This is not a blanket endorsement of all things NYG. But I have lost the moral ground to be critical. As the event is airing, many of the more theologically critical among our synod hang out online and gripe about what irks us with these type of events. It is often therapeutic to vent, and rightly done, it leads to helpful, productive, and intelligent conversations. Or you could do what I did. I’ve been bad, and in my cynical bitterness and zeal for over-correctness I’ve said some things that were heartless and cruel that I’d gladly take back. What a learning experience! It was one of those “no filter” moments, which was a very revealing thing to myself about the state of my own heart. So up front, if anybody read those comments and it takes you here, my sincerest apologies, and especially if was directed at yourself. I meant to critique ideas and methods, not give personal insult. This post is part of my penance. Here are the things I appreciate about the National Youth Gathering.
1. It brings the youth of our Synod together.
We are one of the largest evangelical denominations in the US. Nonetheless, we are quite spread out, and many of our youth grow up with a very limited number of peers who share in the Lutheran faith. It’s tough being the only adherent in your age bracket. This gives youth the opportunity to get a picture of how big and exciting their church really is. It intentionally attempts to build Lutheran identity and denominational ownership into the next generation. It shows them what we are capable of doing when we work together. It gives them the opportunity to network with other LCMS youth from across the nation. This serves to start building unity amongst our church at the youth level, so that as they grow older and hopefully continue in the things they have learned, they may hopefully continue friendships begun here, or at least be encouraged that others are out there through the memories of the NYG. For all these blessings I am thankful to God.
2. The kids are having a great time.
As much as I find the “church is supposed to be fun” approach to ministry highly abrasive, I must say that at these type of events, “fun” is necessarily a higher priority than on Sunday mornings. I think it is a good, right, and salutary thing for Lutheran youth to have fun with each other. The experience is exhilarating and bonding for youth groups and their leaders, adult chaperones, and accompanying pastors. It can bring the generations together in ways that little else can, especially since I get the feeling that the adults are enjoying this even more. There’s a time in youth spiritual formation for robust catechesis and doctrinal instruction. These type of events just aren’t necessarily the most effective medium for that goal by their nature. I hope they have so much fun they can’t wait to go back in 3 years. And I hope that, instead of coming back “on fire for Jesus,” they bring the joy back with them to share with others. I am quite optimistic about this.
3. The band is top notch.
I’ve seen a lot of bands at these type of youth events. Normally there are concert groups and worship bands. The worship band here is absolutely the best put together and has the best sound of any I’ve seen (closely seconded by the High School Youth band at Saddleback). This group impressed me in so many ways: First, they avoided the U2/Coldplay tribute band stereo type. Most worship bands in this genre have very similar sounds. This one was more versatile. They had numerous vocalists who sang in well prepared harmonies. The band had top notch instrumentalists who knew their stuff and played together. The sound was compelling and had lots of energy. They used a real Hammond B-3! The axuillary percussionist added much to the sound, and the 2 electric guitar players were very coordinated with their effects usage and riffs. They avoided the emo look so common among worship rock stars. The sound was much more mature and adult than many other youth oriented rock bands, probaby due in large part to the wall of sound from the vocal team (instead of just one worship leader dude with one gal harmonizing). It was clear they worked hard to prepare their presentation. The mix was tastefully done over the live stream, which I imagine is VERY difficult to pull off. Oh, and there was no superstar leader. Their large team of vocalists all shared in leadership responsibilities and solo opportunities. What a model of humility and teamwork! Nobody hogged the spotlight. They even sang traditional hymns (I LOVE it when praise bands do this!). They had an unusually large ensemble of instrumentalists (3 key players: one on synth, one on organ, one on piano) without letting the sound become too cluttered (and trust me, this is hard to accomplish). I would be more than thrilled to be a part of a musical team that sounded half this good. Many of the participants are Concordia system students, so this speaks well to our synodical schools.
4. The repertoire is better.
Most youth oriented bands aren’t cutting edge. They’re bleeding edge. They play mostly songs written in the last few months, by themselves, that hardly anybody has ever heard and few can keep up with. They resemble rock stars more than congregational song leaders. This was not the case at the NYG. There was maybe one new or original song (which I enjoy and will probably use). The vast majority of the repertoire (which is listed online) were songs that were several years old. Not only this, but they were songs that are still being sung. They have withstood the initial test of time and are still being commonly sung when no longer the flavor-of-the-month, and are the type of songs which are useful in many congregational contexts. Not all were stuff I’d like to sing at my church, but many are and will be (especially the stuff by the Gettys!). Of the numerous praise songs out there, they have chosen decently well from among the more substantive lyrics. If you don’t think their lyrics were good, you may be a bit sheltered from how bad CCM can be. The Chris Tomlin tunes were generally his best ones, and they emphasized praise songs that paraphrase or pull strongly from the Psalms or other scriptures much more than subjective “here’s how I feel about Jesus” type of songs. I really appreciate that.
5. The production level is high.
Assuming there’s 25,000 kids there paying $300 each, that’s a budget of 7.5 mil. They absolutely MUST have had additional funding to pull that off. I’m not an expert in financing such high volume events, but I didn’t realize our small Synod was capable of such a show. Everything they did came off great. The live stream is incredibly clear and glitch free. The message they are sending is in no means inhibited their appropriation of technology.
6. The level of creativity is high.
I’ve been to several of these type of events put on by other denominations, such as Lifeway or Vineyard. In my opinion, the NYG is much more complex, diverse, and intense. So many different things happen back to back, it’s hard to keep up with it all! From a rocking band with lights and fog machines to a drama, bmx bikers, comedy, video announcements, speakers, and integration of youth feedback on their own cell phones. At Acquire the Fire, event, you would have most the music in one block, followed by announcements/drama, then the speaker, and maybe a closing song. Fundagelical youth rallies resemble the revivalistic worship of Baptist churches. I believe that our being a liturgical church may have had something to do with the fact that the music permeated the entire service and was seamlessly integrated with many of the other activities going on. The band has not missed a cue or a beat yet.
7. Those are our ministers up there.
Well, mostly. Craig Gross is there as well, but I’m generally a proponent of the work he does anyways (recovery from porn addiction and outreach to the porn industry). At any other event like this the speaker would get up and beat the kids up for not being on fire enough for Jesus. I’ve sat through too much of that. Our speakers point to Christ crucified for sinners. There are ordained ministers on that platform expositing God’s Word who have received their seminary education at either one of the two best theological institutions in the country, period. I may not agree with all their methods, but an MDiv from Concordia Seminary St. Louis or Ft. Wayne is better than one from anywhere else in the English speaking world, as far as I’m concerned. I am encouraged to see Pastoral leadership present there. There are also many DCE’s (Directors of Christian Ed,) and as I am going through a parallel program for Directors of Parish Music, I can testify that they are rigorously prepared for the catechesis of youth. Thank God for a synod that takes the preparation of its vocational church workers so seriously.
8. They have been shamelessly promoting the Concordia University system.
I’m also generally a fan of our synodical ran schools. I fell it can be hard to sell kids on going to a Lutheran college. I think the education they offer is competitive, and their choral programs are true cultural gems. It would appear that much of the leadership is from Concordia students, so not only is this good experience and exposure for them, it gives interested potential students a glimpse of how much fun you can really have with the educational process in the CU system.
9. They are actively engaging the youth with mission.
The mass events are at night, and during the day, the youth have been dispatched around San Antonio to help with service and mission projects. Phenomenal. That is genuine discipleship right there. It also leaves a good taste in mouth of the city leadership whose economy can benefit from 25,000 youth volunteering for service. It’s a great witness and testimony, and let me tell you, they didn’t do this at Acquire the Fire, that I remember. There may have been public proselitization, but I don’t remember cleanup crew being an option. The Southern Baptist may be too afraid of the social gospel for that; their soteriological utilitarianism focuses their efforts more on conversionism than love and service to neighbor as the path of discipleship after Christ. I believe this feature was a helpful reflection on our synod’s teaching of the role of good works in a believer’s life.
10. It drives the youth towards an engagement with Scripture.
The youth leaders are, I believe, equipped with discussion questions and prepped to host further reflection with the youth to examine the role and application of Scripture to the topics presented. Not “trust us, this is what the Bible really says and means,” but “look for yourself. Here’s a Live Loved themed Bible for you to read, examine, and digest together.” THAT is one of the biggest wins possible for a youth rally.
11. They will be celebrating communion.
Nobody else does this. Except for maybe the ELCA. To have that many kids celebrating communion, even if they don’t all commune, helps them to see how big the family of God is, even if their own congregation appears to be dying off. But more importantly, this gives God’s grace an opportunity to work through the ordinary means. The leadership has rightly distinguished this part of the week as worship, and the rest as “mass events.” Bravo. I also hear there will be full choir and orchestra for this exuberant celebration.
12. The Synod President was invited.
Youth ministry often gets a bad rap for avoiding denomination leadership like the plague. Stuffy old theological seminary presidents and synodocrats are too scary for kids! They don’t have anything to offer them, they aren’t cool enough, they’re too boring, youth ministry is obviously not their specialty, and they’re just too old. Says the world. But not the Missoury Synod! Harrison did not just show up and represent. He did a comedy routine! Then he played his banjo, and I never knew he was so talented at it. And he pulled off the humor quite well. It is just plain good for the youth to feel a connection with the leadership of our denomination. He's no longer just a position, an office, or a man stuffed in an office far away. Good for Harrison for getting his hands dirty with this kind of work.
13. They sang in Spanish. In harmony.
I’m not normally a fan of this. I’m more the stodgy, judgmental “speak English or go home” type. But our synod needs outreach into the hispanic communities. Lutheranism is not that big in Spanish speaking countries. Yet our synod is extremely ethnically diverse, and so some representation is deserved. It wasn’t just the token Mexican up there doing a solo: they sang in Spanish in harmony. How validating must that have been for any ESL hispanics in attendance? It is also very Pentecost-ish, in terms of the language barrier to the proclamation of the Gospel being eaten away at. It was tastefully integrated.
14. It gives youth an opportunity to let loose that they don’t ordinarily have at church related functions.
There’s a reason they don’t get to do this normally at church related functions. Church isn’t about doing this. But youth are. I don’t think having fun in Jesus’ name is the best we could hope to accomplish here, but it still needed to be done. It destroyed any possibility of the conception that Lutheranism is about being old, stuffy, and boring. Not that those anything wrong with those three things (I got two down pat and working on the third). But that is not what being Lutheran is about. When we cut past that image, we open the doors to replace it with a more accurate representation of the heart of Lutheranism: Jesus Christ, his Words of Law and Gospel rightly preached and celebrated in the Sacraments.
15. It is more Christ-centered than any other mass youth rally you could sent your kids to, bar none.
It’s run by Lutherans. I haven’t heard a testimony (!), drama, skit, or speaker YET that harped on Christless moralism. Instead, they have all gotten to Christ, his blood, his resurrection, and the forgiveness he offers with expediency and clarity. At AtF, I watched Ron Luce or one of his staff lecture about why you should stand outside Victoria’s Secret and protest until they take their advertisements down. At NYG, you instead hear about what God in Christ has done for us.
16. Their technological integration is strategic and impressive.
Cell phones can be the biggest distraction for youth. But instead of trying to control the kids, they harnessed the technology to meet them where they were at and transform their distractions into attention focusing devices. They rapid-fire of the multi-faceted production made it easy for someone as ADD as myself to pay attention to without blinking. But also, throughout the day, they have the kids tweeting and facebooking in pictures to the NYG staff doing various silly things around town to be put up on the big screens in the mass events. So the distractions are now working FOR the NYG activity instead of against it. I thought this was a brilliant strategy, and a great way of harnessing technological means towards a greater end: if not proclamation, at least stronger youth buy in that the proclamation might be taken with greater seriousness.
I could think of much more, especially as I continue to watch at day three. But if I don’t stop here, I’ll never get this post up tonight. It’s not to say I don’t have any critiques, but if you know me at all, you don’t have to guess what those are, and I’ve said too much already. God bless the NYG staff and the youth who are there. May His Word be proclaimed and His Spirit be at work in the hearts of all present and participating.