Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What about the National Youth Gathering?

I have been mulling over some thoughts about the LCMS National Youth Gatherings.  I have attended one, my kids have been at five, and I have know several of those who work on the planning for these things.  That does not make me an expert but neither has that prevented me from having an opinion on something.  So, here are few meandering opinions from my scatterbrained mind...

Let me begin with a quote from Leroy Huizenga, a Roman Catholic commenting on their World Youth Day:
Mountaintop experiences do matter: they shake youth (and adults) out of the boredom of quotidian routine. But mountaintop experiences are not the norm, as Scripture attests; the theophany on Mount Sinai was not enough to sustain the people for the long term, and even after witnessing Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, Peter, James, and John failed again and again. Mountaintop experiences are not enough to sustain a person, a parish, a Church. Indeed, one sees in the Gospels that even repeated encounter with Jesus Christ, God incarnate, was not always enough to sustain the disciples. 

Mountaintop experiences are not bad.  They are good.  The every three year LCMS national youth week is one of those mountaintop experiences.  It is a logistical challenge, a very costly endeavor, and offers great potential.  Mountaintop experiences are only valuable, however, if they teach us how to be sustained in the valley.  That is where I believe the LCMS NYG needs to focus.

Too much music.  We live in the music generation in which every kid you see has ear buds, an Ipod or smart phone and the uniqueness of the music soon wears thin.  Christian rock is still rock and it all sounds the same whether it has a Christian lyric or not.  In the beginning it was a bigger deal than today.  We need to move on.  Kids can listen to all the music they want to now.  What kind of things can replace some of the music? 

Too much for kids to watch and see.  The kids are way to passive at these gatherings.  They watch.  They listen.  They do not think enough or act enough.  It may not be entertainment but we need to engage them to think, to act, to do -- not trivial or meaningless things but things of substance.

Too much effort on outdoing the last one.  How much more can we focus on the drama, the music, the technology???  We have to figure out a way not to compete with the last one but build upon it.  The same script has not worn well.  Perhaps some new folks and new ideas are necessary.  The world is a far different place today than 30 years ago even though the issues of sin and death and the answers of mercy and grace remain the same. 

Not enough direction.  Our kids are more self-absorbed than ever before.  One of the prime opportunities of the NYG is to confront this, to challenge this, and to change this.  Kids are too passive and too focused on themselves.  Lets use this wonderful opportunity to reshape this focus on self.  Use some of the music time to confront and challenge the Christian who mirrors the same self-centered focus and life of the world around them.  Wouldn't it be great if kids came home compelled to give up the smart phone or video game and do something for their neighbor?

Not enough service.  Our kids from this parish have gone to every NYG since the early 1990s and have ended up participating in but one servant event even though they were supposed to participate in one every NYG.  The service part of this should be more integral.  If the community does not know what to do with our kids, we will have to come up with what to do to focus their service on making a real difference.  Our kids are not self-starters when it comes to Christian service.  The NYG needs to figure out how not merely to do good where the gathering is but to equip our kids to serve in the parish, youth group, and community.

Not enough teaching.  Our kids today are smart but distracted.  The NYG should give them more solid and intentional direction on the compelling reason to be Lutheran, to stay Lutheran, and to live Lutheran.  Statistics tell us they are in danger of drifting from the faith and from the church home in greater proportion than ever before.  We need to counter this with teaching that both inspires and convicts them -- not on vague, Christian terms but on the level of their Lutheran identity, born of baptism, shaped by the catechism, and lived out around the means of grace.  We need to give them the resources to come home with an agenda, with a purpose, and with a sense of calling.  Everyone of them should be asking themselves "Why am I not considering a church work vocation?"  Everyone of them should come home with skills and resources to make a difference in their congregation, parish youth group, and within the circle of their friends.

Though some think they are winding down, the numbers from San Antonio tell us otherwise.  It may be time for some of the old leaders to move on and for us to find a new model besides outdoing the last NYG, but they will be around for a while and should be.  But we need to justify the time and expense better by making it more substantial.

The factors that could kill off the NYG have less to do with Synod and its leaders and more to do with other things very local. 
  • Money.  It costs a ton to go.  For us about $1200-1400 per kid.  That is the kind of money you have to justify to keep doing every three years.  Our budget is close to $15K per NYG.
  • Kids.  We have less high schoolers than any other time in modern memory and a higher percentage of them are already going to the gathering.  If these numbers dwindle more, the gathering may be in trouble because of the numbers issue alone.  This is certainly true of Synod as a whole.
  • Divorce.  We found it here and I am sure that divorce and parental time/custody/visitation issues work against NYG especially when one of the parents is not or never was Lutheran.  We find that a problem on the parish level and I do not see how it cannot impact the national gathering.
  • Small youth groups.  Our District did squat to connect smaller congregations with a couple of kids interested who could have worked together.  The Districts will have to do more to assist these circumstances or a whole segment will disappear and the NYG will become the domain of youth from medium or very large congregations.  
The mountaintop experiences are great but unless they equip us for the valleys, they are only a distraction.  I like the Higher Things model and substance but those gatherings will never replace the NYG.  What Higher Things can do is help the NYG do a better job with the great opportunity having so many Lutheran high schoolers in one place provides.  If that happens, both will be well served.


Tom Vanderbilt said...

"Our District did squat to connect smaller congregations with a couple of kids interested who could have worked together."

As a fellow "Mid-Southian," I think there were a number of reasons for this. First, we haven't had a staff person for youth and schools since 2010, I believe. Therefore, any "district" support would have to come from church workers in the district. Our District NYG coordinator was also neck-deep in her own preparations for her youth to attend.

Second, there were some examples of collaboration locally. We had three churches from the Nashville area share a bus and that time together has sparked a desire among the youth to get together outside of the NYG. Also, several youth leaders in Nashville had an informal meeting to discuss best practices before the NYG.

Third, these small groups did not come up on the radar. When there's silence from a church about the NYG, it's hard to discern apathy from inability to coordinate. At Ascension in Madison, TN we did reach out to a smaller church to see if their 2-3 youth wanted to come with us. We never heard back and so made our own plans.

By way of solution, please feel free to contact me with any youth or churches that are disconnected from what's happening. I would be glad to assist any church in our area with their youth ministry. Whether that's communicating, teaching, mentoring, or just providing another group to work with.

It breaks my heart to hear that a few youth missed out on this event because they didn't have the resources to participate. Count me as one to help with this in the future.

Pr. Tom Vanderbilt
Ascension Lutheran Church
Madison, TN

Scott Diekmann said...

The mountaintop experience occurs every Sunday in church, not at the NYG.

Anonymous said...

General observations:

Why on earth do they have the NYG in hideously hot southern cities?

If they want to do service, how about having it in Detroit? It would be closer for many of the youth saving a lot of travel $$. There are plenty of service opportunities in Detroit. And for a win win, the weather is like 1000x better in Detroit in the summer.

Our youth went to NYG. My son did not but went to HT with the youth of a nearby church. He loved that the worship and spiritual focus sessions were completely separate from the fellowship and play time. He stayed up late chatting with new friends and had a great time. He got to actively participate in everything. It was small enough that there was little time wasted. It is a very functional model.

NYG was in San Antonio. Terrible weather which they had to deal with because they had to go from their hotels to the convention center in that sweltering heat and humidity. Logistically, it is just unwieldy. If a kid gets sick or tired, he can't just to back to the dorm and rest etc. because the hotel is many blocks away in the heat. I think there is more pressure to do things as a group when in such a huge event, but that might not be true. Our district has a big gathering in the off years, do the others?

Anonymous said...

Our church youth go on a couple of smaller service trips instead of to the National Youth Gathering. When I asked our DCE about that, he listed pretty much all the reasons you did, adding that with the money we save by not going to the NYG we could hire another full-time staff member.

Unknown said...

You don't teach kids how to play football by taking them to the Superbowl half-time show ...

Anonymous said...

We don't need NYG anymore. We have Higher Things.

Anonymous said...

Uh oh, how will this affect influence LCMS worship such as the NYG in years to come?