By Stacey Egger
On a sunny Wednesday morning in Houston, around 20,000 LCMS youth and adults heard God’s Word, confessed their sins, received absolution and the Lord’s Supper, and sang together during a Divine Service at Minute Maid Park.
This service was the culmination of the five days of the 2022 LCMS Youth Gathering, held July 9–13 in Houston. In a church body of around 1.8 million, Gathering attendees (13,500 youth, 4,500 adult leaders and nearly 2,000 volunteers, exhibitors and guests) represented more than one out of every 100 LCMS Lutherans.
“To see 20,000 young people and adults come together around the Lord’s Table, I say is truly a foretaste of the feast to come,” said one of many pastors who assisted in the distribution during the closing service.
“It’s a blessing to gather God’s people together in Houston,” said the Rev. Dr. Mark Kiessling, director of LCMS Youth Ministry. “We are thankful for the prayers and support of congregations, parents, pastors and church workers who made it possible for young people and adult leaders to be here.”
‘In All Things’
The theme of this year’s Gathering, “In All Things,” was based on Colossians 1:15–20. “In [Christ] all things hold together. … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” It was Christ that unified the Gathering’s thousands of attendees.
“I believe Jesus saves, and I know that other people who came here also believe that,” said Lily Rasmussen of Grace Lutheran Church in Pocatello, Idaho. “You feel alone in certain environments. My town is mainly a Mormon town, and so … it’s very encouraging to come here.”
Each of the three main conference days, held in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, began with Bible studies and featured dozens of sessions for youth and adults throughout the day.
“We tried to strike a balance between sessions on things they’re interested in hearing and on things they need to hear,” said DCE Mark Cook, who served on the Gathering Sessions team.
Session topics included heresies prevalent on social media; dating, relationships and sexuality; the Means of Grace; race relations in the church; anxiety and loneliness; abortion; vocation; apologetics and witness; and more.
When participants weren’t in sessions during the day, the enormous exhibit and recreation hall in the convention center provided opportunities to enjoy fellowship and learn about various LCMS ministries and institutions. Exhibitors included the LCMS, LCMS Life Ministry, LCMS Youth Ministry, Concordia University System (CUS), Concordia Publishing House and more.
Noah Freeman, a graduate of Concordia University, Nebraska (CUNE), Seward, Neb., who was working at the CUNE booth, said he first learned about CUNE at the 2016 Youth Gathering. He said the triennial event is “super important for networking” — both among the CUS schools and with other Lutheran organizations and ministries: “You get to connect and meet people, whether it be the Orphan Grain Train or LCMS Life Ministry.”
At the Museum of the Bible booth, attendees marveled at the world’s largest Bible — over 8 feet wide and weighing 1,094 pounds. “It’s pretty cool seeing how much effort people put into giving others information about Christ,” said Gabby Trevino of LifeBridge Church in Cypress, Texas, of the exhibit.
In the center of the exhibit hall, the Synod’s five U.S. regions and 35 LCMS districts were highlighted. Maizie Seltz of the Lutheran Church of Vestavia Hills in Vestavia Hills, Ala., said, “There are a lot more districts than I thought there were. It didn’t really click that … [the LCMS] is everywhere,” she said.
“Ask me about being a pastor … a deaconess, … a missionary,” read signs on tables at the LCMS booth, where church workers were stationed to chat with youth about church work vocations, as part of the Set Apart to Serve initiative. “I’m really impressed by the young people I’ve met here and excited that so many of them are considering church work,” said the Rev. Dr. James Baneck, executive director of LCMS Pastoral Education.
‘The bigger aspect of the church’
The Youth Gathering, which used to be called the “National Youth Gathering,” removed the “national” several years ago in order to more accurately reflect its attendance, which regularly includes youth from partner churches around the world — this year from 11 other countries.
The Gathering also worked this year to highlight the cultural diversity among LCMS congregations in America, all united into one church in Christ. These efforts took place under the banner of the MOSAIC initiative, which included a dinner on Saturday night attended by nearly 900 youth and adults from LCMS congregations, many of which are ethnically diverse.
“When we bring our youth to … smaller [LCMS] gatherings, they often notice ‘everybody looks a little bit different than us,’” said the Rev. Dawit Bokre, who was born and raised in Eritrea and now serves as pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Hayward, Calif. Bokre’s congregation worships both in English and Tigrinya (his native language).
Bokre said this week was different. “It was encouraging for our youth to see the bigger aspect of the church and to see the beauty of God that brings all of us together.”
Allison Ranzau of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Louisville, Ky., had collected signatures on her backpack of attendees from 11 states and one other country as of the first morning of the Gathering. “It’s amazing meeting so many other Lutheran youth and getting to know that there are people all over the world that I can connect with,” she said.
Spencer Hipp of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Duluth, Minn., took this concept to the next level. As of Monday evening, he had collected 611 signatures on his body — all in permanent marker, including one from every U.S. state and from countries as far as Spain.
“My mom is mostly OK with [the marker],” Hipp said. “She’s not a fan of the face signatures, but I’m not one to say no if someone requests it.
“The Gathering shows you that … all around the world, there are other people going through the same things as you, and you’re not alone. … Everywhere I go [Christ] is with me, and when I leave here, I’ll be connected with all these people for the rest of my life. I’m glad these experiences are going to last longer than the marker,” Hipp said.
Showing Christ’s love in Houston
Gathering attendees also participated in service projects at the convention center and around the Houston area. Youth groups donated blood, made recordings of books for CPH and worked with LCMS Recognized Service Organizations like Lutheran Braille Workers (preparing materials for people who are blind or visually impaired) and Orphan Grain Train (using recycled T-shirts, cloth and plastic bags to make diapers for families in need and sleeping mats for the homeless).
One on-site service project was hard to miss, due to the sound of hammers and sanders echoing through the exhibit hall. The national non-profit Sleep in Heavenly Peace guided youth groups through the process of building beds — around 50 a day — which were then delivered to children in the Houston area.
“It’s really fun building … and it feels good to be able to help a kid to not have to sleep on the floor,” said Connor Schwartz of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Sun Prairie, Wis. “Jesus helped a lot of people, and it’s wonderful that I get to help people too.”
Over the three full days of the Gathering, more than 4,500 participants were deployed across Houston to serve at locations such as Camp Lonestar–Pines Campus and the Houston Food Bank. Through off-site service projects and their presence in droves in downtown Houston, Gathering attendees caught the notice of Houston residents.
“Even just walking on the streets, there are people seeing us — random strangers. We’ll have conversations with a person who might not know what the church is. With these numbers, they can see how powerful it is, how God moves through 20,000-plus people,” said Irene Bensus of King of Kings Lutheran Church in Roosevelt, Minn., who served as a Young Adult Volunteer at the Gathering.
‘Christ is for you’
Each of the four conference evenings included a “mass event” (a gathering for all the participants in Minute Maid Park) featuring music, skits and keynote talks, as well as a special performance on Monday night by Christian pop duo For King and Country. Amid all the fun, speakers brought participants back to the central message: Christ in all things.
Texas District President Rev. Michael Newman addressed participants during the opening night of the Gathering: “Jesus is for you. For your highs, for your lows, in all things. Your Savior, Jesus, gave His life for you. You are His precious child. He rose up from the grave to give you eternal hope, and He holds on to you even now.”
Monday evening featured a talk by Christian rap artist Marcus Gray, known as FLAME. “Every person in this room, including myself, every person in the world — we all chose sin. We all chose death. Only Jesus Christ can come in and heal and restore that brokenness inside of us. And that’s exactly what He’s done for us. That’s why we celebrate Christ in all things. … In Jesus Christ we have peace.”
LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison preached at the closing Divine Service on Wednesday: “You are redeemed. You are His. Look to yourself, and you will never be certain of anything. … Look to Christ, and you will be absolutely, 100% certain. Why? Because Christ is for you. … In Him all things hold together. All things.”
Posted July 26, 2022