It’s a whole lotta money.
9 airplane tickets
4 hotel rooms
9 registration fees
27 meals a day
It’s more than a thousand dollars per person to attend the ELCA National Youth Gathering – and the pre-Gathering conference called MYLE (Multi-cultural Youth Leadership Event). When I think of what that kind of money could do for a struggling family, or how it could pay for attorneys to help immigrants at the border have their cases heard, I wonder if we are spending God’s gifts faithfully.
In that light, let’s ponder (some of) what we get for that large wad of cash:
6 years ago, my son went to the National Youth Gathering when it was in New Orleans. He texted me from the arena where 30,000 Lutheran teenagers were gathered to hear speakers and sing praises and sing songs that taste like electricity. I expected his texts to say things about a great band that was on the stage or how much fun it was to be in the city of New Orleans earlier that day. But, one of his texts was a question: “Why didn’t I know that our presiding bishop is amazing?” Another text was a quote about grace from one of the main speakers, Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Yet another was an ALL CAPS exclamation about how, together, the youth groups had brought nearly half a million dollars in offerings for ELCA World Hunger…and someone had promised to match those offerings dollar for dollar!
He’d been a church kid all his life. But, let me tell you something about your average Lutheran church: it is not big, not flashy, not the one everyone is talking about at school. It has a name like St. Peter or Emmanuel or Holy Trinity, nothing edgy like Summit or The Gathering Place or something about a Hill or a Star or a Mountain Top…unless Mount Pisgah counts, which, it doesn’t. It has about 100 people on a Sunday morning. Some have hundreds of people, but most have one hundred. A handful of ELCA congregations can use the word “thousand” when they talk about worship attendance, but loads of us have 50 people gathered in sanctuaries built for 400 people in the pews decades ago when you went to church on Sunday morning because…it was Sunday morning.
Most kids who grow up in these congregations know about praise bands and projection screens because they worshiped at their friend’s church one time after a Saturday night sleepover. And there is probably a guitarist at their church with a great voice who sometimes sings a solo during the offering – a song you can hear on K-LOVE in your car or at Hobby Lobby. But, Sunday mornings at St. Peter/Emmanuel/Trinity Lutheran Church all over the nation most often sound like organs played by older people because the young ones aren’t learning to play anymore. Sunday mornings at small Lutheran congregations that dot the towns and prairies and cities of our country have small choirs and pastors who can sing well enough to lead worship.
Most ELCA kids are members of small, loving congregations.
And every three years, we gather as one big congregation for four days.
Because there are 30,000 of us, we gather in a city large enough to have an arena where we can meet, hotels to house us, restaurants to feed us. Also, big cities have lots of opportunities for service, and while we come to worship and play together, we also come to serve. 10,000 of us each day for three days are bused into the city to participate in healing and wholeness for our host city. Three years ago in Detroit, we cleaned up vacant lots, boarded up old homes, cleaned up parks and greenways, visited local schools and day care centers to deliver books and read with children. We gathered and delivered thousands of packages of diapers to the various agencies in the city that serve young children or families with young children. We also learned how gorgeous and kind and fun the people of Detroit are.
We are headed to Houston next week. It was decided years ago that the city would be Houston, and just last year, hurricane winds and rains were swallowing up Texas and the Gulf Areas. I was moved to tears when I realized that after the first wave of rescue and recovery was done, when things are still a mess in some places and there are still areas that need a work force…30,000 of us in bright orange t-shirts and work gloves are headed your way, Houston!
I am the pastor of one of those beautiful, small congregations; her name is Emmanuel. When we collect money for disaster relief, we gather a few hundred dollars and send it in. When we collect peanut butter and jelly for the local food pantry, we put our dozens of containers in grocery bags and someone drives them across town to restock the shelves that are bare. We generally work in numbers like dozens and sometimes hundreds. Three years ago, the ELCA youth brought diapers to Detroit and stocked every cupboard and closet in every agency that needed them. It was incredible to be a part of a huge effort like that.
This year, we are bringing children’s books. They gave us a list to buy books from, and we could have them shipped to a local congregation who would receive them and ultimately get them to the giant Gathering, or we could bring them with us. Here in North Carolina, a long-haul trucker offered to take a load of books to Texas for us, so we loaded them up. I suppose that happened around the country, and there will be (tens of?) thousands of books to deliver to local school, agencies, doctor’s offices, and wherever children might sit a while and read.
Three years ago, we brought half a million dollars in offerings for ELCA Walk for Water – for digging wells and providing fresh water access in places around the globe that need it – and our dollars were also matched, to make it more than a million dollars to affect true and faithful change in the lives of God’s people!
This year, that dollar-for-dollar match has been offered again. And this year’s focus is about farmers. ELCA World Hunger’s Global Farm Challenge (click here for a 90 second video) is working to support farmers around the world. And I do not doubt that we will meet the challenge, filling the bank account that makes withdrawals on behalf of those in need…to the tune of a million dollars or more!
Our youth will fill an arena and sing great songs at the top of their lungs, and then each at their appointed time, speakers will come and take center stage to talk for a few minutes about things that our young people need to hear. Maybe one will speak about mental illness, working to reduce and finally remove the stigma about it. Maybe one will speak about gender identity and how God is creative and loves nuance – and this life and these bodies are not just black and white. And speaking of black and white, maybe one speaker will talk about what it means to be a Christian and how we can be anti-racist. Surely, at least one of the speakers will say clearly into the microphone that we who are gathered in the name of Jesus, though we are young, we are not the future of the Church: We are presently the Church! And I hope our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton says something about how there are future pastors sitting all over that arena – because I know a young woman who needs to hear women say that over and over and over.
And our kids will feel something new.
They will experience the Lutheran Church in a way that many of them never have before. They’ll see how big it is. That their congregation of 50 is part of something so alive and enormous, something that is big enough to say, “Let’s raise a million dollars to dig wells, so God’s children can drink clean water.” And then watch as a million dollars rolls in. That their little Trinity Lutheran in rural Iowa is a part of something so alive and intentional about bringing resurrection life everywhere that their 30 books are stacked on another congregation’s 25 books and the stacks grow until there are semi-trucks filled with books driving toward Houston, so that every child in a huge city can have a leg-up in literacy.
Our kids will walk around the Interactive Learning Center and stop at a booth that has little old ladies with gray hair and soft bodies (that look just like the ladies at their own church) and hear one of those women say, “We are WELCA, the Women of the ELCA, and we will not stand for human trafficking. Because we love you, we have some education for you, so you can identify if someone is trying to groom you away from your family. We also have hundreds of backpacks here you can help us fill with these toiletries and other supplies. We always need a supply of these backpacks, so when a person is rescued from a trafficker, they’ve got some basics – and they know someone cares.”
So, here’s the thing:
Our kids will tell the story of the church.
With their words or their lives, they will either engage with or leave the Church. They will tell people what it was like to be a Lutheran kid in the early 21st century. I want them to tell the story of their small, faithful church who loved God and loved them and loved the community. But, I also want them to be able to tell this story, the big story that blew their minds when they filled a huge arena with Lutheran teenagers and raised enormous amounts of money and cried and cared and heard people say things from the stage they had to really think about. I want them to feel connected and electric sometimes – because a lot of life in the church is not electric. But those parts are holy, too. After all, our little youth group from a little congregation in the middle of North Carolina will be traveling together for a week, sharing rooms and meals and bug spray. Super regular stuff.
And every minute and dollar spent will have been worth it.