If you’ve been following the blog here at The Awesomeness Conspiracy, you know I spent last week at the Aldersgate Campus of New Creation UMC in Chesapeake, Va., for their annual Youth Week celebration. This was the second consecutive year I was invited to be the guest speaker for this incredible youth event and for my daughter Amanda and I to be part of it.
I had originally intended to post a daily blog entry throughout the week, but as you probably noticed I stopped kind of abruptly after last Wednesday’s post. Shortly after I uploaded that article, a freak lightning strike and small (but quickly contained) electrical fire at the home of our hosts, Sean and Barb Maconaghy, scrambled our plans and living arrangements for the last few days of our visit. Then, after returning home late Sunday night, my time was occupied with preparing for a scheduled engagement to speak at a revival service at Barlow Presbyterian Church in Barlow, OH, last night.
Despite all of that, though, I wanted to come back to Youth Week one last time and share some of my impressions.
To say that Jesus was present throughout the week and that lives were transformed might be both cliché and a bit of an understatement. We saw teenagers genuinely trying to deal with family tragedies, broken situations in homes, addictions, loneliness and hopelessness. We saw kids come together to lift one another up, to pray together, cry together, and laugh together.
We saw students who, for the first time, began to “get it” when it comes to understanding the reality of Jesus. And we saw one young man come into the week (at the invitation of a friend) denying that God even exists and end the week with a celebration of Christian baptism.
I’m sure I speak for all of the adult leaders, church staff, and my friends from the worship band To Send With Love when I say that none of us could take any credit for any of it.
On Friday night, during our closing worship service as we gathered for a time of Holy Communion and invitation, we did our best to create an atmosphere where the students could open themselves up to have an authentic experience of Jesus in that place and time. There’s a delicate balance for worship leaders and preachers to set a tone for those kinds of moments without becoming emotionally manipulative.
The response we witnessed was nothing short of amazing. God was clearly intersecting in students’ lives. The outpouring of love in the room was tangible.
But to me, what might have been the coolest part of the week was on Sunday morning as the students led the Youth Sunday services for the congregation.
Not only did the folks of Aldersgate pack both Sunday morning services, but the support of the church for its youth ministries was clearly evident. This is a church that knows how to prioritize youth ministries. The compliments that poured out from the attendees to the clergy, the youth staff and to all of us who participated were heartfelt and genuine.
As I mentioned last week, it seems too many churches are unwilling to give much more than lip service to youth ministries. We all want youth programming, but we are unwilling to commit the resources–especially in terms of time and money–to create and maintain successful ministries. We often become so entrenched in defending traditions and attempting to live in a bygone era that we fail to appreciate the power and potential of a strong youth program to enliven stagnant congregations. We become so focused on squeezing pennies that we fail to create a compelling environment where people are not only willing, but anxious to give of themselves.
Events like Youth Week have been a blessing to me because they remind me of what is possible. They remind me of what the church can be when it sets its vision and priorities with where Jesus is actively moving in the world. Always looking forward, never backward. Respecting tradition, but not worshipping it.
Below is a short 4-minute video I put together of interviews with several Youth Week participants. I think it demonstrates in a powerful way what can happen in the lives of teenagers when a church makes them a top priority.
Thanks, New Creation, for an amazing week! I hope we can do it again next year!