YG Director’s Blog.July,2011: Will the Gathering be different than 2009?

Heidi Hagstrom

​One of the Gathering synod coordinators recently passed along questions that she has been receiving from congregations trying to decide if they are going to invest in the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering. Questions like, “Will the stage in the Superdome be different?” and “Will there be a well-known speaker this time?” made me wonder how we can help young people think about how their perspective on the world leads to these kinds of questions.

 Is it just me, or does anyone else think those kinds of questions come out of a consumerist approach to the Gathering? Don’t get me wrong; I understand that attending the ELCA Youth Gathering is a substantial investment for youth, their families and congregations, so questions of value should be asked. Alongside those questions, though, I think we have an opportunity to invite young people to ponder questions that help them determine if they are hoping to be overwhelmed by the stage in the Superdome or filled with the Holy Spirit present in the gathered community of the faithful?

 That raises a question for me about how some North American Lutherans approach participation in church in general. Many of us who attend congregations where there are multiple pastors and/or musicians, make decisions about attendance on Sunday morning based on who is preaching or on what choir/group is leading music. There is nothing wrong with personal preferences per se, but what if we went to church on Sunday being open to being encountered by the Holy Spirit in whatever form that may take? What do we lose spiritually when we make worship about us and our preferences?

 At the Gathering we are always open to who God may provide to proclaim the word in our midst. The word may come to us from the witness of a celebrity or an undocumented immigrant; from a published ELCA pastor or a Baptist lay person. I wonder if adult leaders could use the question of desiring a known vs. unknown speaker to ponder what it was like for people to listen to the young kid from Nazareth born out of wedlock when he stood in the midst of elders in the temple saying he was the son of God, or when the King of the Jews made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a stinky donkey and not in a stretch limo flanked by security guards. Would we think God duped us because the path God’s son followed was a path of randomly strewn branches and not a red carpet?

 The Gathering is an impressive ministry to behold, yet those of us called to care for this ministry also strive to be good stewards of the resources participants invest in it. For that reason, the stage in the Superdome will be different, but the structure will utilize the same footprint. Saving money by not having to redraw the rigging plot or reconfigure staging or order new drapery allows us to be better stewards and put our energy and resources into other areas of this Gathering. We are trying to strike a balance between the “wow factor” of the Gathering’s productions in the Superdome and creating justice experiences that connect youth and adult participants with New Orleanians who need to know God’s people are still there for them.

 Am I a fuddy duddy for hoping that all of us can see beyond the fog of consumerism that prevents us from recognizing the things that really bring us closer to God? Am I out of touch with what teenagers need to feel connected to God? Am I resisting some kind of generational change in some way? Those are questions with which I invite you to help me wrestle in the comments section below.

 I feel strongly about helping people, myself included, discern what is of the Spirit and what isn’t; what draws us closer to God and what turns us in on ourselves. If having a glitzy, technically cutting-edge stage, the hottest band, and the hippest celebrity speaker helps us worship the eternal God and bear fruit in the world, then we keep them. If those things lead to narcissism or to an obsession with having the best, most impressive, revolutionary stuff, then we need to loosen our grip or even let go of them completely.