Tis the season for youth groups from all over America to start gathering at conference centers and Winter Jams. It’s a time honored tradition for many groups to come together and spend a weekend experiencing group relationships Some go to fill a conference with their own group, while others collaborate with other youth groups in their community to spend time working on what it means to live in unity.
This last weekend, I was invited to attend a youth event sponsored by a collaborative group of churches from east Tennessee. For the last twenty or so years, these churches have put on a weekend for students in their community by traveling to a conference center in Asheville, North Carolina called Ridgecrest.
When I arrived at the conference property I kept thinking to myself, “I know I’ve been here before,” but I couldn’t put my finger on when. “This all looks so familiar.” I thought.
And then suddenly I remembered being at Ridgecrest as a 14 year old student in a small youth group out of Little Rock, Arkansas. I remember we came to Asheville to attend the annual summer camp called Centrifuge, a large network of summer camping events sponsored by the Southern Baptist youth arm called LIFEWAY. It was like a surreal déjà vu experience just walking the grounds; but, this time I was there to serve.
The leader of the weekend, Brent Randolph, is a youth pastor from Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Brent is a GREAT guy. He has a heart to reach out and make a difference in the lives of students in his community and around the world. He and his wife Cindy picked me up at the airport and chauffeured me to the conference center, and on our drive I learned a lot about the students of east Tennessee.
Not surprisingly, the students of east Tennessee are like students all over the world. They’re incredibly energetic, fun to hang with, and deal with many of the same issues students are dealing with everywhere.
As the “speaker guy” you never really know how weekends like this will go. Sometimes groups embrace you and want to spend time together. Other times the groups hold the speaker at arm’s length, and the weekend is super lonely.
Fortunately this week, the students were SUPER GRACIOUS.
Every meal, I had someone to eat with who was interested in having conversations.
Every session, I engaged with one of the groups from a specific church to talk about ways we could lock arms to encourage each other.
Every evening, I got a chance to just sit with small groups of students and listen.
And do you know what I found out?
Students are just like the rest of us.
All of us have an intrinsic need to be heard.
We want someone to listen to our stories.
We all have questions about faith.
And most of all, we all want someone to lean in and care.
As I engaged in real conversations with the students this weekend I heard some great stories of students who are living out their faith in their world. I heard stories of students who struggled to understand how to embrace faith. And I heard stories of students who were living in some of the hardest home lives I’ve heard about in a long time.
We talked about Jesus.
We talked about unity.
We talked about knowing that God came to live WITH US, not AT US.
We talked about loving God and loving others.
At the end of the weekend, I felt compelled to ask the students to group up on the last night with members of the other churches. In groups of two and three all across the auditorium, we prayed together. Members of churches from different denominations all praying together for the unity of their community.
Standing on the stage hearing the prayers of hundreds of students, all in unity, I was moved.
I was moved to see the world through a different lens, a lens where people of all tribes and nations could come together and join in unity. I heard the buzz of prayers that shed light on the possibility that churches could lock arms together. And instead of living in constant fear and jealously of one another, with my eyes closed, I saw a world where the church actually gave the world a picture of love. After all, Jesus said, “A new command I give to you that you love one another. The world will know you are my disciples by the way you love one another.”
And it all made sense…
In one moment in time…
I saw the reason why our churches are suffering…
I saw why students are leaving…
I saw the answer that helps us understand Jesus…
We need people who are willing to risk reaching out community and love.
We need warriors who are willing to drive across town and build bridges of peace with those “rival” congregations.
We need attitudes of humility in an era of pride.
We need Jesus….Period.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the Sons of God.”
We can do this…
I saw it…
In real time…
I saw students who were willing to engage in praying for one another from congregations all across east Tennessee.
In and through Jesus, we can do this.