Yesterday I preached to the largest congregating of United Methodists in Missouri, a gathering of more than 2,100 persons at a single worship service. Any idea where I was? Manchester UMC? La Croix? St. James? Lee’s Summit?
Actually, I participated in the culminating worship service for WOW, the weekend youth gathering in Springfield. What a thrilling experience to preach and celebrate the sacrament in a huge banquet-hall-turned-concert-center that was absolutely filled to overflowing with high school-aged and middle school-aged young people. The music was loud, the lights bright, the screens big, and the spirit alive. They came from all over the state to sing, pray, shout, clap, study scripture, listen for the Word, offer gifts, break bread, laugh, play, and learn.
There are rare moments in this work of extraordinary optimism and unbridled hopefulness for the future of the church, and this was one of them. If you feel cynical and doubtful about whether there is still life in the church and relevancy to our message, try standing among 2,100 teenagers and their sponsors as they sing and pray – it stimulates the spirit the way those paddles on the defibrillator shock the heart into starting up strong all over again!
The Conference Council on Youth Ministry invited me to preach and preside over the sacrament, and I readily agreed. However, I have to confess that I feel totally unqualified and completely inadequate for the task of preaching to youth. As I half-jokingly said to someone, “I can hardly speak in a way that holds the attention for two minutes of the two teens who live in my house, so how do you expect me to say something interesting to 2,100 youth for thirty minutes?” I preach or teach or make presentations about 160 times a year, but nothing so challenges me as speaking before youth. The stakes are high, and the particular gifts that youth ministry requires are ones I possess in low supply. Euphemistically stated, youth ministry plays to a “lesser strength” of mine.
So I was more anxious about this service than about any other recent event. I outlined some thoughts the night before, and then took my notes to breakfast with me at the hotel to seal them to memory. When I finished my tea and bagel and attempted to pay, the server told me that someone else had paid my tab for me, a gentleman at another table who had already left.
I found this unexpected sign of grace deeply touching for some reason. I don’t know who he is or what he looks like, but somewhere out there is a person to whom I’m indebted.
As I nervously waited to step on stage for the youth worship service, I found myself thinking about all those I’m indebted to, so many people whose names I do not know and whose faces I cannot see. I think especially of all those who poured part of themselves into my soul during those formative years of my own youth: pastors, youth ministers, youth sponsors, Sunday School teachers, retreat planners, conference leaders, van drivers, choir directors, guitar players, camp counselors, dinner cooks, mission volunteers. Like the hidden stranger who secretly covered my bill, I was nourished by those I can never repay, and they’ve disappeared before I could offer them my thanks.
And now I think about all those who made WOW possible this weekend – the staff, volunteers, youth leaders, drivers, cooks, sponsors, hosts, planners, pastors, and musicians. Thirty-five years from now, perhaps none of these youth will know your names. But don’t ever underestimate the part you have played in their faith journeys. By your good work, patient help, and eager leadership you have helped the next generation take another step forward in learning to follow Jesus, to do what Jesus did and go where Jesus went. And since I can’t thank the strangers I’m indebted to for my faith journey any longer, I thank those of you who helped make this weekend possible. I give God thanks for every one of you for your good service and fruitful ministry.
Yours in Christ,