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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.