The 2013 edition of the Big Tent event claims front-cover status this week. At least in number, however, Big Tent’s nearly 1,500 mostly adult participants come in a distant second place to the more than 5,200 mostly teenage participants who met in this year’s Presbyterian Youth Triennium, held July 16-20 at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
A collaborative effort between the PC(USA) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Triennium is held every three years. Attendees are high school age youth from around the country, plus a number of international partners.
On the Monday night preceding this year’s Triennium, speaking to the volunteers who would lead the youth throughout the next few days, Mark Yaconelli, author of “Contemplative Youth Ministry,” encouraged the leaders to support a week of “holy mischief.” He urged leaders to help kids be free and to remind them, “you’re here because someone loved you into the faith.”
Holy mischief permeated the week through fun, worship, relationship-building and learning. Each hour was filled with an activity, whether it was an outdoor game (think giant-scale lawn Scrabble), energizers before worship (don’t know what an energizer is? Ask a youth participant to show you one!), or youth trading pins and eagerly introducing themselves to each other while waiting in line for a meal.
Throughout Triennium, participants focused on the cohesive theme of “I AM,” delving into the “I am” statements of Jesus and remembering the Hebrews’ encounter with a God whose very name was “I am who I am.”
Neal Presa, moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA), greeted those assembled in worship and led all participants in saying “I am, because we are.” He noted that God has told them who they are and that they belong to God. He also led a lively afternoon discussion on the distinctions of the Reformed tradition and the hopes it brings to a 21st century world.
Participants contemplated this concept of “I am” with energy and power in daily worship. Preachers including Michelle Thomas-Bush, Theresa Cho and Claudio Carvalhaes brought Scripture to life, illuminating the many ways God had been made known in holy writ and in experience.
Each used his or her own distinctive style for delivering the Word. Thomas-Bush preached without a script, giving the impression that she was talking with the thousands of youth gathered, not to them. Outdoors in a hillside amphitheater, Cho retold the feeding of the 5,000 before all received communion at the table and shared the light of Christ with others by candle.
In the attire of a masked lucha libre wrestler, Carvalhaes entered closing worship tethered to a string of electric lights proclaiming the words of John 15 and the importance of remaining connected to the vine. After an energetic sermon that fired up some and seemed “too political” to many, he inspired everyone with his closing bellow, “We, the light of God, will guide each other home!”
At midweek, all small groups went late into the night and viewed the documentary “I am,” created by Bruce Almighty and “Ace Ventura” writer/director Tom Shadyac. The film asks, “what is wrong with the world?” and “what can we do to make it better?” Reflecting on the film, participants were encouraged to consider what it means to be created in God’s image and how faith impacts their choices.
The next day, all participants helped package 150,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now, an international hunger relief agency, and were prompted to explore the prevalence of hunger around the world and in their own country.
Small groups further delved into the “I am” theme, attempting to answer for themselves Jesus’ pivotal question to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” They contemplated how they might live differently with a better understanding of Christ as the bread of life. And they prayerfully considered what they were called to do upon returning home.