By Ann Osburn
Nearly 2,100 Lutheran youth, chaperones and church workers from all over the United States and Canada gathered at three college campuses this summer for the 2014 Higher Things Lutheran youth conferences — which all had “Crucified” as their theme.
The “Crucified” theme was based on 1 Cor 2:2: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified.”
“You killed God; I did, too,” said Higher Things President Rev. George Borghardt of McHenry, Ill., in his opening-worship sermon at all three events. “This dead God means a living you. This is the end of your sin. It is finished. Not it’s almost finished and all you have to do is repent, choose or accept. If you could do something to fix your sins, God would not have hung his Son on a tree.”
The three conferences were July 1-4 at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.; July 8-11 at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, Wis.; and July 22-25, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.
Higher Things — an LCMS Recognized Service Organization — also has announced the dates and locations for next year’s “Te Deum”-themed summer youth conferences. They are set for July 14-17 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; July 21-24 at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.; and July 28-31 at Concordia University Nebraska, at Seward, Neb.
“I just love the fact that there are so many Lutherans here,” said Kasey Cooper of Clovis, N.M., a first-time conference attendee. “I’ve never seen so many Lutherans in one place.”
“The conference is a great way to learn more of the theology that our church stands for and formulate more of your own opinions,” said Claire Krugler, an 11th-grade student from Palo Alto, Calif.
The 2014 conference schedules were similar in structure and had daily times designated for multiple worship services, plenary (large-group) teaching sessions, breakaway sessions and free-time entertainment.
“Every part of the conference was my favorite,” said Madison Ostermiller from Billings, Mont., who attended the Utah conference.
Different LCMS pastors taught the plenary sessions at each of the three conferences, focusing on the “Crucified” theme.
“Good Friday isn’t Jesus’ funeral; it’s His victory over death,” said the Rev. Todd Wilken of Waterloo, Ill., during his Florida plenary session. “He gets nothing but the Law and you get nothing but the Gospel.”
“The theology of glory doesn’t take sin seriously. We, however, based on the Bible, take sin very seriously,” said LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison during a Wisconsin plenary session. “That’s why we like crosses. Because we look at the cross and say, ‘How serious is my sin?’ That serious. Jesus died for me.”
“The empty cross is not a Christian symbol. It’s a symbol of laying down one’s life for another. It means somebody died a tragic and unfair death,” said Rev. William Cwirla of Hacienda Heights, Calif., during a Utah plenary session. “There’s your Christian banner, the mostly naked dead guy on the cross.”
More than 120 breakaway session options were offered during the Wisconsin conference.
“I liked the plenaries because of the humor, and I learned, too,” said Josh Greunke, a 14-year-old first-time attendee from Winside, Neb.
“I have learned so much this week,” said Brenda Christensen, a chaperone from Hastings, Neb. “I’m not usually a Bible-study person, but this has made me so interested to learn.”
“I like the ‘Baptized, Not Gay’ breakaway because it focused on why it was wrong and the sin behind it. I liked the logic and how it explained the why,” said Sam Soda, a 15-year-old from Denver, Iowa.
“The topics were ones I hadn’t heard about before, and I loved learning more about the Lutheran perspective,” said Brittany Virchow, a 17-year-old attendee from West Bend, Wis.
“I liked the session on the defense of life,” said Cassandra Janson, an 18-year-old attendee from Custer, S.D. “[The presenter] brought up a lot of points I had never heard before and gave the scientific reason we can share with other people.”
“I liked the breakaways because they were fun and I learned new things,” said Kiersten Dent, a 9th-grade first-time attendee from Evanston, Wyo.
Conference attendees also gathered several times each day to worship together.
“It’s really fun being with Lutherans your own age,” said Gabe Meyer, a 15-year-old from Grand Rapids, Mich. “Chapel with everyone singing hymns together is always amazing.”
“My favorite part of the conference is having four services a day,” said Andrew Grams, a first-time attendee and chaperone from Nashville, Tenn. “You stop singing for a minute and [then] you hear all these young voices joining together in hymns and prayers.”
“We don’t chant at my church. I love it when I get to go to Higher Things and do that,” said Levi Frazier, a 16-year-old from Clarinda, Iowa.
“I really liked the opening Divine Service because it was so loud and there were so many people singing,” said Kaitlyn Wiegand, a 15-year-old from Sherman, Ill.
“I loved starting out the day with Matins,” said Beth Stegemoeller, a first-time attendee and chaperone from Grace Lutheran Church, Hobbs, N.M.
“I love worshiping with 1,200 other Lutherans,” said Ruth Mussmann, a college student from Fremont, Ind., who also attended the Wisconsin conference. “In Matins this morning, when we sang ‘Feed Your Children, God Most Holy’ a capella, that was so great.”
“I like Evening Prayer,” said Grant Howell, a 15-year-old from Tulsa, Okla., who attended the Florida conference. “I like the Psalms and the organ and them bringing in the Christ candle.”
“I absolutely love Evening Prayer,” said Alma Veldman, a chaperone from Sidney, Ohio. “Hearing so many young voices singing in all the services is so amazing.”
Specific free times with planned entertainment options were included in the conference schedule. Options ranged from improvisational comedy, bowling and karaoke, to a dunk tank, magician, talent shows and more.
“I loved meeting new people during free time,” said Mackenzie Geist, a 15-year-old attendee from Isle, Minn.
During the Wisconsin conference, the group attended a baseball game on Concordia’s campus July 9. Following the game, conference attendees gathered on the field to pray Evening Prayer.
“I was kind of surprised that we were able to sing Evening Prayer on the baseball field without music,” said Dan Ewert, a 17-year-old, first-time attendee from Elm Grove, Wis. “It made it a different experience that was enjoyable.”
The Lutheran Church Charities “Comfort Dogs” also attended two days of the Wisconsin conference.
In Utah, conference attendees spent an evening off campus at a local amusement center.
“I had fun rollerblading at the Fun Park,” said Amanda Schmidt, a 14-year-old from Stanton, Neb.
After free time each evening, many groups gathered individually to pray Compline.
At the end of the week, the closing Divine Service sermons brought back the “Crucified” theme.
“Jesus hanging from a tree. Aren’t you a little embarrassed sometimes telling people the details of what you believe?” asked the Rev. Bruce Keseman of Freeburg, Ill., during the Wisconsin closing sermon. “The cross is nothing more than a first-century equivalent of an electric chair, a lethal injection, a firing squad. No wonder the cross is offensive. In that moment of pure weakness, Jesus accomplishes what all the powers of hell could never accomplish: He pulls you out of hell and into heaven. That is why we believe no matter how foolish it looks, Christ crucified is God’s power; it is your salvation.”
“No other glory could save you except Golgotha glory, crucified glory, Jesus’ glory, the Rev. Aaron Fenker of Bossier City, La., said during the Florida closing sermon. “The glory of our last-minute victories won’t save us. It’s only false glory. The one-upmanship, the glory that we lord up over others; false glory. Jesus’ glory saves you. … Jesus’ glory is seen and heard from every single font, pulpit and altar and it’s in those places for you. Jesus’ glory is seen on His death on the cross, seen in His resurrection. Jesus’ glory is that He has been crucified for your sins. It’s the glory He reveals to you today and every Lord’s day. And it’s a glory we’ll all see face to face on the last day.”
“The cross. The crucified Christ. That’s our theology, our hope, our faith,” said Borghardt. “Christ and Him crucified for you: That’s daring to be Lutheran.”
Higher Things — whose motto is “Dare to be Lutheran” — holds annual youth conferences and helps pastors, congregations and parents instill a distinctly Lutheran identity among youth and young adults. For more information, visit higherthings.org.
Ann Osburn lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and is marketing coordinator for Higher Things.
Posted Oct. 24, 2014