We are either baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection or, as the Rev. Richard Rohr says in his book “Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi,” “Christianity is largely a mere belonging system, not a transformational system that will change the world.” The ELCA Youth Gathering has been and will always be a ministry that transforms the lives of teenagers, and transformed people of God transform the world.
As the director for the ELCA Youth Gathering I’m not interested in nurturing teenagers into a belief system that is only focused on life after death. I want to nurture teenagers into a way of life modeled by Jesus that hopefully is supported in and by the church. I’m not interested in encouraging teenagers to be part of a church hawking a spirituality of worthiness or prosperity or moral superiority. I want to invest in a generation that is formed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and not just formed but transformed.
That is why we expose young people to places like Detroit where they can come face-to-face with another’s fear, loneliness, loss and brokenness, and their own. Taking up the cross of Christ, as Andrew Root points out in his book “Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry,” is not about doing hard things or suffering through things we don’t like to do, which we often tell young people. It is about encountering the mystery of Christ in another’s story and recognizing it as the familiar cycle of loss and renewal that keeps all of creation moving toward more life. That is the promise of the cross that we can count on.
My fervent prayer since we announced Detroit as the site of the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering is that the Holy Spirit would begin to stir the hearts and minds of youth, preparing them to welcome an experience that could potentially rock their worlds. I pray this because I know that at the Gathering young people and adults will be transformed if they will surrender to the experience. “The foundational meaning of transformation is to surrender to [one’s] new identity [in Christ] and consciously draw upon it.” (Rohr, p. 68) All that we are preparing for this summer at the Gathering will put young people in touch with their identity in Christ and teach them how to consciously draw upon that identity.
We will return them to familial communities and church communities that hopefully will welcome and consciously draw out their newly embraced baptismal identities and channel their energies and gifts in response to the good news, which is Jesus.