Youth Specialties Promises Big Changes But Reality Proves Otherwise

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According to a June 23rdChristianity Today article titled, “Less Edgy Conferences,” the Zondervan-owned organization Youth Specialties is going to make “dramatic shifts” this fall at their National Youth Workers Conventions. The CT article, which is based on a pod-cast by Youth Specialties president, Mark Oestreicher, suggests that these changes being brought about could be because of financial difficulties within and criticism against this emerging church organization. The article says that the biggest change is that the expected 3000+ attendees at the tri-city event can “expect keynote speakers to address fewer hot-button issues from the main stage than in years past.”

Organizers hope to build a “more unifying” gathering, the CT article states, that will draw a broader scope of attendees, from “Catholic” to mainline Protestant to “conservative evangelicals” with the hope of focusing more on what these groups have in “common,” which the article says is “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Youth Specialties president (who took over after founder Mike Yaconelli was killed in a car accident a few years ago) says: “Whether you’re a liberal [Methodist] or Presbyterian or some other denomination like that, or whether you come from a Southern Baptist church or an independent Bible church, those are things we can stack hands on.” In Oestreicher’s podcast announcement (which prompted the CT article), he says that “the shift that we are trying to bring this year is rather than to say instead of focusing on acknowledging that we all have differences … let’s kind of go toward a kingdom of God theological perspective.”

This “kingdom of God theological perspective” is the same “perspective” that Lighthouse Trails discussed in our article on Mike Erre’s book, Death by Church. Erre, who recently spoke at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa to thousands of youth, lays out a manifesto of the “kingdom of God” perspective in his book with elements such as panentheism (God in all things), universalism (all of creation being saved), kingdom-now theology, etc. This IS the very perspective that Youth Specialties has been promoting for many years.

The article admits that past conferences have focused on “challeng[ing] audiences and offer[ing] fresh, even controversial, theological perspectives,” but “in recent years, Youth Specialties has faced a backlash from certain segments of its constituency, Oestreicher acknowledged.”

Last year, for example, one featured speaker was Andrew Marin, president and founder of the Marin Foundation, a nonprofit that builds bridges between the religious and gay communities. Marin’s appearance hit a nerve with some, but not all, conservatives, and probably prompted Youth Specialties’ decision to “play it safe” at the upcoming conventions.

What the article does not mention is that Marin Foundation is an advocacy group for the homosexual lifestyle and integrating this lifestyle into “the body of Christ.”2The article states that Marin Foundation will be participating at this year’s event as well in workshops.

The CT article emphasizes that Oestreicher “remains committed to ‘pushing the envelope'”:

“There’s definitely an opportunity to engage in discussions around topics,” he said. “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.”

Basically, what we have described is the essence of the CT article. And now for the rest of the story:

The Christianity Today article has left much to be desired in understanding what is taking place here. The first thing that comes to our minds when reading this article are the words of the esotericist Alice Bailey (who coined the term New Age) when she said that the day would come when it would be vital for those who are seeking to bring about the new spirituality (the Age of Aquarius) would have to infiltrate the Christian church, leaving the outer layers intact (so as not to cause alarm), while working vigorously to change the structure from the inside. Then later these outer wrappings could be eliminated as well. Those who are familiar with the history and the mission of Youth Specialties and the emerging church, as a whole, will understand that these “dramatic shifts” being presented by Youth Specialties are put in place because criticism and challenge (by Bible-believing ministries) have revealed to many the anti-biblical approach of this and other similar groups. While appealing to Christian youth and youth workers, such groups have, whether wittingly or unwittingly, deceived many and led countless young people toward an emerging, mystical spirituality. They have inadvertently put the faith of exposed young people at risk.

So while this effort to draw the more conservative circles of Christianity in is taking place, the theological underpinnings will remain the same. The CT article admits, “I don’t see a big ideological shift here. I see a business plan in action.”

What are those ideologies that aren’t changing? First let’s take a look at the history of Youth Specialties. In Faith Undone, in a section titled “Shaping the Minds of Our Youth,” Oakland talks about the beginning days of Youth Specialties in the late 1960s and how within a few years the organization had won the attention of Christian publishing house, Zondervan. Mike Yaconelli and Wayne Rice (the founders of Youth Specialties) “wanted to change the way youth ministry was viewed and approached.” Over the next thirty years, the two companies published over 500 resources for youth workers. In 1984, Zondervan signed a co-publishing deal with Youth Specialties, and worth noting, in 1988, Rupert Murdoch’s multi-billion dollar corporation purchased Zondervan (which of course later became Rick Warren’s publisher).

Twelve years after the 1988 purchase, Youth Specialties partnered with the liberal/mystical-promoting San Francisco Theological Seminary. The two organizations resonated with each other: YS had already begun hooking up with Emergent (from Leadership Network at the time). Oakland states: “Sharing many of the same spiritual affinities as Emergent, Youth Specialties hoped to help take the movement to the next level with more books, more conferences, and more growth” (Faith Undone, pp. 35-36).

Youth Specialties has sought after that “next level” with the help of some of the most contemplative and emerging type figures and mystical practices and exercises. The books published through the YS/Zondervan partnership have equally advocated such a spirituality time and time again.

We would like to issue this alert, especially to those conservative Christians that YS will be hoping to connect with. While the outer layers may be changed to look more “Christian,” there is no indication that YS is changing its ideologies or spiritual approaches. But there is every reason for us to believe that the faith of the youth workers attending the YS National Youth Workers event will be at as much risk as ever. Remember, spiritual deception looks very much like the right thing. But it is anything but that.

Lighthouse Trails first reported on Youth Specialties over four years ago. We hope our reports have had some kind of impact in helping believers become more informed of the new spirituality. This new mystical spirituality, which of course really isn’t new, will ultimately lead adherents away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ and toward “another gospel” and “another Jesus” (II Corinthians 11:14).

This year’s National Youth Worker’s Convention is going to bring the same genre of spiritual figures and opportunities as in the past. The line-up includes the following emerging/contemplative speakers: Dan Kimball, Mark Oestreicher, Duffy Robbins, Jim Burns, Scot McKnight, Don Miller, and Tony Campolo (all of which you can read about on the research site), as well as Anthony Marin of the Marin Foundation. So while YS organizers are stating that there is going to more focus on the gospel and less on controversial issues, they are including speakers (like Tony Campolo), who advocate mystical practices and emerging spirituality (see link below). Duffy Robbins and his wife Maggie are the authors of Enjoy the Silence, a book sold by YS and one that promotes contemplative prayer practices (e.g. lectio divina). Incidentally, Maggie Robbins, who was trained at the Kairos School of Spiritual Formation, will be teaching a workshop based on that book. Another workshop to be held is called “Creating Sacred Spaces” taught by contemplative advocate Lilly Lewin (please check out her website). In addition to the event’s speakers and their mystical propensities, on the current Youth Specialties website store, they are still selling an array of highly contemplative/emerging books, such as Tony Jones’ book, The Sacred Way, where he devotes entire chapters to subjects such as centering prayer, the “prayer of the heart” (contemplative), and The Cloud of Unknowing (pp. 71-72). With all of this, and even more, coming out of Youth Specialties, this hardly seems like “dramatic shifts.” For those who are skeptical, spend some time on the conference website and research some of the other speakers. We believe you will find that the majority are those in the contemplative and/or emerging camp. So while Youth Specialties has made the announcement that they are going to be more “gospel” focused, the reality of what is going to take place is entirely different. And yet most people who read the Christianity Today article will think things are changing for the good at Youth Specialties, and they will never know the truth.

In Oestricher’s podcast, he mentions the Independent fundamentalist denomination as one he is hoping will be part of the new shift at Youth Specialties. This is one denomination that has not had much infiltration by the emerging movement as of yet. But by the looks of it, they are going to be wooed by the movement as have other evangelical organizations such as Calvary Chapel, Southern Baptist, Church of the Nazarene, Christian Missionary Alliance, Foursquare, Assemblies of God etc. The adversary of our Lord (and the Bride of Christ) means business–he is out to get our youth. May the Lord give believers wisdom and understanding regarding this deception. While his tactics will become more obscure as his plans are exposed, as believers, let us not be ignorant of his devices.


Youth Specialties Shifts Convention Approach to Avoid Controversy

More from YS on the changes

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