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Will Penner
By Dave Kerschbaum

It is well after midnight and there are still revelers enjoying the music, the camaraderie, and the cooling night air. There is plenty of noise and activity as the more nocturnal of the Cornerstone Festival crowd are just getting their second wind. Some are awake for practical reasons: there’s just no sense in trying to sleep when the thin walls of a tent provide little separation from the cacophony outside.

But not all are stirring. No one sleeps like a teenager sleeps, and there are a few of them sheltered by the roof of the youth worker hot spot called the Oasis, in sleeping bags on couches or on the ground, much like a youth group sleepover in a church basement. The only thing we’re missing is the foosball table and dramatic posters with the word ‘extreme’ somewhere in the text.

The next day is the wrap-up day for the fest, and the Oasis looks a bit different in the afternoon sun. There are plenty of places to sit and relax, but the staffers are working hard: talking to those inquiring about youth ministry, replenishing water supplies, and scrounging for informational material to give out.

Will Penner, editor of Youth Worker Journal, has negotiated the “nice-yet-casual” dilemma well: the clean, pressed khakis tell us he’s a professional, while his long, button-down, almost-floral print shirt and sandals let us know he’s approachable and likes working with kids. Today, he seems unhurried, and is enjoying talking with others about youth ministry ­ comparing notes, sharing ideas, relaying anecdotes.

He is also quite willing to sit with us for a few moments and give his perspectives on youth, pop culture, the Church, and what is relevant.

Phantom Tollbooth: Can you tell me a little bit about your magazine and who it reaches?

Will Penner: Sure. Youth Worker Journal is a publication by Salem Publishing Company, and they contract with Youth Specialties to provide the editorial content. I’m the editor of the publication. Our focus is on ministering to youth ministers -- anybody who works with young people, typically within the Church, although we have some who are Christian school teachers, or even public school teachers, and some social workers. But our primary focus is anybody who’s got a heart for bringing young kids to Christ and ministering to them; we want to help them in their professional development. We tend not to have a lot of bulleted lists and how-tos. We’re not the publication designed for [a youth worker saying], “Hey, I’ve got fifteen kids showing up in ten minutes. What do I do with them?” We are the publication that is designed for youth worker professional development. When you’re struggling with what it means to do and be church in ministry to young people, we’re the publication for them.

PT: And your background--is that in working with youth?

WP: Yes, it is. I was a principal, a teacher, and a coach for years and my master’s degree is in education. I'm all-but-dissertation on a PhD in education and human development.But I was a youth pastor for eight years, and that’s really where my heart comes from; that’s my passion.

PT: So then, is this publication drawn out of what you saw as a need?

WP: No, actually, the publication has been around for 20 years. Mike Yacconelli and the folks at Youth Specialties took a look at youth ministry and said, “You know, we’re still sort of a stepping stone; we’re still considered a transitional ministry. We’re not really thought of as professionals.” And there was a need to legitimate youth ministry as a profession. So they ran this journal for many years at a financial loss. They lost money every year. Thirteen years they did that, and they decided to get somebody who knows how to do magazines [to help]. So they sold it to CCM Magazine, and said, “If you guys can do the business, we’ll provide you with the editorial content. We know you know how to publish a magazine. So we’ll let you do what you do well, and we’ll do what we do well.” I came on about five years ago.

PT: I see. Are there any trends or changes in the youth from when you started your eight-year run as a youth leader? Are you seeing anything that the kids are dealing with now that they weren’t dealing with then, or are we looking at the same issues from generation to generation?

WP: I don’t know that there are a substantial number of issues that weren’t ever there. I think the issues are more predominant. For the last fifty years we’ve had kids who are dealing with abuse, neglect, pornography, substance abuse, gender issues, self-mutilation, all that kind of stuff. We hear more about it now, and maybe the predominance is there in ways that it wasn’t. I’d say some of the things that are most predominant in kids today are things like self-mutilation. I’ve heard cutting defined as the opium of the Nineties and the new millennium, and I would agree with that assessment. I think that another thing that is more predominant is gender issues, issues related to homosexuality and trans-gender issues. It’s more and more common for gender to be thought of as a human construct, as opposed to something that is pre-ordained. 

Some of that plays into some of the stuff Josh McDowell was talking to us about in this tent here, and that’s the notion of truth: Where is truth? I’d certainly say that is a mark of what a lot of folks are calling a post-modern culture. I’d definitely disagree with Josh in terms that I wouldn’t label all of post-modernity as characterized by the absence of truth. But, I think there is a pluralism that we see more today than we did several years ago, and a lot of that has to do with the mere fact that the way we have taught kids in the past in the Christian subculture simply does not work; does not hold water. It doesn’t play out in their lives. You know, we always talk to them about Truth with a capital ‘T’, and somehow they don’t see it playing out in their lives ­ they don’t buy it. And so, I think what we struggle with now is, we look for ways to connect Truth to culture, and we’re finding a lot of folks saying, “This is my truth. All truth is equal.” Regardless of how we feel about that, that is the truth of our culture right now: that not everyone believes in absolute truth. So, if we are going to be effective ministers in that culture, we need to learn that language. 

I’d say the other thing ­ now this isn’t real new right now ­ but the thing that’s probably different from what we had twelve, fifteen, twenty years ago is sort of a tribal mentality, and a lot of research has been done on that. But basically, you can’t expect to reach kids one at a time. They tend to cluster up and find their identities in cloisters. So, we need to allow for that. Instead of breaking up cliques like we used to do, we need to embrace them and allow those natural friendships to be a part of our ministries and our programs.

PT: A lot of those issues that you were mentioning, some of them are very dark or are very hard to bring up naturally, I think, with a kid -- especially self-mutilation, abuse, that sort of thing. And I imagine a teenager’s defense mechanism might pop up: “You’re not going to talk to me about this because, one, it’s uncomfortable, and two, you really don’t relate to me.” And I imagine on the other side of that, it’s probably something that a lot of youth workers don’t feel comfortable about addressing because they don’t know how. My question is, is the Church succeeding at addressing these things? Is it being relevant to the youth?

WP: Oh, I’m not sure that it’s a fair question to ask, “is the Church...” In general, I’d say certainly the vast majority of churches are not seen as relevant in kids’ lives. Now, whether or not the churches are in fact relevant is a different question. But kids, I don’t think, receive the Church as relevant in many cultures. Unfortunately, some of our answers to that are, “Let’s build a skate park, kids are interested in skating.” Now, that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a wonderful programmatic idea and it’s a way to connect to some kids. But, that is no more hitting a need than sitting around singing “Kumbaya” is. That’s a programmatic way of being relational with kids. 

Are we making a difference in kids lives is a different question, and the answer to that question is as varied as the people are that are in those churches. I think, unfortunately, one of the things we do is, we hear that kids are cutting themselves, so we say, “We need to do a unit on cutting.” Maybe that’s one approach, but it’s the only approach we’ve done in the past. [Or for instance,] I’ve got kids who are involved in sexuality. Alright, that’s all fine and good to do a unit on sexuality, but it’s still directive. It’s me telling you what you need to know. And there is a place and a time for that. But I think that most youth workers know intuitively ­ even if they aren’t taught this or it isn’t articulated this way ­ they know that you build relationships with kids; you care about them, you pour your energy into their lives, and be in Jesus with them. And at critical moments and times they invite you in. 

I don’t know if I’ve historically reached many kids saying, “Here’s what the Bible says about homosexuality.” Now, if I’ve built a relationship with the kid, if I’ve poured energy into him, and this kid comes up to me and says, “You know, I’m struggling with being attracted to people of the same sex,” or, “I’m struggling with this whole notion of homosexuality.” More often then not, it’s “I’ve got friends who are homosexuals, and the only ‘Christian’ message I’m hearing is, ‘God hates fags.’ What do I do with that?” And so, the opportunity is gold, you know? Right there is invitation to speak into a kid’s life. Or even better, I should say, to walk through that situation with that kid and not give him three simple points: “Alright, here’s the four spiritual...”

PT: Four spiritual laws...

WP: Yeah, I was going to try to couch it a little differently! But most of us know that very few people come to Christ through a tract. Very few people come to Christ through a three-point sermon. Very few people come to Christ through traditional sorts of methods. Now, there’s nothing wrong with continuing to do those things, but more and more, I think that youth ministers are going to be called to areas outside of their comfort zones. Anytime I was real comfortable doing youth ministry, I wasn’t real effective. Now, I don’t mean I’ve got to find the thing that I hate the most and be a martyr for Jesus or any of that, but I do think that we’re called to minister to young people. We’re called to be in the young people’s world, and churches don’t traditionally do that well. I mean, the whole notion of youth ministry: “Let’s hire a young person who connects with the kids. We’re gonna sing our songs, we’re gonna do church our way, but we really want to reach kids, so we’re gonna hire a young person to do that.” Well, okay. But I think more and more we’re going to see models of youth ministry that are as varied as the kids are. You’re going to have youth ministries that don’t meet in the church, or they don’t meet! You know, Youth for Christ was a radical notion at one point: “Hey, churches aren’t doing it well, so let’s just plant people on campuses to minister to kids.” [So some say] “What? You can’t do that, you’re not the Church!” [And Youth for Christ responds] “We’re not the Church, but when kids get fired up, we’ll feed them into the Church, if that’s where they’re called. But meanwhile, we’re going to minister to kids where they are.” Wow, what a radical concept! Same kind of deal: these are bands here at Cornerstone who are going into underground raves, places where no pastor’s going to go. 

You’ve got bands like Pillar and Skillet who are performing with bands like Slipknot. And they’re not pretending to be the Church, but they’re Christians who are out being salt and light in the world, and the more of us that are out doing that and aren’t constrained by what we think church should be, or what youth ministry should be, the more effective we’re going to be.

PT: Have you had a chance to talk to many kids here at Cornerstone?

WP: Yeah, a few.

PT: Are you finding that Cornerstone is something that is beneficial to their lives, or just a fun weekend and nothing more? What are you hearing the kids saying?

WP: I’d say both / and. There are kids for whom this is great recreation. It’s great in the sense that it’s clean recreation; it’s fun, it’s group-building, although I’d say there are other festivals that are group building, you know what I mean? They’re certainly safer in terms of their edginess. I think it’s also stretching in some ways. It’s certainly culturally diverse in different tribal groups that might not normally mix are here. You got your Goth kids, your punks, your skaters, your hard-core, you got people with all kinds of piercings and tattoos. Then, I’ve seen even a couple of country kids, wearing their boots, you’ve got a bunch of kids who are kind of preppy-looking, you got your jocks, your cheerleader types...I’m encouraged to see that because a lot of our traditional youth groups don’t mix kids like that well. Kids who are attracted to MxPx and East/West, and then kids who are attracted to Over the Rhine, or some Top 40 bands, or David Crowder Band, or any of that stuff. I mean, a lot of times you don’t see those kinds of kids mixing, and it’s great to see that here. On the other hand, it’s not very racially diverse, I’ve noticed, which is kind of unfortunate. 

I also think there are a lot of youth groups who come out here and don’t know what to expect, and they’re like, “Ohmigosh! I’m gonna get dirty! Oh, the showers, you have to hold the ­ what’s the deal? and they’re not always hot and they’re dirty, and what do you mean it’s gonna rain?!” 

In some ways, they’re here because it’s safer. They’re like, “You know, I think I want to be a follower of Jesus, but I don’t want all these church trappings with me,” and I think this is what brings people like that. Because they see all this variety, all this diversity that they don’t typically see in a -- You know, individual churches tend to be very homogeneous, and I think that a gathering like this enables them to see that, “Oh, so I don’t have to wear Christian t-shirts, and I don’t have to just listen to Christian music, for that matter. I certainly don’t have to listen to just Christian music that my parents like.” I think that’s very cool. That’s very freeing for them. 

And even a step further, you go to the Breakaway tent here, and you have kids who come who don’t know Christ, you know? Or who don’t know what the next step in their faith journey is: “What am I supposed to do next?” There are opportunities for kids like that to get challenged. There are opportunities for kids who are sold-out disciples of Christ, but don’t know what to do with that to connect with missions, and ministry, and they’re like, “Wow, I could be a part of Jesus People and could live communally,” or whatever. Or they look at Wycliffe Bible translation, and they’re like, “Dude! I could be involved in a short-term trip to Jamaica once a year, but I could also go give my life to finding a culture and translating a Bible for them.” And that’s cool. And you don’t see a lot of that kind of stuff in the local church, you know? So I think that’s really powerful. 

Another thing I think is cool--of course, this is where my heart is--is getting youth pastors together and letting them talk to one another, and see what they’re doing with one another and encourage one another. You know, when youth pastors come together and talk, it builds that community through youth workers, then it filters through to their kids, as well.

PT:  Yeah, absolutely. 

Last question I have is about philosophies on pop culture. Traditionally in the Church, there’s been a couple views. There’s one view that pop culture is for people outside of the church, that there’s nothing in it that is redemptive, nothing in it that is good for those who are in the Church. Then there’s another view, which is, “We’re gonna take what pop culture has done, and we’re gonna put out our own brand of it. We’re gonna make a Christian t-shirt that says, ‘His Blood’s for You.’ Here’s a pop artist that sounds just like a Christian Brittney Spears.” And then, there’s a third view, which I personally am seeing more and more, which is, “Yes, all pop culture is redemptive, or at least redeemable.” That there’s nothing outside God’s ability to redeem. At Cornerstone, I remember, one of my favorite seminars was about the Simpsons. It was called, “Celebrating the Simpsons.” It was done by David Dark.

WP: There’s a great book called __The Gospel According to the Simpsons__ published by Westminster John Knox Press. They’ve done a whole series of them now, too.

PT: Then there was another series (at Cornerstone) on the __X-Files__. What are you seeing as far as trends in attitudes toward pop culture are concerned?

WP: I would say there are still a significant number of Christians who are nervous about pop culture, probably with good reason. I think there are a couple culture watchers who exemplify that, and I think they are a very good voice for us. Phil Chalmers is an example of that, his True Lies seminars, and such. He does a good job of letting people know what to be nervous about. Al Menconi is another example of someone who historically has done that sort of thing. And those are voices that I hope don’t go away. I would say that the vast majority of youth workers tend to find themselves, if they had to decide between the two you characterized, then they would tend to look for the Christian culture alternative. You know, it’s the whole Christian skate park concept. And I think lots of adults that wouldn’t have been happy with that 20 years ago are thrilled with that today. 

__Group Magazine__ does this great Christian comparison chart. It’s this fold-out thing, and it’s like what you’re talking about: If you like this band, then you’ll like this band, and it’s a Christian alternative. And I think that’s really valuable. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of youth ministers with those things posted on the wall, and they have their Christian music libraries so the kids can do that. And I even refer to those sometimes, myself. I, historically, with __Youth Worker Journal__ have said, we’re not going to do that, because first of all, it’s already being done, so there’s no sense in duplicating that. Secondly, there’s a move now with Christian music, especially, but also with other Christians in culture, to not just develop an alternative, but simply to be Christians in culture.

Walt Mueller, who works with cpyu.org--I’d say they do a great job with helping bridge that. Now, Walt is as orthodox a Christian as Al (Menconi) or Phil (Chalmers), but he does try to engage culture. Now, there are certainly those who are out there engaging culture more, but a lot of folks might be kind of nervous about where they stand, theologically, or in terms of their philosophical perspective. Another good example, I think, would be some of the Emergent Village folks. They are all about trying to live as to be Church in today’s context. 

Cornerstone is another example of this. One of the films being shown here is __Last Temptation of Christ__.  It was a huge controversy when it came out, because it is not of an orthodox Christian perspective. But it opens an opportunity for dialog.

PT: Right, and it helps those who do hold to the orthodox Christian perspective see maybe what other people are thinking.

WP: Yeah. And it allows us to see our faith through someone else’s eyes, which I think is always helpful in ministry. I need to be constantly challenged, I think, to not only see my faith through my eyes, or through my kids’ eyes, or through my denomination’s eyes, or whatever, I need to see it through the eyes of the unbeliever, and through the eyes of multiple unbelievers because different people come at it from different perspectives. And if I’m going to be effective as a minister, I need to know what those are, and not just devalue them because they’re not my perspective. So, I do think we see more and more of that.

Interestingly, though, I think what’s rising up in response to a lot of folks embracing culture and saying we’re gonna help redeem culture, is there is a new brand of conservatism, or maybe a couple brands of conservatism, and one is being generated out of a response of, “You know what? There are folks out there who are compromising, and by golly, we’re not going to compromise, and we’re going to stand for our faith.” And they’re forming a new branch of conservatism, if you will. I think that’s coming from this really cool zeal and desire to be sold out for Christ. Acquire the Fire is a great example of that. They’re birthing some young people who are like, “Man, I’m gonna be sold out for Christ and I don’t care what you think.”

PT: It’s refreshing, too, to see.

WP: It is refreshing.

PT: I know there is, in certain churches, a trend to be all things to all people...

WP: And in doing so, does it get watered down? Now, on the other hand, you have this new brand of conservatism that says, “You know what? Here are my fundamentals and I, by golly, am not going to budge on those things. But I’m not going to push them on you.” So, it’s sort of non-evangelical evangelical, you know what I mean? It’s non-evangelical in that it’s not the four spiritual laws. But it’s evangelical in that I will share my story with you. But I will also listen to your story, and I’ll validate you. And I’ll try to find Jesus in it. I think it’s really cool to see the multiple expressions of Christ in our Christian sub-culture and outside our Christian sub-culture. It’s very cool to see Christians in mainstream film, in news, in music and dance and art and all that stuff. So, I’m thrilled about what I see.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
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