Saturday, July 23, 2005

Dare To Be Lutheran: Evaluation

Daring in St. Louis

My first time attending the Higher Things Youth Conference was this July. We gathered in St. Louis, my former place of residence while attending seminary. Some 1500 or so attendees (mostly youth, of course) joined us. And it was hot. Really, really, hot.

We arrived just in time to register and get a seat for opening worship, which was held in the college church (of St. Francis Xavier). What a beautiful gothic building this was! Nice and cool too. This very ornate, formal, echo-friendly chamber would serve as the setting for most of the conference chapel services. The choice of an excellent venue was as signal of what type of worship would take place there.

The liturgical excellence of the conference worship was seen in the leaders’ great attention to detail. While purposely formal, the pastors who preached and performed the liturgy modeled a solemnity and seriousness that served to focus one on the event, and lent a tone that was wonderfully reverent. The preaching was also top-notch: Christ-centered, Law-and-Gospel, while still reaching the hearers and capturing the elusive teenage attention. Highlights included:

Pastor Cwirla who reminded us that we are Yitzak (Issac), with the dagger, the sword of Damocles, the Law of God hanging over our heads. Christ is the ram, the lamb of God who takes our place and is fastened to the altar (the cross), burned in the fire of God’s wrath for us.

Pastor Steigemeyer’s powerful story of a Nigerian woman who converted from Islam, and suffered beatings and torture for her infant faith, at the hands of her own family...

Pastor Woodring’s wonderfully short, “How dare you?” sermon. Law and Gospel in a distilled form…

And Pastor Baue ROCKED when he stuck it to the pope in his own house! Have you ever heard a sermon in a Roman Catholic church, where the preacher said we are MORE catholic than the pope? Where the preacher DARED THE POPE to BE LUTHERAN??? I now have. Nice connection with the church bell too (the bell in St. Francis Xavier church was sold to the Jesuits by the Saxon immigrants who formed the LCMS - they brought it over with them from Germany. Neat, neat, factoid that was wonderfully woven into the sermon)

Plenary sessions…

I found the plenary sectionals mostly helpful. Pastor Klement Preus reminded us what “one little word can fell him” (the devil). The word is, “liar!”.

Pastor William Weedon, got us to think about our congregations as colonies of the future. What a neat concept. He also read a really intriguing definition of the church from an anonymous letter written in the early second century. Where can I get a copy of that?

Dr. John Kleinig, from Australia, I found a little difficult to follow at times, perhaps because of the “language barrier”. But his message about being a secret agent for Christ and the humorous story to illustrate were well received.

Professor Rast was good too – a great historian is a great story-teller, and Dr. Rast told a memorable one about how his great-grandfather came to America, became a Lutheran, and made the good confession.


What a variety to choose from! If I ever wanted to clone myself… I ended up hopping between sectionals, and caught most of some of them. However I missed all of most of them. Some of interest:

Pastor Steigemeyer’s in-depth look at Christianity in Fantasy and Fiction (literature and film). Much of this I saw coming because I am an avid reader of his blog, but it was still very good stuff.

Dr. Alvin Schmidt’s look at Islam, it’s history, it’s teachings. Dr. Schmidt painted a disturbing picture of the religion of Muhammed and makes a strong case that Islam is NOT a religion of peace.

Rev. Todd Wilken, host of Issues Etc… radio program, hosted a sectional on UFO’s. His basic point – that if we think about the topic with reason informed by scripture, we must conclude “space aliens” do not exist, but that we humans are the crown of God’s creation. Rev. Wilken and I had a quick chat afterwards about the movie “Enemy Mine” which we agreed was the only one we knew of that even approached this topic (what religion aliens would be or have).

Mollie Ziegler’s straight-talking style was applied to the idea of being “in the world, but not of it”. Ms. Ziegler does pretty well for a self described, “someone who is not theologically trained”. My kids enjoyed her session at my recommendation, too.

Pastor Zill, a campus pastor, told an interesting story about a young woman who (having no religious background) went church-shopping on his campus. After sampling many of the other offerings, she settled on Zill’s Lutheran church, because only there did she “feel awkward”. Other places made her feel SO welcome, but at the Lutheran church she was uncomfortable. She took that to mean that she found a place with integrity, where she had something to learn, and eventually was baptized and confirmed.

Other sessions I missed out on, but sounded interesting:

“What to Do When Bored in Church”

“The Truth About Cutting”

“How to Talk to Evangelicals”

“Christian Rock: Dare we Applaud?”

“When Home is the Wilderness”

“Mormonism Exposed”

And many more.

I have to also say that I found this group of kids to be better behaved and more respectful than other large groups of, yes, even Lutheran youth I have been with. I think much of that goes to the tone of the event, which was set early. Leaders made it known that worship is worship, study is study, and fun is fun. I like this distinction, and it seems that the Higher Things group achieves each purpose both separately, and well. Worship was taken seriously, and the reception of the Lord’s Supper was the focal point, or climax of the entire conference (as it should be).

Knowing full well that this conference was being offered as somewhat of an alternative to the “official” synodical type of gathering, I was slightly unsure of what to expect when I arrived. I was, and still am, uncomfortable with much of the way our LCMS typically handles youth conferences, and so I felt some sympathy with the HT group. However, I was afraid I would hear bad-mouthing and criticism of those “other” youth gatherings.

To their credit, I heard no one associated with this event bashing on any other. The tone of the entire thing was very positive, uplifting, and just made me even more proud to be Lutheran. Hopefully the youth resonated with this too. Actions speak louder than words, here, I think. And the best approach seems to be just to do things well, and let the conference speak for itself.

Overall, as I told one pastor, this is the kind of youth gathering I want my OWN children to attend some day.


Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

Hi, and I would add that for me, one of the highlights of these events is meeting in person those I only knew via internet. Great to see you there!

Thanks for the kind words about my stuff. But one minor thing: The girl in my sermon was Somali and I met her in Kenya.

As one who has had some affiliation with Higher Things since its inception, I am delighted to read your favorable remarks. Please keep spreading the word.

Stan said...

Honestly, I don't think Higher Things is intended to be an alternative to the National Youth Gathering (although it obviously does serve that purpose). It would seem that its characterization as an alternative has come from outsiders and not so much from within. The Gathering does serve to be a conference for youth, and the substance of it is more edified then that of the National Youth Gathering. It too, as you saw lacks the distinctive problems the National one faces. Yet, Higher Things is not a Missouri-Synod only organization, other Lutheran churches are openly invited to the conference (but not to commune obviously) and Higher Things does try very hard to maintain a non-politically minded agenda. I say this only because I think it more helpful to view the Higher Things conferences as edifying opporunities apart from it serving as an alternative.

Plus, there wasn't a National Youth Gathering this year, so what would it have been an alternative to? ;-)

BTW, Thanks for the helpful and well written analysis of the conference.

Pax Domini!

- Stan Lemon

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