“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8–9 (NRSV)
“Held every 3 years since 1980, the LCMS Youth Gathering provides thousands of youth and adults the opportunity to come together as a community of God’s people to learn more about Jesus Christ, the Christian faith and their Lutheran identity. During the five days of the Gathering, youth spend time together in God’s word, worship, service, and fellowship with others from across the synod. This event is organized by LCMS Youth Ministry in Saint Louis, MO.”*
In 1980, in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Gathering theme was “Rejoice in His Presence” and focused on the Three Articles of the Apostles’ Creed; Creation, Redemption, and Sanctification. According to the historical records, about 25,000 have consistently attended these events every three years; and many return as Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs or the Orange Nation). This year, the theme was “In Christ Alone,” focusing on identity, humility and community. It is meant to support the 500 year celebration of the Reformation in 2017 with the theme STAND.
Most churches are already beginning to plan for the fundraising, development and registration of their youth to attend the next Gathering in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2019.
This was the first year that my congregation has sent youth to the National Youth Gathering (NYG) and it was already underway when I assumed my tenured call position as Director of Family and Community. The youth leader informed me about the existence of this event within a month and we started to strategizing. I was going to be the ‘second-string’ quarterback…..a fill in if the main QB, the youth leader, was unable to attend. I’d learn all the stuff, alongside him, so I could step in if needed. I was confident that such an event wouldn’t happen. (Yeah, I’ve made that mistake many times; you’d think I’d learn).
The youth leader was blessed by the birth of a baby boy to his family of two and I assumed the duties of first-string a few months before the Gathering. There went the stay-cation I was going to have when my two went to the Gathering.
I had lived in Baton Rouge and a little blimp on the highway to Alexandria called Marksville in my younger days. I traveled as part of the Church bringing aid and hope to Katrina’s devastation. The reason why I purchased a water-cover that sits under the coffee mug is in remembrance of seeing one imbedded in a tree that first post-Katrina trip. I knew New Orleans culture and community. As I was to re-learn about N’awlins rain (and a lot that I had forgotten), preparing for the Gathering started with a light misting that developed into a driving vertical rainstorm.
Through planning the trip, organizing the “interest centers” and planning for a little sight seeing; hours and hours went blindly into the preparation of the Gathering group. There were thematic pre-Gathering bible studies (Identity, Humility and Community) and financial considerations and planning. Fundraising events, praying about the event, seeking advice from other local leaders who have gone before and strategizing about how to maximize the impact such events have on the youth….at least, according to the media prep I read.
The day arrived, and we departed from St. Paul Lutheran with their youth and youth from St. Michael’s for the twenty hour (20) trip to New Orleans Louisiana. And sanity went out the window without me noticing……..
We arrived on Saturday and began the adventure that N’awlins would be. A different kind of heat, walking everywhere (up to 10 miles a day within a 2.5 mile radius) and being in the uncomfortable position of leading youth that I really didn’t know….beyond my two and even that was a toss-up in this environment. Day one went without a hitch and we wearily sank into our hotel beds that night.
Day two, during the first adult session which I was late getting to, I learned that all the advice, preparation and planning was going to push my youth too hard and I threw out the hard work, the Excel spreadsheet and comfort of the plan. Day three, disaster as I gave the kids too much responsibility and trust. Day four, recovering from Day three and Day Five, eyes turning to the return to familiar sights and sounds as the time drew to a close.
Not a successful trip, if you were to ask me. I failed the group, my co-leader and my congregation. As I sank into the uncomfortable seats of the charter bus and nodded gratefully to the familiar face of the bus driver who had dropped us off four days ago, my mind said, as I looked at the swollen right foot underneath me, “I’ll never go to another Gathering again!”
And as I managed to drift off in the uncomfortable position later into a semi-sleep, I reviewed the Gathering events, the youth I had led and the troubles that have me convinced that I am not made for youth ministry……..
The young man who wants to be mentored to lead so that he can come back as a YAV and serve; the other who wants to take his faith deeper so that he can be what God has called him to be; a servant to others. The young man, challenged by others reaction to him and his special needs, who walked with confidence around the conference center, greeting friends from other places and times in his life, and the young women who meshed together. The bible study notes taken in bibles freshly made….by those who never did before. Sitting next to some of the youth, enjoying David Crowder and the music that has made my heart soar and my burdens ease. The helpful CRBs and YAVs, the leaders and volunteers. The New Orleans Police Department who always seemed surprised when I shook their hands and said, “Thank you for your service to us.” And, seeing the filming of NCIS: New Orleans with a favorite actor, Scott Bakula, as we were walking back to the hotel. The heat. The sudden rainstorm that soaked me and the two youth who went on a ‘mercy’ mission for one of the group…..the failures of my leadership, the pain in my bones.
I’m NEVER going on a National Youth Gathering trip again……..with the carefully crafted charts and graphs and expectations that I did with this one. I’m never going to go again with the expectation of pomp and circumstance that will briefly light up the passions of the youth in attendance but die in the light of the new day. I’m never going again with the unkind thought that there is no real power in spending so short a time with so many others. I’m never going to go again with the sinful thought that God doesn’t know what He is doing placing the burden of leadership and care and direction upon my shoulders.
I’ve learned something; God knows better than I. He thinks deeper than I can, knows more than I’ll ever know and cares deeper than my fragile humanity can attain.
But, In Christ Alone, I am made new. In Christ Alone, I find the ability to think of others more powerfully than myself far beyond my own capability. In Christ Alone, I belong to the greatest, craziest and blessed community of His Ohana; the Church.
In Christ Alone, I find joy…love…and identity in the humility, connection and community of His people.
The National Youth Gatherings aren’t just for the 14-19 year olds…….
- taken from the 2016 National Youth Gathering website.