In Christ Alone
Week before last, I was in New Orleans for the 2016 LCMS Youth Gathering. I wasn’t a neutral observer. For the last 2 ½ years I served on a planning team with DCEs, teachers, pastors, and committed lay men and women from across the country. Together we shared the conviction that building up young Christians is among the church’s highest priorities, and that this building comes from corporate study of the Scriptures and grateful reception of God’s sacramental gifts.
The National Youth Gathering (NYG) has been a staple of youth ministry in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) since 1980. Every three years youth from around the country (and world) gather to learn and grow and encourage one another in their Christian faith and life. Its history and impact is impressive.
The theme for #NYG2016 was simple: In Christ Alone. It was a fitting theme, since anything that goes by the name Lutheran (or Christian, for that matter) must be all about Jesus. With Paul’s letter to the Philippians as the textual foundation, morning Bible studies and evening dome events bookended days filled with breakout sessions, concerts, experiential exhibits, and service projects (including a large blood donation sent to Baton Rouge in the wake of the police shooting and 500,000 meals prepared for those in need). It all ended with a joyful, liturgical worship service in which the cross was literally lifted high in the Superdome and the Lord’s Supper was celebrated with reverence and thanksgiving. If you didn’t view the live streaming, you can still access some of the speakers, videos, and Bible studies.
Under the general theme, In Christ Alone, three closely related subthemes emerged through the course of the five days: identity, community, and humility. These subthemes gave shape and substance to the daily programming, and they’re worth considering here, too
Our culture is in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s no longer obvious that we receive our identity from a Creator. It’s no longer given that our identity is stable or permanent. Instead, we ask people how they “identify,” and we assume responsibility for shaping and re-shaping who we really are. In this context we hear Paul say, “To live is Christ,” and the NYG spoke loudly and clearly that we receive our true human identity in Christ alone.
Despite our widespread virtual connectivity, and to some extent because of it, authentic flesh-and-blood community is becoming more and more difficult to find. Isolation and loneliness are increasingly common, especially among young people. Without being able to name it, the world is longing for the kind of community that is found in Christ alone. The NYG characterized (and embodied) this community as a people who are forgiven and forgiving, diverse and united, empowered and sent. Paul describes this as our “partnership in the Gospel.”
Concepts like identity and community are regulars in our public discourse. Humility is not. That’s why I appreciated this subtheme so much. It’s also why I’d like to reflect on it here a little longer.
I haven’t seen much written or spoken about humility. This isn’t surprising, because our culture so highly admires such things as pride and self-promotion. As a result, humility is often left out of the conversation. And we’re naïve to think this doesn’t affect us. That’s why we spent considerable time in New Orleans reflecting on Christian humility. Philippians 2:1-11 figured prominently here. “In humility,” Paul writes, “count others more significant than yourselves.” Then he penned the ancient Christ hymn, extolling the incarnate Son of God as the image of true humility.
The challenge with humility is that, as soon as we begin talking (or even thinking) about it, we begin losing it. Or, in a twisted way, we begin taking pride in it. This is a problem, especially for us Lutherans who rightly and publicly confess our sin on a regular basis. The temptation to become a proud publican, who beats his chest not only in private but also with a hint of conceit before others, is constantly present. It’s a small step from genuine humility before God and neighbor to false humility and a subtly haughty spirit.
When I was a seminarian I noticed that the most mature Christians I knew also happened to be the humblest. I don’t think that was a coincidence. They didn’t simply think less of themselves, but, more importantly, they thought about themselves less—which was a key point made in the NYG Bible studies.
At a time when there are many reasons to be concerned about the future of the church in America, it was encouraging to be in New Orleans last week. I was inspired to see so many young people rejoicing and learning and living out their Christian identity in community with humility. It testified to the fact that our life and salvation are always found In Christ Alone.