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An interview with Tony Jones about the Progressive Youth Ministry Confernce

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The Youth Cartel isn’t alone among ministry start-ups. There are several other organizations out there doing interesting and innovative things. One of them is The JoPa Group headed up by Tony Jones and Doug Paggit. They are putting together an event called the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference which is happening for the first time this March in Chicago.

Here’s a little Q&A I did with Tony about the new event. I hope it gives you some insight into what PYM is all about.

Adam McLane: Over the past few years you and I have had some chats about the current state of youth ministry training events. What void are you hoping to fill with the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference?

Tony Jones: More and more church leaders are unabashedly claiming the title “progressive,” yet most conferences are hesitant to use this language. Everyone wants to be “big tent” and to include everyone. But the fact is, conferences are most often ideologically driven. I see two trends in youth ministry conferences right now: 1) The mega-conferences are tilting to the right, a fact that is almost universally acknowledged; 2) non-conservatives are fricking sick and tired of conservatives telling us that we’re not true Christians (a statement that every progressive has heard). So we’re going to have an event of our own, where we can talk about Jesus and talk honestly about sexuality.

AM: Help our friends out. What’s the difference between progressive and liberal?

TJ: Liberal is primarily a sociological and political descriptor. It goes back to Enlightenment political theory, and — don’t tell Sean Hannity — but all Americans are actually “liberals” in some sense because we live in a “liberal democracy.”Progressive is a term better suited to the church because it is eschatological in nature — it says that we are looking forward, and moving forward, toward God’s promises.

AM: In the past year folks like Jonathan Merritt and Efrem Smith have brought up the issue of diversity at events. How is the JoePa team addressing that?

TJ: As you well know, putting together a conference is more art than science. I know that some events have a quota system to achieve diversity, but I fundamentally disagree with that. We try to address multiple diversities, and those include gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, theology, and denominational affiliation. I’m a very proud of the roster we’ve put together.

AM: I’m sure lots of people think of you more as a theologian than an innovator. But I think of you first as an ministry innovator. Are there any wrinkles to a traditional event that you guys are playing with?

TJ: As with any conference of this kind, there will be lots of amazing content delivered in three days — probably more than anyone can take in. I think what JoPa events have become known for is a highly relational, informal nature. We’re not big on glitz and smoke machines, and we don’t have a green room for speakers. Instead, we’re all in this together, and we try to make lots of room for conversations and debriefing.

AM: Giordano’s or Gino’s East?

TJ: If I have to choose, it’s Giordano’s. Scot McKnight once had to send me one packed in dry ice when the Vikings beat the Bears. However, I’m with Jon Stewart on this: I don’t know what that stuff is, and it is tasty, but it’s not pizza.


AM: Despite Tony’s insult on my favorite pizza on the planet, I’ll be at the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference presenting my new material, Teenagers + The Small Screen.

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