Keeping youth where they belong

I may not be overseas, but I’m definitely “on the road” in Edmonton at Lutheran Church–Canada’s National Youth Gathering. This is my sixth so I guess that means I’ve been at two gatherings per district. The first in Alberta for me was in Three Hills at Prairie Bible Institute, not so fondly remembered for its hourly fire alarms beginning at midnight.

Each gathering seems to have its own personality. Gathering committee chairman Deacon Michael Gillingham and his team have created an event that focuses clearly on the theme belong&believe>> believe&belong, even in little things. This isn’t a “high tech” event. Sure, there is Powerpoint reinforcement and video clips shown to help illustrate points, but there is no video projection of speakers, the sound is not overpowering, but the energy and enthusiasm from a room full of teenagers is still there. The simplicity is building a sense of belonging. The messages are clear, strongly Scriptural and authentically Lutheran.

Each session is built around a Scripture passage and includes a Bible study. After Friday night’s opening, everyone was asked to bring their Bibles with them to the plenary sessions. Sure enough, Bible-toting Lutherans showed up the next day—and some of those Bibles were showing signs of wear and tear! (Our next Synod Convention in June 2011 will also be a BYOB—bring your own Bible—event!)

At events like this I look for unique stories. I found one in the attendance statistics. The largest delegation from a single congregation is from La Ronge Lutheran Fellowship in northern Saskatchewan. Thirty-four youth and their leaders travelled 12 hours by bus. To keep expenses down, they are sleeping at Grace Lutheran Church. I talked with a young lady who was really enjoying the gathering, her first time attending something like this. It reminded me of a conversation I had at a previous gathering with a young man from a small rural congregation who was thrilled to be among so many people his age who believed the same things he did! That’s the beauty of a youth gathering. It’s a time of great encouragement and spiritual challenge and resulting growth. Tonight’s dinner companion was a pastor who told me that being part of a youth gathering cemented his decision to attend seminary and become a pastor. Not only that, he told me of two others for whom the Lord used a youth gathering to lead them in the same direction.

This afternoon was encouraging in another way. The schedule included 11 breakout sessions, and most of these were aimed at developing gifts and talents youth could take back to their congregations. Imagine spending 90 minutes under the direction of a nationally recognized choral director learning about vocal production and conducting! Or discovering how you can use your photography skills in the service of your congregation and church body. And tomorrow at Concordia University College of Alberta there are another 20 similar opportunities.

What we adults need to do when our youth return is help them keep developing their God-given skills and talents and involve them in the areas of service for which they are trained and equipped. It’s not enough to have a “youth Sunday.” Our youth should be integrated into every church activity As the gathering sessions keep reinforcing, they already belong to Jesus and to His family through their baptism. By asking them to participate just as all the other baptized members of the family do, we affirm their place in the church, where they belong.

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