be hard to find space for that given the current structure of our churches. Seems to me that the conference we need would address ways to amend, change, renew and alter those structures in order that effective formation can take place with all ages of people. Then we can stop fixing blame (the parents don’t bring them, people don’t show up, the older adults don’t care, etc. etc.) and look at ways to engage all ages of people in an exciting life of discipleship.
    A big part of the struggle, it seems to me, is that clergy, as was noted above, often don’t know much about educational ministries, or children, or youth. It’s nigh unto impossible to change those structures without at least a little support from the pastor/pastors.

  7. I know Joyce Mercer at Virginia Theological Seminary would be GREAT for that conference. Let me know if you need an introduction!

  8. The idea of moving beyond ‘best practices’ and toward a theologically deeper conversation about what shape youth and household ministry might take in a post-modern context (and particularly where the post-modern is encountering the modern in many congregations) is tremendously appealing to me. If a conference like this were to happen, I’d be there.

  9. I agree. I would love to come/be part of asking those questions. I wasn’t able to make it to this past conference, and I’m kind of bummed for all of you who were able that it wasn’t more exactly like your suggesting for your conference idea.

    I’m interested too.

  10. I’m definitely interested in these questions. I’ve come up with my own answers, but you’re right, they aren’t really part of a larger conversation. Chicago works for me, but I’m trying to limit travel. So my response is: definitely interested in the questions, want to affirm your sense that the conversation matters. Not sure I would make it but I know I would wish I could be there.

  11. I too felt like many of the big names were regurgitating old thoughts. At best I would feel a question would be raised as to how children/youth ministry might evolve, but the conversation never moved from there.

  12. How will we be updated about the status of this conference? Is there an email list to get on?

  13. John,

    I attended the CYNKC conference and so appreciate your reflection. I had similar expectations for the conference and left hoping for more. Based on the various conversations I had with people sitting around the tables during meals, I think there were a number of people who felt the same way. I am excited about the possibility of the conference you are dreaming up and would love to hear more about it!


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