As a youth worker, I know that relationships matter far more than any talk I'll ever give or any discussion I'll ever lead.
I know this based on my own life experience. Even so, over the years, there have been three talks that have profoundly impacted me.
The first was at the National Youth Workers Convention in 2003. I was a young, unemployed youth worker at the time. My first year in ministry had just ended with my leaving my congregation, deeply wounded and unsure of my future in either the church or ministry. Since my former congregation had already paid for me to attend the National Youth Workers Convention, I went. I can honestly say the encouragement and training I received there is one of the reasons why I'm still in ministry today. Because of that, the NYWC will always have a special place in my heart.
One of the main stage speakers that year was Jay Bakker, the son of televangelists Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker. He gave a message permeated with grace. It was truly a "moment"; There's just no other way to describe it.
The irony is that I hated it. I remember driving to my aunt's house that night, frantically telling my husband all about it. I ranted and raved about the audacity of this guy to get up in a room full of youth workers and dare to suggest the church had mishandled his situation.
You see, that night, among other things, Jay shared about how as a young boy living through scandal, what he wanted and needed from the church was not another lecture, but grace; What he wanted and needed was for the church to accept him as he was, to love him, wholeheartedly and unconditionally.
At the time, I was the youth worker saying kids had to clean up their act before attending youth group (That person is so foreign to me now I barely recognize her). I honestly could not wrap my head around Jay's message. So I kept asking my husband, "Where's the accountability? Where's the tough love? Where are the standards?"
And I remember my husband, very quietly on the other end of the phone, saying, "I don't know Jen. I think he might be right."
With that - that one message and that one conversation - God ripped open my heart and showed me another way of loving his children. My ministry is now one infused with grace.
The second talk was also one I heard at the National Youth Workers Convention, several years later (circa 2007). That year, Shane Claiborne was one of the main stage speakers and I was a definite groupie. I couldn't wait to hear him.
The night finally arrived when he was scheduled to speak. He stepped onto the stage, did a trick involving breathing fire, and then said one brief sentence, something about how Christianity didn't need tricks because it had Jesus. He then read all of the Sermon on the Mount and sat down, letting Jesus' words speak for themselves.
I was blown away, and vividly reminded of the power of Jesus' words in my own life and ministry.
The third came just recently, at the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, where I was privileged to present a workshop on my Jesus research. Much to my delight, I was largely unfamiliar with the speakers at this conference, though there was one whose name I recognized: Jeff Chu. He spoke bravely and vulnerably about growing up gay in the church and what he wished his youth pastor knew. I laughed, I cried, and I - along with the room full of youth workers I was with - gave him a standing ovation at the end of his talk. As with the moment following Jay Bakker's talk at the NWYC all those years ago, this was one in which the Holy Spirit was palpable; The room was thick with the presence of God.
Though the recentness of this talk means that I cannot tell you exactly how it will impact my ministry, I have no doubt it will. As with the other two talks that have profoundly influenced me, this is one I won't soon forget.
So take my advice. Watch it. It's well worth your time.