Found over on Pastor Surburg’s blog, Surburg.blogspot.com:
Last week I helped take our high school youth to the Higher Thing “From Above” conference on the campus of Purdue University. It was a great experience and the fact that it followed in the week after the National Youth Gathering in San Antonio, TX prompted me to think again about large youth events, and about how and why Higher Things does them.
If we ask why the Lutheran church does large youth events, the answers will probably prompt little disagreement. We gather together large numbers of Lutheran youth so that they can experience that they are not alone. Living in one congregation and surrounded by many Christians who are not Lutheran, it is easy to feel isolated and insignificant. This is all the more true of settings like my own congregation – smaller congregations that exist in a largely non-Lutheran area. When there are less than twenty high school youth at your church and every other Christian you know is Baptist, non-denominational, Methodist or Pentecostal it is encouraging to have the opportunity to gather with a thousand other youth who are Lutheran just like you are.
We have large youth events because we recognize that in these settings we are able to do things on a scale and with a quality that most youth will never experience in their own congregation. For this reason, these events are likely to make an impression on youth. The new setting itself of living for a time away from family and with other youth enhances the likelihood that this will happen. We hope that congregational life can in turn foster the new insights and perceptions that are gained in the unique setting of the youth event.
Large youth events allow us to expose youth to a variety of skilled teachers. There are those who are gifted in the art of teaching the faith to youth, and large events allow a sizeable number of youth to learn from them. In addition, these events provide the opportunity for youth to learn from someone other than their own pastor. The same teaching received from a different source often meets with a more interested reception among youth, even as it reinforces what the parish pastor teaches week in and week out.
Finally we also have large youth events because they are fun. Gathering as Lutherans and having fun in the course of hanging out and spending recreation time together is itself a good thing as we enjoy God’s First Article gifts. We have fun together and this in turn helps to shape the way we view life in the Church. Life in the Church is a serious thing, but it can also be a fun and enjoyable thing, and that in itself is good.
There are a number of good reasons why we have large youth events. The National Youth Gathering of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has been part of my own experience both as a youth attending and as an adult chaperoning. As a youth, I thought it was a fun trip in which I got to see more of Washington D.C. The mass events were completely different from what we did at church on Sunday. They were hyped up and emotional and I didn’t know exactly what to make of them when I thought about Sundays in my congregation. I thought that the teaching was lame and boring. There was little of substance that I found interesting and so I met a cute girl, skipped most of the break away sessions and walked around the city with her. I had a grand time.
As an adult with seminary training things looked very different. I had grown up in a congregation that used the liturgy but never taught or explained anything about it. The appearance of the competing alternative in “contemporary worship” had prompted teaching in the LCMS about the liturgy – where it came from, what it is and why we use it. The consideration of the two sides had left no doubt in my mind about the fact that the Lutheran Church is a liturgical church because it is a catholic and sacramental Church. (see Mark’s thoughts: The Book of Concord’s catholic perspective on worship) By contrast “contemporary worship” was the product of a foreign non-catholic, non-sacramental theology – it was the fruit of frontier revivalism and charismatic tendencies that have long existed in American Christianity. By its very nature it forms Christians who approach the faith in ways that are contrary to Lutheran theology.
What I saw at the “mass events” of the National Youth Gathering had almost nothing to do with the liturgy in the hymnals of the LCMS and instead was an extremely professional and impressive display of contemporary worship forms and music. Allowing for some exceptions, the teaching was not particularly substantive and did not seek to inculcate the Small Catechism. The extreme size of nearly twenty thousand youth in a large urban setting was a veritable invitation to do exactly what I had done as a youth.
By the time I had arrived in my current parish, I could not understand why I would ever want to send my congregation’s youth to the National Youth Gathering. I had no doubt that given the scale and quality with which the mass events were done, they would make an impression on our youth. The problem was that what they were doing was completely different from what happened at Good Shepherd on a Sunday morning. However, it wasn’t hard to find something that was just like it. One needed look no further than the non-denominational churches that dominate our area. Members had noticed a problem too. They asked why they sent youth to the National Youth Gatherings, since on multiple occasions youth came back from the gathering and soon went on to join non-denominational churches. It was a good question and I didn’t think it was hard to figure out the answer. You don’t train Lutherans to be Lutheran by worshiping and acting like non-denominational Christians.
Now at this point I must concede that were will be those who strongly disagree. They will say that the National Youth Gatherings are wonderful Gospel events of the LCMS and that it is mean spirited to criticize them. On the first point I can only say that this reveals very different understandings of what it means to be Lutheran. That is the root problem of this topic, but it is one that I am not seeking to address here (see Mark’s thoughts: Why liturgy? – Thoughts about its form and function in the Lutheran Church). If you think the National Youth Gatherings and their “mass events” are wonderful then you have a very different understanding of Lutheranism and the gatherings are indeed where you should take your youth. On the second point I will maintain that noting substantive concerns and objections is not, by definition, a matter of being mean spirited. In this case, it simply indicates that I have concerns and objections related to a fundamental disagreement.
However, if you are a pastor or lay person who feels uncomfortable with what you see at “mass events,” etc. of the National Youth Gatherings; if you know that they look nothing like your Sunday service and are concerned about this; if you find yourself having to overlook things on a regular basis because you know that the National Youth Gathering is “supposed” to be a wonderful thing, then I am writing to you. Let me say that I have no official ties of any kind to Higher Things. I have never served in worship services at their conferences. I have never even taught a small sectional. I am just a pastor who has attended three of them during the last six years, and I want to share what I have found there because I believe that you should give it a try.
I knew that I did not want to take youth to the National Youth Gathering. I had heard about Higher Things and had researched who they were and what they did. So in 2008 we took our youth to the “Amen” conference on the campus of Saint Louis University. I will freely admit that I had some apprehension. I wanted it to work out because I needed a large event to which we could take our youth. But what would the youth think? I knew Higher Things built their schedule around the Prayer Offices of Matins, Vespers and Evening Prayer. How would the kids respond to this? We have no weekday morning service at our congregation, so they had never seen Matins (every Sunday service is a Divine Service which culminates in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar). What would they think of church services three times a day using the liturgy? What would the teaching be like? Would the youth think it was all boring? Would they have any fun?
The conference turned out to be huge success for us. The daily pattern of the Prayer Offices was new to them but they soon became accustomed to it and they did in fact appreciate it. The teaching drew rave reviews because it had substance. They were treated like young people who had significant intellectual abilities and they responded to this. And they had fun – a lot of fun. I learned that what Higher Things said was true: At Higher Things worship is worship, teaching is teaching, and fun is fun.
At a Higher Things conference the day begins with Matins. Plenary sessions, various break away sessions (and lunch) then take place before Vespers in the mid-afternoon. More instructional sessions, dinner and some free time occur before the formal schedule of the day ends with Evening Prayer around 7:00 p.m. After this there is free time to enjoy the facilities of the campus. On one evening there are planned fun events that sometimes go off campus. Groups are encouraged to end the day with Compline in dorms before lights go out at 12:00 a.m. The conference begins and ends with a Divine Service.
In this schedule the entire day is structured around hearing God’s word and the response of praise and prayer. Worships services at a Higher Things conference make an impression. If a church or chapel is not available on campus, an auditorium is deftly transformed into a reverent worship space. The liturgy of the Divine Service and the Prayer Offices are conducted in a high quality fashion. The music is of a standard that few congregations can attain. The preaching is some of the best I have ever heard – substantive but aimed at the youth in attendance. When you put all of these elements together in a setting where a thousand or so youth and their leaders are present, you have a remarkable experience of liturgical worship at its best. Anyone who says that youth can’t “get into the liturgy” has never attended a Higher Things conference.
Catechesis at a Higher Things conference seeks to teach the Lutheran theology of the Small Catechism. There is excellent biblical teaching that engages a whole range of topics which youth encounter in the world around them. Yet the unifying themes that run through all of the catechesis are those foundational truths confessed in the Small Catechism. The pastors who teach want to enable the youth to “Dare to be Lutheran” because the Lutheran confession of the faith is true and our youth should never settle for anything less.
Higher Things conferences take place on university campuses. These settings provide the dynamic of youth living for a time away from home with youth from other parts of the country. They provide recreation facilities and settings in which they can hang out and have fun. However, it also provides a setting where there are fewer distractions than a large city and its convention center or dome. It is much easier to maintain the focus on why the youth are there when sight seeing is not one of the goals of the trip.
If you are concerned or troubled by the features of the National Youth Gathering that I have described above, you need to know that there is an outstanding alternative. Higher Things conferences combine the reasons that we do large youth events with the best of Lutheran worship and catechesis. They have been a tremendous blessing to the youth of our congregation as we seek to equip them to live and confess the faith as Lutherans. If that is your goal too, come and see what happens at a Higher Things conference.