Conga lines. Tens of thousands of young Lutherans in San Antonio, who were moved again and again to participate in the most amazing conga lines you can imagine. They happened at a moment’s notice, but quickly spread throughout the dome. Faster and more chaotic they would pick up speed, crossing other conga lines, merging and splitting, picking up teenagers along the way, until the entire floor of the dome was streaming with a moving mass of people. I’ve never seen anything like it.
But the conga lines at the 2006 ELCA Youth Gathering were not the most amazing things that I witnessed. As 40,000 teenagers descended upon the city of San Antonio over two weeks they participated in morning and evening programs of Bible study, speakers, and bands. They gave of their time in service projects all around the San Antonio area, from reading to kids at an orphanage to picking up trash at a park. They gathered in the 400,000 square foot interactive center where they learned about the various ministries of the church, heard more bands, played, and just “hung out”. They participated in activities in their hotels (if you weren’t a teenage Lutheran, there was no room for you at the inn in San Antonio!), connected to their youth groups, and learned about the culture and people of San Antonio. And on Sunday morning, they gathered together for the most powerful and moving worship service I have ever experienced. The Holy Spirit surely descended upon the church as it came together at the Youth Gathering.
The theme of the Gathering was “Cruzando: Journey with Jesus.” The word “Cruzando” is Spanish for “crossing,” a theme that evokes both the act of “crossing” and the “cross” of Christ. Each day’s theme began with “Jesus encounters us,” Jesus encounters us in our neighbor, Jesus encounters us in the cross, Jesus encounters us at the borders, Jesus encounters us in the feast. The overall message was there is nowhere you can go that Jesus has not already been, there is no boundary that Jesus has not already crossed, and in fact, it is precisely in the unknown and scary places that Jesus encounters us. The last day’s theme, Vaya con Dios, (go with God) became a rally cry, sending back 40,000 teenagers into their homes, schools, and congregations to proclaim the Christ that they had encountered. God gathers the church of Christ together, fills it with the Holy Spirit, and then sends it back out into the world.
Over the next several months you will undoubtedly hear much more about the Youth Gathering from me here at Bethlehem. I hope that I can convey to you a hint of the power of this event. I have never been more proud to be a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church that so values its youth to commit to an event of this scale and depth every three years. A church that calls on its synods, congregations, universities, and social service organizations to supply over 2000 volunteers who plan and put on this event. And a church that takes so seriously the spiritual development of its young people to engage them where they are, with the questions they have, in languages they can understand, and is not willing to settle for the overly-simplistic and moralist messages that so often get foisted upon our young people. I thank you for recognizing my call to participate in this ministry of the larger Lutheran church. In this small way, each and every one of you had a hand in proclaiming the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to 40,000 young people, some of whom had never been encountered by it before.
For more information about the ELCA Youth Gathering visit www.elca.org/gathering/