Reflections on the LCMS Youth Gathering

“You are real. You are present. You are God.”

I can still hear the stadium full of young Lutherans singing these words at the top of their lungs. It was a vigorous and unified confession of faith. A song of praise and honor to Jesus. To call it encouraging would be an understatement.

It took place at the LCMS Youth Gathering in Minneapolis this summer, and it stands in sharp contrast to statistics I’ve been hearing about young people in the church today. The number of youth in American churches in general, and in LCMS congregations in particular, is declining drastically. Many know this anecdotally firsthand. Some synodical stats confirm it. In 1970, LCMS congregations baptized 66,704 babies. Thirteen years later we confirmed 59,607. That’s almost 90% retention from baptism to confirmation. Fast forward thirty years. In 2000 we baptized 38,957 babies. (That, in itself, is striking, especially since US births increased during the same period from 3.7 million in 1970 to 3.9 million in 2000.) But this next number is absolutely startling. Thirteen years after baptizing 38,957 babies in 2000, we confirmed 18,454 young people. That’s 47%. You read that right. More than half the children we baptized in 2000 were gone before confirming their faith.[1]

Those numbers are alarming. And convicting. We can (and should) discuss the causes. We can (and should) do better. This requires a hard look at how society is changing, and how we are (or are not) responding to those changes.

As we do so, we should be encouraged by what happened in Minneapolis this summer. Which is one of the reasons I’m writing this post. I want to commend the leadership of our LCMS Youth Ministry Office and the many volunteers—professional church workers and lay volunteers—who gave an incredible amount of time and energy to provide this service to the church.[2] I’m also writing to give a glimpse into the substance of what was taught at this Gathering for those who did not attend.[3] Finally, I’d like to encourage us to talk more openly and honestly about how we better retain and equip young Christians today.

Real. Present. God.

The theme for the Gathering was “Real. Present. God.” It was based on the Psalms. The theme was drawn from Psalm 46,[4] with special attention to verse one: “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble.”[5] I won’t recap the entire event here. This video does that well. Instead, I’ll share a few thoughts about the three main sub-themes and how they were unpacked.

Real.

More than any other Youth Gathering I’ve been part of, this Gathering was real. That is, it was honest. It was honest about the challenges and questions young people face these days, refusing to whitewash them with platitudes and clichés. Frederick Buechner says preachers are tempted to deal only with the problems to which there are neat and easy solutions.[6] Some problems, however, are too complex to solve in this life. Forgiveness and new life are ours through faith in Jesus, but full resolution and restoration will occur only at his return. The Gathering was honest about this. The mess of life in this broken world is real. Equally real, however, is God and his promises. The Gathering didn’t try to prove that God is real. Rather, it proclaimed the reality of the Creator who has become part of his creation. It proclaimed the good news that in Jesus, God has come to restore. Because God is real with us, we can be honest with him about our sin, our hurts, and our questions.

Present.

God’s presence is much misunderstood in our pluralistic and syncretistic culture. It is also a two-edged sword. For those who belong to him, his presence is immeasurable strength and joy. For those opposed to him, it is judgment and dread. The Gathering emphasized God’s presence through his Word. It was spoken at creation and proclaimed by the prophets. It was preached by the apostles and took written form in the Scriptures. It continues in the celebration of the sacraments, in preaching, and in the mutual conversation of the brothers and sisters. God’s presence through his Word is most clearly and definitively seen in the Word made flesh. The Gathering focused attention throughout the five days on God’s gracious presence in Jesus. This is a local presence. Jesus is found wherever God’s people gather around his promises. As they do so, the community of the faithful becomes a refuge. God makes himself graciously present among his people as they speak his Word and as they live selflessly toward each other and their neighbor.

God.

Sometimes we encounter things that make us stop in our tracks. We can’t help but freeze and shut our mouths. “Be still and know that I am God.” Read in context, this verse doesn’t really belong on a pillow. (Sorry Hallmark.) It’s a call to cease and desist. To stop whatever we are doing and stand in awe before the Lord who reigns over all creation. Psalm 46 reminds us that God is all powerful, beyond all comprehension. But he is also up close and personal, intimately involved in each of our lives. (The youth appreciated Carl’s contribution to this point, which has since gone viral.) This God, who reigns over all and cares deeply for each of us, will return on the last day to raise us and all believers in a final victory over death. In the meantime, we let God be God. We allow him to suffer, and we suffer with him. We take comfort in his resurrection, and we rise in his Spirit. We fear him as Lord of all, and we love and trust his promises to us. We take seriously the urgency of the mission he has given us, and we dedicate our lives toward sharing the good news of Jesus so that all might believe and have life in his name.

The Gathering and Local Ministry

The LCMS Youth Gathering is not intended to be a single event, detached from local congregations and districts. Rather, it aims to support and propel the church’s day-to-day ministry to and through young people. To that end, the Youth Ministry Office is offering free Bible study resources for congregations and districts to use throughout the year. I encourage you to check them out and use them.

Earlier I said that we can do better equipping and retaining young Christians. The Gathering provides a promising model. We, as a church, could learn a lot from these four things that the Gathering does very well:

  1. Professional church workers (from every rostered office) need to work together with and learn from “normal” (lay) Christians.[7] From the earliest stages of planning, the Gathering is a partnership between members of the priesthood of all believers and ordained and commissioned ministers. In vocationally appropriate ways, each does their unique and invaluable part.
  2. We need to speak honestly and directly to our young people about the challenges and complexities of life. They are growing up in a rapidly changing world. They face questions and temptations that we could never have expected, and they will face more in the coming years that we cannot yet imagine. At such times, platitudes and clichés will not do. We need more substantive teaching, more intentional listening to young people, and a willingness to walk alongside those who are struggling.
  3. We need to expand our imagination of what faithful ministry can look like. Robert Hughes and Robert Kysar suggest this involves “re-languaging” and “re-imaging” tradition.[8] That’s good. But listen carefully. I don’t mean rejecting traditions. Neither do I mean repristinating them. We need to renew our traditions and our language in contextually appropriate ways. (For example, a two-year classroom style confirmation program finishing at 8th grade worked well in 1950. It does not work nearly as well today.) To revisit and renew our traditions faithfully, we need to work together closely. This involves holding each other accountable for being faithful to the Scriptures and the Confessions and for engaging the culture in meaningful ways.
  4. We need to direct all attention to Jesus and his promises. We should talk about Jesus more than anything else. And everything we do (and debate) should lead toward the proclamation of his promises. The Gathering centered around the crucified, risen, and returning Lord. It proclaimed God’s promises in Christ, which elicited that vigorous and unified confession of faith. That’s how it always works. That’s what it looks like to be confessional.

“You are real. You are present. You are God.”

I can still hear the stadium full of young people singing. May their tribe increase.

Endnotes

[1] Thanks to Rev. Mark Kiessling, Director of Youth Ministry for the LCMS, for gathering and sharing these statistics. For reference, participants at the Gathering numbered 21,000 (without counting close to 2,000 planners, volunteers, and speakers).

[2] The Gathering is a prime example of professional church workers and lay Christians working well together. The 1,300+ planners included DCEs, DCOs, Commissioned Teachers, Directors of Parish Music, Deaconesses, Pastors, and lay volunteers. It also involved people from all of the Concordia University System schools, both seminaries, representatives from all 35 districts, and 49 states. It is no surprise that the Gathering has had such an impact over the last four decades.

[3] Full disclosure: I served on the planning team and helped guide some of the content and programing.

[4] The hyperlink takes you to the opening signal for each Morning Session and Mass Event. By the end of the Gathering, the entire stadium was proclaiming “Real! Present! God!” with the man in the video as he recited Psalm 46.

[5] Over the course of the Gathering, participants learned this verse in American Sign Language.

[6] Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale (Harper and Row, 1977), 34.

[7] 80% of all adult chaperones at the Gathering are lay volunteers. This makes the Youth Gathering an important training ground for congregational leaders. The organizers of the event know this, which is why they offered substantial training sessions for adult leaders.

[8] Hughes, Robert G. and Robert Kysar. Preaching Doctrine for the 21st Century (Fortress Press, 2009), 29.

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6 Comments

  1. Damian Snyder August 27, 2019
    Reply

    Peter,
    Great to hear about the exciting involvement of youth in the ministry of the Church. You opined that classroom-based confirmation is not as effective today as in the ’50’s. Do you have any suggestions about how to move away from this style?

    • Peter Nafzger August 27, 2019

      Hi Damian. Thanks for reading, and for your reply.

      Yes, I do have some suggestions about renewing confirmation. In addition to teaching the content of the faith, I think we need to be more intentional about incorporating young Christians into the life of the church in more wholistic ways. There are many ways this could be done, but I would expect that it would involve at least three things:

      (1) Learning would be more EXPERIENTIAL. For example, rather than only learning about the sixth commandment in a classroom, the confirmation class could also visit and volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center and learn about some of the challenges faced when this commandment isn’t followed. Then the class could discuss the types of qualities youth should look for in a potential spouse before dating relationships begin.

      (2) Learning would be INTERGENERATIONAL. It would involve raising up mentors in the congregation to supplement the content taught by the pastor/DCE. Take the sixth commandment example I just mentioned. In addition to visiting the crisis pregnancy center and making a list of characteristics for a potential spouse, a congregation could identify three healthy married couples in the congregation to host several youth at a time for dinner and conversation. These three couples could be married 3-5 years, 15-20 years, and 40-50 years respectively. They could help pass on what they have learned to the next generation. In the process, additional mature Christian adults would be investing in young people. The pastor/DCE could help make the conversation happen, but the couples would do the mentoring.

      (3) Learning would be PROLONGED. We need to begin substantive (experiential and intergenerational) education earlier, and draw it out longer. Take the sixth commandment again. Children today are exposed to much more much sooner that in previous generations, and they are allowed (and encouraged) to remain less mature much longer. When my grandpa was confirmed at age 14, he went to work on the farm and then got married when he was 21. The average age at marriage has increased by 5-6 years since then. The church needs to walk with them for a longer period of time as they navigate a culture that is less and less compatible with a Christian worldview.

      Much more could be said about these things, but the idea is that we should take a second look at how we’ve done such traditional ministries as confirmation and see if they are still meeting the needs of young people today. We don’t need to abandon the good things we’ve done. But we need to renew them, and (in this case) expand them.

    • James Gomez August 28, 2019

      This piece resonated with me, Peter. Thank you for it. I attended this gathering, and was pleased with it.

      In response to Damian’s question, one way to move to a different style is to take the elements of your Confirmation program (6 Chief Parts, OT/NT Overview, etc…) and make them into modules with a clear beginning and end: The next 6 weeks will focus on the Apostles’ Creed. Memorizing the Creed is a pre-class requirement. Creating an artistic expression/explanation of the Trinity is a post-class requirement. Then, take a couple of weeks off before the next module. In that time, work in a small group Bible Study (with lay adult leaders), or a relational event (like, dinner at somebody’s home, as Peter described). This is a small move…but, a big step.

  2. Dr. Keith Schweitzer August 28, 2019
    Reply

    Regarding catechism and confirmation. We keep our young people away from the Sacrament way too long. In my mission congregation, we catechize and commune youngsters at age 10. Retention is 100% so far.

  3. Damian Snyder August 29, 2019
    Reply

    Thank you, Peter and James, for your salient and helpful replies. Both give much food for thought and implementation in my local ministry context.

  4. Ken Loehrke September 17, 2019
    Reply

    You article is on target, We need to get the Clegy open, and relaxed to consider possibilities and out of the box thinking. We need to listen and perhaps get insights from other Lutheran bodies. We keep closing in, circling the wagons and acting like donkeys in huddle, facing each other and kicking with our hind legs harming even our own brothers and sisters. Stay true to the Word, but don’t cower behind Lutheran language. (Law, Gospel, Confessions, Liturgy styles) It seems if any article or public speech that does not use these trigger terms it is suspect. Do what these say and mean, but as “Lutheran speak” the words have lost their impact and serve no purpose other than to hide or be seen as kosher. Don’t use theses terms as flags to wave time after time. Help people see that God is real, God is present. Please encourage, and lift up our clergy. They don’t need judgement but a listening friend. The walk away for pastor and churches from this convention is on target. No quick answers but an encouragement to trust not fear, to observe and find reasons for what culture has done, Keep educating yourself not to do better with the same old things, but to use better the same old things in a refreshing way. (Lutheran speak is not the answer, God’s Word as foundation is. Some Lutherans have made shipwreck of their Lutheran doctrine and confessions. It can readily be seen by clergy, but many lay people are blind to what some Lutheran bodies have done. God. Real. Present. Get comfortable around him, learn and make friends with his disciples.

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