By Kevin Armbrust
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, … and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord … .”
Over 22,000 people spoke these words in unity at the 2019 Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Youth Gathering, giving evidence to the work of the Holy Spirit, who keeps the whole Christian church on earth “in the one true faith” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Third Article meaning). Even more remarkable was the demographic of the group: the vast majority of those confessing the faith were teenagers.
Many adults wring their hands and wag their fingers at the current generation and bemoan the secularization that is all around. Pundits talk about how young people are walking away from the church and becoming “nones” (individuals who answer “none” when asked about their religious affiliation). But for five days in Minneapolis, July 11–15, Lutheran youth woke up to listen to God’s Word in their morning sessions and closed their day with “mass events” centered on the Gathering theme, “Real. Present. God.”
Toting their ever-present, purple backpacks, the teens of the LCMS converged on the Minneapolis Convention Center in downtown Minneapolis. Their numbers were so staggering that, at times, the escalators could not withstand their weight. But those inconvenienced by the slowdown did not complain. Instead, the long lines to board the escalators single-file and every-other-step were opportunities to converse and get to know each other.
“Seeing the crowds at the Minneapolis Convention Center [during the days] and U.S. Bank Stadium [during the evenings] was amazing and a great reminder of the vastness of Christ’s church,” said the Rev. Mark Kiessling, director of LCMS Youth Ministry.
“Amid the crowds, it’s also awesome to pause, consider and give thanks to God for the many LCMS congregations where these young people were baptized, welcomed into God’s family … [and] taught the faith,” he continued. “We give thanks for the churches, parents, pastors and church workers who invest in these young people and adult leaders and pray for them in their daily walk with Jesus.”
Joyful in behavior and witness
The teens’ witness to the city consisted not only of their many acts of service but also their conduct. Residents and workers in the Minneapolis area observed that many of the rules instituted to prepare for the onslaught of teens were relaxed due to the group’s excellent behavior. These Lutherans were joyful — even as exhaustion set in during the event’s waning hours.
“This Gathering had special meaning for me in that it was hosted by a district and place that I called home for 22 years of my life,” said the Rev. Derek Broten, LCMS Youth Gathering program director. “It was amazing to see the impact of more than 22,000 youth and adults on a city — making this the biggest mission opportunity our Synod has on a whole city. We heard from hotels, U.S. Bank Stadium, the convention center, 70 serving sites and countless places of business downtown how incredible our youth are in showing great kindness, giving high fives to everyone, raising the energy of the city and caring for the town.”
Psalm 46 provided the text for the Gathering theme, “Real. Present. God.” With the psalmist, the youth were encouraged to be “real” with God through honest and authentic discussion about their lives. They were encouraged to be “present” through the removal of things that distract from devotion to God and love for one another. Yet more importantly, they heard that God is the One who is “real” and “present” for them in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Living and loving in Christ
Several evenings’ worth of mass events culminated in a July 15 Divine Service. The mass events were not worship; rather, they gave all participants at U.S. Bank Stadium (where the Minnesota Vikings play) the chance to laugh, dance, sing, listen, pray and be challenged to live out their faith back in their home churches and communities.
The primary master and mistress of ceremonies at the evening events were the amiable A.J. Vega and Emilie Stooksbury, directors of Christian education serving at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Memphis, Tenn., and The Point Church in Knoxville, Tenn., respectively. Other speakers addressed the audience by connecting real-life situations to the real and present role that God plays in people’s lives. The youth were encouraged to see their whole lives as lived in the light of God’s love in Christ.
For Olivia Hartwig, a member of Hales Corners Lutheran Church in Hales Corners, Wis., and a recent graduate of Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon, Wis., that message came through loud and clear. “I grew up in the Lutheran church, and I went to Lutheran grade school, middle school and high school,” Hartwig said. “Going into medicine, I want to use what I’ve learned from my faith, such as serving others, putting others before yourself and loving like Christ has loved us.”
Each morning of the Gathering began with small-group Bible study. Throughout the day, scores of breakout sessions provided time for each youth to listen to experts addressing an array of concerns in the lives of today’s teenager. Topics included bullying, a Christ-centered approach to sexuality, vocation, facing transitions and dealing with fear.
The vast “Interactive Center” offered a place for fun, exercise, rest, learning, freebies and social connections. Displays and booths of LCMS ministries, districts, Recognized Service Organizations, the Synod’s universities and seminaries, and other friends of the Synod allowed participants to see the breadth of their church body. As youth meandered through the convention hall, they saw literally thousands of Lutheran teenagers just like themselves. Elizabeth Bott of St. John Lutheran Church in Palmer, Kan., said, “It’s crazy how we have all these Lutherans in one place. … We are all gathered here, and we are all the same religion. Everyone is on the same page.”
Yet the week wasn’t only about the teenagers and their learning, growth and enjoyment. Thousands participated in some 72 servant events — both on location at the convention center and throughout the Minneapolis area. Youth packed food for the hungry, served in neighborhoods in need of repair, worked at private homes, painted, cleaned, helped at an event for the disabled and canvassed neighborhoods for local congregations.
Ethan Schumacher of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Brandon, Fla., participated in Bethesda Lutheran Communities’ Carnival for the Disabled in Coon Rapids, Minn. Schumacher said, “Serving is a really good way to spread God’s Word and to show other people what God has done.”
Traci Kohls, director of Christian education at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fremont, Neb., and director of the Gathering’s Off-Site Servant Events Team, said, “We see the servant events as a key piece of our youth being able to live out their faith and be the hands and feet of Jesus. … Our hope is always that, in whatever city we’re in, we’re serving in that city, but also equipping those kids and adults to go back into their own communities and serve.”
Added Kiessling: “Gatherings provide participants the opportunity to shine the light of Christ through acts of mercy and service and share the Good News of Jesus in the host community. Also, our young people often acquire a new understanding of cultures and people, learn what God does through Christians when we partner together, and gain confidence in their ability to serve and lead in a different context or circumstance.”
‘Church at its best’
The Gathering could not happen without the direct support of many volunteers from LCMS congregations across the country. “The heartbeat of the Gathering is the 1,300-plus volunteers who lead with a servant heart and point to Jesus,” Broten said. “We could never do this event without the 270 volunteer planners, 200 Community Life Builders and 600 Young Adult Volunteers. Many of our planners sacrificed a lot of personal time in the past two-and-a-half years to help frame each key area of the Gathering. We also had 300 on-site volunteers,” he added, “most of whom were local to Minnesota and Wisconsin. This on-site volunteer pool was about six times more than past Gatherings. This team approach is certainly the church at its best.”
“Real. Present. God.” Literally thousands of youth and adults chose to spend a week of their summer in Minneapolis focused on Christ. No one knows each person’s reasons for coming. But the message to all who came was clear. We sinners stand before a real, present God. If He were to deal with us according to our sin, we would receive what we deserve — His wrath and punishment. But because of Jesus, the One who came to be our real, present God, we receive grace — by grace through faith on account of Christ.
As LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison said during His sermon at the Gathering Divine Service, “God has planned to send Christ for you from all eternity.
“Amen. It’s in the bag.”
Posted Aug. 14, 2019