4 Lessons Learned at Progressive Youth Ministry Conference 2014

progressive youth ministry
Last week I had an opportunity to experience something different.  The Progressive Youth Ministry Conference was a youth worker conference that, on the surface, seemed very hipster.  In emails sent out before the event, it was made clear that there was no conference hotel, everything was taking place at a host church, there would be no free stuff (bags, tshirts, etc), and we were to bring our own water bottles to cut down on environmental and economical resources.  The day before the conference, Tony Jones put out a plea to help set up the worship space.  The leadership never once defined what “progressive” meant and left it up to us to define that part of the Progressive Youth Ministry conference.  I speak for a lot of people when I say progressive means forward thinking that tends to be outside the normative Christian culture.  Progressive people want to push the Church into new territory, together, because the world around us is changing.

How refreshing it was to be at a national youth worker gathering that didn’t use a smoke machine! Being a short person, I naturally do not enjoy crowds, so the small gathering of 200 like-minded people was a relief.  Getting to hear from so many people across the spectrum of progressive individuals who were invested in youth ministry affirmed, stretched, and pushed me in ways I wasn’t expecting.  There were great conversations and wonderful ideas, but here are the four most important things I took home with me:

1. Write a book. 

Tony Jones has written a lot of books.  Some are relevant, some are crap (his words), but he wrote them and his voice was heard.  The beauty of the communion of Christ is just how unique we are.  One of my favorite barbershop songs is “So Many Voices Sing America’s Song” by the Acoustix.  It speaks to the variety of our life experiences, and how, together, we make up something bigger than ourselves.

Everyone has a voice and each voice deserves to be heard.  Not only does it deserve to be heard, but the greater community of the Church would benefit from hearing it!  So Tony challenged us to title a book and write it.  In case you were wondering, mine is titled So You’re 21 and Think You Know Everything About Youth Ministry.  It’s a working title.

 2. Youth are naturally subversive. 

And we aren’t giving them space to be.  Adolescents historically have been the root of many uprisings and radical changes in society, but youth in this generation have lost their ability to be subversive.  Claudio Carvalhaes proposed that the white upper middle class church’s obsession with safety is partially to blame, along with astronomical student loan debt, and medicating children who don’t listen to authority.

Claudio hit on something that resonated with me.  We must pay attention, pause, be with, and then send our students to make a difference in our Church and our world.  We get to be a part of that world changing by giving students language to their fears, insecurities, and dreams.  I don’t want to give my students a safety net.  I want them to live boldly, courageously, and unashamedly a life of the gospel, as I walk beside them doing the same.

3. Our youth don’t need our lessons. 

They just need us.  They need us to meet, to walk, to be.  That’s it.  Jeff Chu talked about growing up gay in the church.  We have a lot of students struggling with more than we will know, whether that be sexual identity, family dynamics, or peer systems.  The advice from Jeff remains the same: meet, walk, be.

So maybe that means cutting back on highly involved programming and catching a few more baseball games.  Or maybe it looks like intentional one on one meetings with students, regularly and consistently.  It’s different for everyone, but it’s the undercurrent to everything we do as youth pastors.  We aren’t pastoring if we’re just teaching. 

4. God needs to be put on trial in our Confirmation classes. 

Raise your hand if you’ve got students you’ve only seen at Confirmation and Graduation Sunday.  Me too.  And so did everyone else at PYM.  So what are we doing wrong?  There were actually several people who talked in depth about the problems with Confirmation across denominations. Luckily, United Methodists aren’t the only ones screwing it up.

Of all the theories proposed about Confirmation, this one challenged me the most: honor the importance of the ritual that reconciles heretics to the church.  Christopher Rodkey challenged youth workers to use the story of Peter’s denial as a model for how to teach Confirmation.  Present students with three different arguments and let them wrestle, choose, and decide on their own.  Through that, students may see Confirmation as less than conform-ation and more as transformation.

I can only try and do justice to the ideas presented at PYM. The plenaries will be posted online in the coming weeks for a nominal fee. If you can swing it, it’s completely worth the $20. May you be affirmed, stretched, and pushed in similar ways, and may our Church feel the impact of it.

And if you choose to attend next  year, which I highly recommend, make sure to take a buddy. Chicago is huge, and it’s much more fun with a friend.


What is the title of your book?

How do you think Confirmation can be done differently?

What do you do well as a youth pastor?

About Audrua Malvaez

AudraAudrua Malvaez is a life-long Methodist in Houston, TX. Audrua is passionate about learning new ways to help the church serve alongside the people that live in the margins of local communities. Audrua is currently pursuing Certification in Youth Ministry through the Perkins School of Theology at SMU. Audrua (re)tweets about youth ministry, University of Houston sports, and current events at @aayyemm and is currently the youth director at Faith UMC Spring. Most importantly, Audrua is a newlywed, celebrating her first anniversary with her husband Bobby; they have two adorable dogs name Molly and Stevie.




  1. I hope you’ll check out Confirm not Conform, which does exactly what you talk about above: recognize youth voices and honor their subversiveness — and respect heresy as a potential force for good and change (a la Martin Luther). We recently expanded the program, creating a Methodist version. I’d be happy to talk with you more about it.

    In the meantime, do take a look at our website: confirmnotconform.com. Sorry to seem so spammy, but I wanted to make sure you’d heard of us!

    Laura Darling
    Managing Director

  2. Thanks for writing this! A great conference and you really captured it well here. Rock and roll!

  3. Great reflections, Audrua! You captures some great moments well. It was nice meeting you too 🙂

  4. can you please elaborate on “Putting God on trial?: I thought the goal of youth ministry was to encourage people in their faith, not make them doubt.

    • Dan, I would argue that the goal of youth ministry is to create a safe space for students to share openly and struggle with their doubts. I think by acknowledging up front that doubts about faith are normal, healthy, and good, and then giving them the framework to process through them, we will set them up for success as functioning adults in the Church.

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