PROGRESSIVE YOUTH MINISTRYSeveral years ago I reached out to Tony Jones with the idea of putting together a youth ministry conference that was unambiguously progressive. Nothing like this really existed and I was frustrated with having to filter other conference experiences through my progressive theological perspective and often found myself disappointed. We both agreed that this was an opportunity to bring to life something fresh and new. When our building expansion at Fourth Presbyterian Church was completed, I partnered with Tony and the rest of the JoPa team to make this idea a reality.

Last week’s Progressive Youth Ministry Conference was a dream come true. A great group of participants and speakers gathered in Chicago for a historic and groundbreaking event unlike any other youth ministry conference I know of. I’m sure this was the first youth ministry conference that highlighted queer theory, process thought, death of God theology, and a transgender speaker.

The energy of the gathering was electric. Progressive youth workers from throughout North America (and one American who came from Paris) finally found space to be themselves and give voice to their hopes and their pain. Without drifting into tribalism, it was clear that we brought together a distinct tribe that had been waiting for something like this. Just as much as I enjoyed our speakers and extensive list of seminars, I was thrilled with the energy of the open space times, during which participants named their own topics and gathered around their passions and longings. And of course, the hallway conversations and unplanned gatherings held it all together.

Here are my highlights and takeaways from our speaker lineup:

  • Otis Moss III preached at our opening worship and challenged us to think about mobile ministry in a world that needs Christians instead of church people.
  • Tony Jones reflected on his 2001 book Postmodern Youth Ministry and challenged us to write our own books and give voice to this new youth ministry movement.
  • Reggie Blount talked about youth ministry in the Black Church and highlighted seven spiritual yearnings of young people.
  • Xochitl Alvizo explained queer theory, couched in her own life experiences.
  • Tripp Fuller made a persuasive case for the value of process theology in youth ministry, especially as it applies to questions of suffering. (Tripp also hosted a live recording of the Homebrewed Christianity that was a ton of fun.)
  • Claudio Carvalhaes offered a rousing articulation of the subversive nature of youth ministry.
  • Jeff Chu shared what he really needed from his youth pastor as a gay teenager. Do yourself a favor and watch the video we recorded of this powerful talk. I will be using this to show our volunteers what youth ministry needs to be about.
  • H. Adam Ackley talked about his life and opened our eyes to new ways of thinking about transgender experience.
  • Christopher Rodkey applied death of God theology to confirmation and challenged us to reconsider both.
  • Lillian Daniel and David Wood talked about progressive youth ministry from the perspective of senior pastors.
  • Doug Pagitt presented a more holistic and generous Christian narrative than the heaven-and-hell version so common in youth ministry.
  • Bromleigh McCleneghan offered a preview of a book she is writing on a more progressive way of talking about sex.
  • Andrew Root expanded on his understanding of relational youth ministry and shared a fascinating story of Bonhoeffer actually doing youth ministry.
  • Daniel White Hodge introduced us to hip hop theology and used such cultural artifacts as Tupac songs to help us understand sexuality in the African American experience.
  • Lib Caldwell spoke from her expertise in children’s ministry to discuss how to teach children the Bible in such a way that we don’t have to re-teach them when they become youth.
  • I talked about my DMin project on post-Christendom youth ministry. I’ll share more about this in a separate post tomorrow.
  • Laura Truax preached in our closing worship (which also featured great music arranged by Jonnie Russell) and opened up the story of Ananias in a way that I’d never considered before, challenging us to make sure we love our enemies and those different from us.

It was an incredible series of talks that left us all with much to think about as we return to our youth ministries. I’m already excited to do it again next year!

Adam Walker Cleaveland has shared his awesome sketchnotes from each of these talks, which you should download and check out. Shawna Bowman also created works of art for most of these and I’ll post them as soon as I can.

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

Reader Interactions


  1. It truly was water for thirsty pilgrims.
    As I said before, I need a month to even begin processing what happened at the conference and what continues in my head and heart following the event.
    Thank you, John, for dreaming this dream and for inviting us all to be a part of it. I am excited for next year.

  2. Wow! I had no idea this conference existed, and I am so happy it does. Perhaps next year I can make the trip from Portland, OR. It feels awfully lonely in the YMIN world for progressive youth workers!


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