Teen-agers find worship experiences that speak to them at Youth Triennium

“You sit through the service,” said Elizabeth Virkler of Columbia, Mo.

“You draw pictures in the bulletin,” said her friend, Emily Kennedy.

“And then it’s over,” Elizabeth said.

The 2001 Presbyterian Youth Triennium brought 6,000 teen-agers to Purdue University in Indiana July 24-29 for their own Christian reality show — a spiritual experience of what happens when you drop thousands of teen-agers onto a college campus far from home and immerse them with fill-up-your senses worship and chances to share their faith. For people accustomed to a straightforward hour in the pew on Sunday mornings, this was like a window into the Presbyterian church that often is not.

Here, young people traveled from across the world to worship with arms raised and guitars rocking and Scripture readings segueing to video clips (try an up-close, jaws-snapping takeout from The Crocodile Hunter) — worship that’s not even a close cousin to the buttoned-up style many encounter in their own congregations Sunday after Sunday. One morning, instead of a sermon delivered by a silver-haired preacher, these young people saw a dramatic depiction of Jesus being nailed to the cross.

These could be some of the leaders of the next generation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — a denomination that’s losing thousands of members each year; in which the typical church is small and graying and worried about that; in which young people often leave after high school and never come back.

“I’ve never had a sermon that connected to everyday life,” said Kaleigh Morsink, a Canadian with a headful of tight blonde braids (she said she envied another girl with braids cascading down her back, whose hair was pink and a few other shades too). “At least in my church it’s always old-fashioned. I don’t understand the language they use.” To see Jesus’ teachings illustrated through drama — at one service, a take-off on Hollywood awards nights, with Jesus’ values competing with those of the world — “Oh, I’m loving it.”

It’s true these young people are not all alike — some of them do cherish the traditional old hymns, and many speak with respect and gratitude for those in their congregations who have shown them what it means to live a life of real faith. “It’s cool to have this one week of the year, but it’s not something you’d want to have every Sunday,” said Shannon Walla of San Antonio, who loves her less-than-100-members congregation, Good Shepherd church, where everyone knows her name.

But some teen-agers at Triennium got a taste of what they crave more of: worship with energy, faith that’s alive. This is not just a question of worship style, but of finding ways to connect with a generation accustomed to a world that’s fast-paced, multi-sensory, globally complex and interconnected. Many of these young people say they love their church and their God — but some long for more intensity than they get in church, something more personal and connected, something more than getting dressed up and sitting quietly in a pew week after week. They came to Purdue looking for an encounter with God — a life-changing encounter that was deep and emotional and raw, that had room not just for quick answers but also for confusion and doubts and questions.

Why don’t more young people go to church?

“A lot of it might have to do with doubts,” said Lucas Spath, a 17-year-old from Houston. Often church “does not preach to the youth that it’s OK to have doubts, these are your teen-age years — it’s to be expected.” When the young people see adults who are simply “gung-ho about Jesus,” — all faith, but no open questioning — it can scare them, Spath said, because they may not be sure what to think or what to believe.

Some of the teen-agers said that churches are too cautious about talking to young people about tough and confusing questions — about sex and relationships, about racism, violence, injustice in the world, problems within families, depression. One middle-aged Purdue employee, walking in for a regular day of work in the midst of all this teen-age frenzy, said she was raised Presbyterian but left in part because of the hypocrisy she saw in organized religion. Alicia Sitz, 17, said she came to the Triennium hoping for faith. “I’ve had a hard time,” said the Michigan teen-ager. “So I just keep coming to these things, hoping to get on track, hoping to feel something.”

Many of these teen-agers said they wanted to take what they’d learned at the Triennium and bring it back to their home churches, try to make some change. Some were enthusiastic; others less optimistic that they’d have much success.

Shouting out for glory

“Teacher, tell your disciples to stop being so loud — that’s a phrase you hear a lot in Presbyterian circles,” Anna Carter Florence, an assistant professor of preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia, said as she preached during opening worship. Florence used as her text the story, from the 19th chapter of Luke, of Jesus being led by a parade of palm-waving believers, then being rebuked by the Pharisees for his crowd being too rowdy. Jesus answers, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” — and “Even the stones will shout!” was the theme of this Triennium (or, as Florence put it, if the believers don’t tell the world about Jesus, “we’re going to see talking rocks.”)

Florence told the teen-agers she expects they’ve heard the be-quiet message in many Presbyterian churches, maybe being told “the youth group is too noisy, Sunday school is too rowdy, you can’t have that music you picked out.” Or “this is a church — we don’t do that here. We don’t have electrified, hip-hop, plugged-in, pumped up anything. We do things decently and in order.”

But Florence preached about the value of shouting out for glory, of celebrating the daily miracles of grace and God, of talking to people out-loud about Jesus, and not just in church. Sometimes people struggle and “sink down into silence,” she said. When they are in pain and can’t praise God’s glory, she said, they need to be with someone who can.

Jesus taught that “it’s OK to make a joyful noise in public about deeds of power” — and “when glory comes,” as it does every day, Florence said, changing all kinds of lives and giving ordinary people strength to fight their demons, then “the world flip-flops.”

When we see God working wonders in the world, “for heaven’s sake, lose the inside voices — try not to act like uptight adults,” she said. “Because it’s starstruck adolescent time here-and-now. And we need to show them how to behave at a parade.”

More than just a ‘mountaintop experience’

The Youth Triennium, which has been held at Purdue every three years since 1983, is a collaborative undertaking by four denominations: the PC(USA), Presbyterian Church in Canada, The Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The 6,000 youth who attend — ages 15 to 19 — represent each of the presbyteries. And 150 “global partners” — international students from more than 100 countries — came to tell of Christianity among young people in their homelands.

While the Triennium is intense, emotional, full of adventure — one night, the campus lawns were lit up by inflatable rides and fire-eating jugglers — organizers hope it will be more than just “a mountaintop experience,” that young people will leave with ideas and inspiration for building Christian community and breathing new life into their congregations at home. Young people at Triennium learn that there’s a bigger church and other ideas outside of theirs. One participant, who kept saying, “It’s so big!” came from a town of 2,400 people to a gathering more than double that size. Instead of being a “mountaintop experience” — something powerful and intense, then it’s over — the organizers think of it as a base camp, “something they can keep coming back to” and drawing from, said Gina Yeager, PC(USA) associate for Youth and Young Adult Ministries.

In their “quarry groups” — the small discussion groups to which each participant was assigned — some of the young people exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses, promised to support each other in prayer after they went home, made lists of changes they intended to make in their own lives. Some presbyteries are planning local Triennium worship services planned and led by youth.

But some of the young people said it will be difficult to translate what they’ve experienced and liked about Triennium to the folks back at home. “We have an old church,” said Sara Brown of Saline, Michigan. “This is more in sync with young people . . . instead of sitting in a pew of falling asleep.” Sitz, from Milan, Michigan, said she likes the idea of motion — of arm-waving and clapping and dancing during worship — but said “we’d have to bring it back real slow. There’s no way we could take all the energy of Triennium and bring it back. It would shock our church.”

‘Find it my own way’

Here’s some of what the young people got at Triennium that they may not see much of in worship at home. The Bible read in many languages. Film clips from movies they know. News footage from the real world out there — the Oklahoma City bombing, children starving, war, school shootings, ecological violence. Music from contemporary Christian bands that they can sing along with. Pure, energizing silliness (“Imagine we are stuck in a banana,” the recreation leaders told them. “Somehow we are going to peel out.” Or “a little Travolta — get your right hand up. Point and point, and then we do these little chop-chop things . . . Get your robot going here, eight counts. And then Saturday Night cheerleader.”)

But there were other elements woven in too. Moments of silence and contemplation. A choir singing Latin. Quieter songs, sung in harmony and rounds. “I go to probably the most liberal church in the presbytery, but we still don’t get up and shout like we do here,” said Spath, a 17-year-old from Houston. “I think that shouting has its place, but the quiet and peacefulness of the traditional worship service also has its place. You need the variety of both.”

For Tracy Jenkins, an 18-year-old from Zanesville, Ohio — who said “our church is very conservative, this is a nice change” — the glory she’s looking for has nothing to do with shouting or electric guitars or worship styles.

Tracy said she’s in church now because “my parents didn’t force it on me, they let me find my own way . . . They took me to church, but if I had questions they’d offer answers and possibilities,” but also let her search and question and explore on her own.

“To find my own way has meant so much more to me than having it shoved on me all my life,” Tracy said. “I go to church because I want to, not because I’m forced to.”

And she wants to because, when glory comes, as Professor Florence put it, Tracy feels a sense of wholeness. “It’s hard to describe,” she said. “But I felt there was something missing from my life. Sure, I had my parents and my family. But (without God), there was one piece missing.”

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