Volume 6 Number 1
by Leslie Dobbs-Allsopp
With a spirited volleyball match on the quad, a line of people spilling out of the Mackay Campus Center in anticipation of lunch, and hockey sticks sprouting in odd places—it must be time again for the Princeton Forums on Youth Ministry. Each year the Institute for Youth Ministry sponsors two forums, one of which is always held on campus after classes end in April.
Responding to the way “cell phones, email, MTV, the web, Palm pilots, and pagers fill our lives and the lives of young people,” this year’s theme was “Proclaiming the Gospel in a Wired World.” The first forum was held in San Antonio, Texas, in January. The forum in Princeton brought together 280 people, including 29 students from the PTS class “Advanced Studies in Youth, Society, and Culture.”
One of those students was Jeffrey Mathis, a 2001 PTS graduate who is now associate pastor at Pantano Baptist Church in Tucson, Arizona. For him, the forum was a great transition to his new call. “Thanks to my participation in the Princeton Youth Forum, I feel so much more confident about beginning a ministry to youth in Arizona,” he says. “I cannot think of a better ‘charge’ for a youth minister than to have the opportunity to learn from those who have had such rich experiences in their ministry to youth.”
The four-day forum began with worship on Monday afternoon, April 30, when Miller Chapel (filled to overflow capacity) swelled with the strains of the opening hymn, “From All That Dwell below the Skies.” It concluded with a communion service on Thursday evening. Amy Scott Vaughn, director of leadership development for the Institute for Youth Ministry, says that over the past five years “worship has taken on a more central role in the conference. The daily worship services anchor the event.” Martin Tel, PTS director of music, planned (and played organ for) the worship services.
Theological depth is also a hallmark of the forums. Thomas K. Tewell, M.Div. Class of 1973, pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, and PTS trustee, preached at the daily worship services. “Many of these youth leaders and educators indicated to me that they attend countless conferences on youth ministry, but that by far this...is the most theologically and biblically grounded,” he says. “[The conference] tries to shape the theological thinking of those who are shaping the minds and hearts of the youth of our congregations.”
“Church leaders are starving for theological substance for their ministries with young people,” says Kenda Creasy Dean, PTS assistant professor of youth, church, and culture. The forum challenges people to think about why they do ministry the way they do.
When the forums began in 1996, most attendees were professional church staff. These professionals have kept coming back—and have started bringing congregation members with them. Denominational youth ministry staff and professors from other institutions also attend. “You could say that the forums draw practitioners as well as people who are ‘influencers of influencers’ in youth ministry—both as leaders and participants,” says Dean. “As a result, these events have had far more impact on the way churches approach youth ministry than we originally realized.”
Seminars and electives are taught by youth ministry practitioners and lecturers as well as by faculty not directly involved with youth. “This allows participants to hear from...biblical scholars, theologians, and church historians,” says Vaughn. “It is very encouraging for participants to hear scholars affirm that what they’re doing in youth ministry is of great importance for the church.”
Tom Beaudoin and Marva Dawn were the keynote speakers for this forum, and each addressed the realities of the postmodern, wired world for those who proclaim the gospel to young people. Beaudoin, author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, examined the globalization of capitalism and its effects on church and ministry. For example, what does it mean for ministry that young people are “branded” by logos from their hats to their shoes to their music? Dawn, adjunct professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, explored ways the wired world can be both bane and blessing to proclamation of the Word.
Forum participants chose one extended seminar to attend over the course of three days, as well as two electives. Titles of the extended seminars reveal how complex is ministry with youth in the twenty-first century: “From the Areopagus to Aerospace,” “Do You Think I’m Too Fat? Body Hatred As a Spiritual Crisis and Social Disease,” “Righting the Wrong: Justice-Seeking As a Way of Life for Youth,” “The Bible and Youth: Wrestling with Three Tough Questions,” and “Why Columbine Won’t Go Away: Spiritual Drought in Today’s Youth.” Elective courses ran the gamut from nurturing spirituality and community in young people to finding God at the movies and the mall.
The forum offerings reflect the evolution taking place in youth ministry. The “next new thing” in youth ministry is theology, according to Dean. It used to be that theology was “almost unheard of” in youth ministry circles, ironically enough. Relatedly, youth ministry is moving away from programmatic emphases “toward radically relational forms of ministry that are often more integrated into the congregation as a whole,” Dean explains. “Of course church programs have a place, but they are a means to an end—namely, a vital relationship with Jesus Christ—not the end itself.” This relational understanding of ministry is leading to changes in worship and community life, for young people and youth ministers alike.
When almost three hundred youth ministry workers are gathered in one place, it will, of course, not be all work and no play. With perfect weather, volleyballs and frisbees were often flying through the air. A group of Canadians from the United and Presbyterian Churches in Canada have become regulars by attending all the forums held in Princeton during the last five years. They bring their friends, their hockey sticks, their humor, and their commitment to youth ministry. Kay Vogen, longtime administrator in the School of Christian Education, was declared an honorary Canadian—and was presented with an autographed hockey stick—at this most recent forum, her last before her July retirement.
At least one member of the Canadian youth ministry community has matriculated at the Seminary, with more to follow. Blair Bertrand is an M.Div./M.A. student from Ontario who just finished his first year at Princeton. He worked in youth ministry for a local church for six years before coming to Princeton as a student; he attended his first forum in 1997 and has since attended five forums and earned a Certificate in Youth and Theology from the Institute for Youth Ministry. Over the years of attending forums and becoming a conversation partner with Dean and others, Bertrand came to understand his call differently. He began his ministry with a parachurch model, but “became convinced that Word and Sacrament are important aspects of youth ministry.” Yet few youth ministry professionals in Canada are ordained. When Bertrand became convinced it was time for a theological education, Princeton Seminary was the obvious choice, a place where he could engage in intensive theological inquiry that matched his passion for youth ministry.
“There is a lot of subtle pressure for youth pastors to provide nothing more than entertainment and a safe haven for the young people in their communities,” says Vaughn. “I think the forums serve as a reminder that youth ministry is more about people than programs. They reinforce what we know to be true—that what teenagers really want is not free pizza and egg-and-armpit relays, but the life-changing love of Jesus Christ.”
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary