Higher Things summer conferences draw 2,700 participants

Participants in this summer’s Higher Things conference at Colorado State University in Fort Collins gather July 29 for the closing Divine Service. (Higher Things/Ann Osburn)

Participants in this summer’s Higher Things conference at Colorado State University in Fort Collins gather July 29 for the closing Divine Service. (Higher Things/Ann Osburn)

By Ann Osburn

Over 2,700 youth and chaperones from around the world gathered this summer for three Higher Things conferences, under the theme “Bread of Life.”

That theme is based on John 6:35: “I am the bread of Life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

With participants from the United States, Canada, Sweden, the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, Africa and the Czech Republic, the conferences took place July 26-29 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.; July 5-8 at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa; and June 28-July 1 at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.

“What’s Bread of Life Jesus done for you?,” the Rev. Aaron Fenker of Bethlehem and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Bremen, Kan., asked during a conference sermon. “Everything! Died for you. Rose for you,” he continued. “Bread of Life Jesus will raise you from the dead on the Last Day. … And Bread of Life Jesus is true to His promises. Body and blood for you. Bread of Life for you. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: Forgiveness of sins.”

The three conference schedules were similar in structure, with specific times designated for worship, learning and free time.

“It was everything we hoped for and expected,” said Andrew Taylor, a first-time conference participant from Iron Mountain, Mich. “It was a nice balance with lots of learning opportunities and time for fun together, too.”

Groups gathered two to four times a day for worship services, and many attendees noted that worship gave a rhythm to the conference.

“The worship is very Lutheran,” said Zach DeLoach, a 14-year-old from Kearney, Neb. “I really liked how everyone was singing and the pastors don’t change anything.”

“I like Evening Prayer a lot,” said Lauren Scott, a college freshman from Topeka, Kan., who has attended five conferences. “I hadn’t prayed it before coming to Higher Things, and I always look forward to praying it here.”

“Where I’m from, there aren’t many Lutherans; so it’s nice to see so many Lutherans our age worshiping and hanging out together,” said David Hoffmann, a 19-year-old from Dallas.

Focus on Jesus as bread of life

The plenary large-group teaching sessions also focused on Jesus as the bread of life. The Rev. William Weedon, director of Worship for the Synod and chaplain for its International Center in St. Louis, and the Rev. Mark Buetow of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, McHenry, Ill., taught the plenary sessions in Tennessee. The Rev. Donovan Riley, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Webster, Minn., and the Rev. Brent Kuhlman, Trinity Lutheran Church, Murdock, Neb., taught in Iowa. And the Rev. Duane Bamsch, of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Terra Bella, Calif., and the Rev. George Borghardt, also from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in McHenry, Ill., taught in Colorado.

“The words of our Lord are the living voice of Christ. So when you hear the words of institution, you hear the living voice of Christ,” Kuhlman taught in his presentation. “The words of Christ are His proclamation, just like when the pastor speaks the absolution.”

“When you look at your pastor, I want you to think of him as the man who can literally drag you out of hell with three words: I forgive you,” Borghardt taught at the Colorado conference. “Faith is receiving gifts from God. The word is what it rests on. Not how cool the guy is; you know the pastor’s a sinner. He’s there to speak those three words to you. He’s also there to give you the Sacraments. ‘Take eat, the body of Christ, given for you.’ ”

Topical breakaway sessions covered a variety of subjects, from marriage and relationships, to Bible books and pop culture.

“I liked the breakaway sessions because you could pick a specific topic that is interesting to you,” said Rebecca Strasser from Homestead, Iowa.

“The breakaway sessions are really informative and the pastors try to make them fun,” said Sydney Epple, a fifth-time conference attendee from Mount Pleasant, Mich. “They keep me zoned on what they’re saying.”

“I enjoyed being with our youth group and coming closer to one another while learning more about topics that are really relevant to us,” said Jenna Baumler, a high-school senior from Mount Vernon, Iowa.

“[The breakaways] are a great opportunity because you learn a lot, and they made me change my opinion on some things,” said Cassidy Ferguson, a high school junior from Houston.

Chaperones also expressed appreciation for the conference.

“I’ve been a Lutheran since I was a child, and there was still so much I learned,” Brandon Wright, a first-time chaperone and attendee from Sweet Springs, Mo., said after the Nashville conference.

Free-time activities

Free time featured activities including archery, zip lines, a petting zoo, chalk art and a talent show.

“I liked the Tetramorphs,” said Doug Harmon, a chaperone from Waterville, Minn., referencing teams that were formed this year for attendees to compete against one another. “It was friendly competition and creative, and watching kids’ imagination run wild was cool.”

Including deaf interpreters at the Tennessee conference was another new feature for this summer’s Higher Things conferences.

“It was great to be at the first deaf-friendly conference,” said the Rev. Tyler Walworth, an exhibitor for Lutheran Friends of the Deaf. “It’s making Higher Things more accessible to more people. Whenever you make the Gospel more accessible to more people, it’s always worth it.”

Overall, youth and group leaders went home with a positive experience.

“I came with a visiting church [from IIllinois] and I can’t wait to have my church youth group come,” said Kaydi Schadel, a 14-year-old from Dubuque, Iowa.

“It was really fun meeting everyone and talking to the different pastors and attendees. It was a good experience,” said Ashleigh Esker, a sixth-grader from Freeburg, Ill.

“What I appreciate is [that] it’s a shared experience with youth and pastors and the memories that it brings,” said the Rev. Rich Neugebauer, a first-time attendee from Scottsbluff, Neb.

The promise in Christ

As conferences wrapped up, the Bread of Life theme was brought full-circle.

“It’s all right if you don’t have enough faith. Because here’s the fact: Jesus has enough faith for all of you,” said Riley, as he preached during Friday Matins. “When you are at your best, and especially when you are at your worst, your one true hope is the promise that He breathes into you; it’s the flesh and blood that He feeds you and that for better and for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, He loves you and cherishes you until death He does join you together with Him in life everlasting.”

“No matter what happens in your life, or around you, or to you, or to the people that you love, no matter what sins you struggle with, no matter what tragedies seem to afflict you, there is this promise that the body and blood of Christ forgive all your sins and He will raise you up on the last day,” Buetow said during his closing Divine Service sermon. “To eat His flesh and drink His blood means everything is going to be OK.”

“And you’ll go home and say, ‘We saw Him in the breaking of the bread,’ not just in Colorado, not just at Higher Things — at every Divine Service,” Buetow continued. “There He is in the breaking of the Bread, the Sacrament of the Altar, in the body in the bread, in the blood in the cup, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. He’s right there, always for you. And He will continue to give you that gift until He comes again.”

Higher Things is a Recognized Service Organization of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that holds annual youth conferences and assists parents, congregations and pastors in cultivating, encouraging and promoting a distinctly Lutheran identity among youth and young adults.

To learn more about Higher Things, visit higherthings.org.

Ann Osburn (ann@higherthings.org) lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and serves as marketing executive for Higher Things.

Posted August 30, 2016

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