LCMS college students tackle ‘TABOO’ topics
By Adriane Heins
ST. LOUIS — Temperatures dipped into the single digits outdoors, but inside the walls of Saint Louis University’s Busch Student Center, spirits were high at LCMS U’s campus ministry conference, called “TABOO,” held Jan. 5–7.
LCMS U, the Synod’s campus-ministry arm, held its first conference — “UNWRAPPED” — in 2013, with 425 students in attendance, the largest national campus-ministry gathering in at least 40 years.
This year, however, the Rev. Marcus Zill, director of LCMS Campus Ministry and LCMS U, announced that “TABOO’s attendance exceeded that of UNWRAPPED, with approximately 475 in attendance, representing some 100 colleges and universities around the country.”
It’s not hard to see why the students were so interested. The conference, which focused on “taboo” topics the culture seemingly doesn’t want the Church discussing, dealt with issues like contraception, same-sex attraction and sexuality — all issues hotly contested on college campuses across the country.
“We knew we were tackling some hot topics in planning this conference,” Zill said. “We had great confidence that our college students could handle the accompanying frank and open discussion with necessary decorum and sensitivity. They did not disappoint. Our college students took the topics and discussion as seriously as we did, and it showed.”
One of the plenary speakers, Scott Barefoot, shared his story of being raised in a Lutheran home, announcing that he was a homosexual to his friends and family at age 21, and eventually, by God’s grace, turning from that lifestyle.
Following the conference, Barefoot noted on his personal Facebook page that, “Between the time I spoke at the LCMS TABOO conference earlier today until now, there have been 11 young people/attendees that have reached out to me sharing that they, too, struggle with same-sex attraction and asking for help.”
“I want to make sure others don’t travel down the same road I did … of embracing that sin [and] lifestyle,” he said. “In addition to God, I want to make sure folks know that they do have brothers and sisters in Christ they can talk with and receive support from.”
The Rev. Tom Eckstein, plenary speaker and chairman of the Synod’s “God’s Gift of Sexuality” task force, also encouraged students to reach out to one another and to anyone who may be struggling with sexual sin: “Become friends. Earn their trust. Ask them if they’d be willing to dialogue, to go on a journey with you, to study Scripture,” he said. “Have a civil, humble conversation with them. Make it clear that you yourself are a sinner who needs Jesus.”
‘Our love is not taboo’
The taboo topics piqued the interest of more than just Lutheran college students. On the final day of the conference, Saint Louis University’s LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer) campus group, Rainbow Alliance, set up a table outside the lecture hall with a sign that read, “Our love is not taboo.”
The Rev. Eric Andrae, assistant chaplain at TABOO and LCMS campus pastor at various schools in Pittsburgh, along with Shana Ziolko-Marting, director of the Lutheran Campus Center at Northwest Missouri State University, took the group cups of hot chocolate on behalf of the conference attendees and served as a listening ear.
“While Shana talked to a couple off to the side, I noticed that one of the tablers wore a pin stating, ‘Sinner does not describe me,’” Andræ explained. “This gave opportunity for me to speak to the rest of them about the sinner-saint paradox.”
Throughout the congenial conversation, Andræ “affirmed that our ultimate and foundational identity is indeed in Jesus and under His grace — not in our sin, or our sexuality, our GPA, our job or any other factor.”
“I answered their understandable misunderstandings of us with the clarity of the Church, their pain with the compassion of Christ and their emotion with the loving truth of Law and Gospel,” he said.
Josh Ralston, a pre-seminary student at Concordia University Nebraska, in Seward, Neb., attended UNWRAPPED in 2013 and returned for TABOO this year. He said that seeing the Rainbow Alliance group and hearing from the presenters gave him much to think about. One theme in particular, he said, put things in perspective for him: “The struggle for homosexuals is the same struggle that I share: that we both are tempted, although in different ways.”
“I have messed up before … these people have, too,” Ralston said. “So we are on the same level of being a sinner. I am not better than them, and they are not better than me. We are brothers and sisters in this struggle that we call life, and the only cure for the disease that we call sin is Christ. And only through Him are we to have any comfort.”
‘That changes everything’
Worship also was a focal point throughout the conference, offering a time for students to pray, receive forgiveness and spend time in God’s Word, especially amid the heady topics being discussed.
Each day began and concluded with a worship service, some taking place late in the evening in the lobby of the conference hotel, where young adults and their pastors gathered to pray Compline together.
On Epiphany (Jan. 6), attendees received the Lord’s Supper at the Chapel of St. Timothy and Titus at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where Village Lutheran Church, Ladue, Mo., served as the host congregation as LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison preached.
Conference cantor Paul Soulek, who serves as cantor at St. John’s Lutheran Church and School, Seward, Neb., noted that the week’s worship services were planned with thought and care for those in attendance.
“Just like planning music for a Sunday morning, music at TABOO was chosen for real people living real lives in a real sinful world,” he explained. “We sang of our sinfulness, Christ’s free and full forgiveness, and prayed that God would strengthen us for lives of mercy and service.”
Most importantly, he noted, “We sang of our ultimate identity, which is Christ!”
On the final day of the conference, Zill served as preacher, reminding the college students that “You are not taboo to Jesus. You are not taboo because of Jesus. You, dear loved ones, are not forbidden in the kingdom of God. You are the body of Christ. Jesus is your groom. And, oh yeah, He is coming for you. Now that changes everything.”
A photo gallery from the TABOO conference can be found here.
If you are interested in learning more about the topics discussed at Taboo, please watch for the March issue of The Lutheran Witness, which will feature brief articles explaining many of the presentations given at the conference.
To read a brief editorial recap on TABOO from college student and attendee Bethany Woelmer, click here.
Adriane Heins is managing editor of The Lutheran Witness and editor of Catechetical Information for LCMS Communications.
Posted Jan. 12, 2015 / Updated Jan. 27, 2015
Wonderful to hear ‘preaching’ to someone who’s not ‘in the choir’. Concerned about sending my high schooler to an East Coast college; will students in far flung locations be able to be involved in this group?
Thanks, and may our Lord bless your work!
Thanks for your reply. I’m the Director of Campus MInistry and LCMS U.
Of course, any college student can come to one of our conferences but the best thing to do is to get your son or daughter involved at a local LCMS campus ministry wherever they go to school.
You can see a listing of all of our LCMS U chapters at our website.
Please e-mail me if I can be of further help.
Pastor Marcus Zill
My daughter, a Valpo grad, and now Christian Life Director at a LCMS congregation alerted me to this article. I’m also a Valpo grad, and completed graduate studies at the Univ. of AL-Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. As a professional I practiced counseling from a “Christian perspective” both domestically and overseas. Thank you for what you are doing–I will spread the word!