More Than Your Momma's Church Convention

August 04, 2011

By Kris Marshall*

Youth 2011 was a mind-blowing, soul-infusing, heart-pumping event that inspired and challenged youth from all over the United States to rethink their faith and its relevance in their lives today. The four-day national gathering collected more than 1,200 youth in downtown Sacramento (and the Youth 2011 gathering two weeks earlier at Purdue University gathered more than 3,600), where young people and their leaders worshipped, studied the Scriptures, prayed, had small group discussions, learned about social justice opportunities, participated in workshops and trainings, and met with old and new friends in ways that might surprise you.  
Passionate leaders from national United Methodist agencies, seminaries, local churches and youth groups came out in force to challenge this younger generation to not simply think of church as a place you go (willingly or unwillingly), but as an identity – who you are. The theme for the week was "More Than," meaning that when God gets involved in our ordinary lives, activities, and communities, they are more than places to be or things to do – and become meaningful experiences and expressions of God's transforming love in the world.
"The best thing about Youth 2011 was seeing the youth catch on fire through the power of the Holy Spirit for social justice and personal spirituality," said Cassandra Lawrence, Coordinator of Youth Ministries at Santa Rosa First United Methodist Church. "I saw them gain more confidence in their ideas and start the process of taking ownership of their own youth group and their own faith."
Sadie Stone, a young pastor who brought seven youth from Reno, Nevada, agreed: "There's something spectacular about watching youth experience the presence of God in new ways. It's amazing to watch as they wrestle with the questions that affect their generation and to seriously reflect on what it means to be a Christian …not to mention their abundance of energy as they sang and danced in worship."
Musicians blew the roof off the Convention Center in downtown Sacramento with different styles of music amped to painfully awesome levels: punk, praise, hip-hop, rock, metal, and even a bit of country. Christian rapper Agape* not only led worship on opening night, he led workshops where his authentic message and contagious energy moved even those who do not normally enjoy hip-hop to dance and sing along. Different styles of music, but one message: that God's love through Jesus Christ can change the world through our open hearts, ready minds, and willing hands. Some of the "adults" may have been using earplugs, but when they saw the smiles, laughter, tears, and sweat on the faces of their young people, they knew it was worth the pain.
Rev. Jonathan Tarman, a pastor at First UMC in San Jose, reflected, "It was incredible to see the way the Holy Spirit worked to blend so many different people together in worship. I was really impressed with the kids' genuine hearts for God and their desire to change their church and their communities from the inside out."
Dynamic speakers, including Olu Brown, Fred Lynch, Motoe Yamada, and Andy Mattick, took the stage in the main hall or met with groups during workshops to inspire them. Saturday night's closing keynote was shared by Zach Hunter, a 19-year old modern day abolitionist, who started an organization called Loose Change to Loosen Chains (LC2LC) when he was 14, to raise money to free enslaved people around the world today. Now Hunter travels the country inspiring youth to see what they can do in their own communities to make a difference in the lives of a world that needs God's grace and justice.
And although the event was called Youth 2011, it wasn't only young people's lives being touched. Tarman added, "In my conversations with many of the youth directors and pastors who were visiting, I was stunned by their testimonies of how their youth really reveal Christ to them and how they really see Christ coming alive in the lives of their kids."
Participants closed their time together in Sacramento by sharing communion: 1,600 people led by Bishop Warner Brown – shouting their conviction that through Christ, we are more than our expectations and our fears… we are the body of Christ! RezLife, the youth praise band from Church of the Resurrection, sent us off with a song, sung "lustily and with good courage" (to make John Wesley proud): "We are God's people! We are God's hands and feet!"
May it be so!

*The Rev. Kristen Marshall serves First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, California.
(See five albums of photos from Youth 2011 at