Youth Specialties Shifts Convention Approach to Avoid Controversy

Youth Specialties, one of the largest organizations equipping Christian youth workers, will be making some dramatic shifts this year at their popular convention.

One of the major changes includes featuring main session speakers who won't push the buttons of a theologically diverse crowd.

For years, Youth Specialties had brought in various speakers to the National Youth Workers Convention to cater to youth workers from different denominations, theological backgrounds and contexts.

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"I think part of how we pursued that (serving a diverse crowd) is, to put it in a negative, we've almost built a convention where everybody has the opportunity to get pissed off or to get bugged by something," said Mark Oestreicher, president of Youth Specialties, in a webcast this week.

"It's like celebrating those differences was actually becoming divisive rather than bringing us together," he added.

Oestreicher explained that the organization received "so much more critique," some of which were ugly, from convention attendees last year who felt the youth workers organization was pushing an agenda of some sort.

One of last year's main sessions addressed the issue of homosexuality and youth. The featured speaker was Andrew Marin, president and founder of The Marin Foundation, an organization created to build bridges between the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) and religious communities through scientific research, Biblical and social education.

Oestreicher insisted they were not trying to push any kind of agenda but realized that the convention was creating more contention that unity.

So this year, the organization is looking to shift their approach from presenting a "variety show" during the event's main sessions to focusing on what they all have in common.

This year's featured speakers will "address the heart and soul of youth ministry rather than hot button issues," Oestreicher said.

"We're trying to be very intentional to choose speakers that are not there to push buttons or raise issues as much as to speak to your soul as a youth worker, challenge you in areas of leadership or carrying out your calling but not like hot button theological topics," the YS president stressed.

Speakers for the main sessions (now termed "Big Room" rather than "General Session") this year include Francis Chan, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley; Andy Stanley, founder of North Point Ministries; and Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz.

While controversial topics such as homosexuality will not be discussed in the main sessions, Oestreicher noted that participants will still have the opportunity to engage in such discussions during the "labs" or seminars portion of the convention.

"It's not like we're trying to make this a vanilla event that is lowering the bar to the least common denominator so that we can all agree on everything and create some kind of false utopia," he stated.

The point of the shift this year, he said, is to utilize the main sessions that everyone attends to encourage the soul and to challenge youth workers in their faith and leadership. Other topics are being saved for the labs.

Among other changes, this year's youth workers convention will also include an "unconvention open source" day where attendees who want to lead their own discussions will have the opportunity to do so. Rather than have attendees choose from Youth Specialties' own hand-picked list of speakers and discussions, the participating youth workers will be able to shape the day themselves.

"We really felt it was time for us to move away from only YS picking all the speakers," Oestreicher said.

The changes to the 2009 convention come as Youth Specialties is undergoing some internal changes, Oestreicher noted, including relocating its headquarters which is currently in El Cajon, Calif.

"YS needs to continue to evolve and change and grow, or we shouldn't exist anymore," he stressed. "We have to become a new organization so we can serve you guys in ways that are timely and meaningful in the culture that we live in, not in the culture of 1978."

Every year in the fall, Youth Specialties hosts three conventions. The 2009 National Youth Workers Convention will be held in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Atlanta, respectively, beginning in September. More than 3,000 attendees are expected to attend each event.

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