SPRING HILL — About 25,000 teens attended the 12th triennial National Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Youth Gathering in San Antonio, Texas, earlier this month. Eight members of the Forest Oaks Lutheran Church youth group were among them.
Seeing that many teenagers — representing 49 states and 14 countries — come together to worship God was the highlight of the event for youth leader Russ Norris, one of four adults who accompanied the teens to the five-day event, July 1 to 5.
"In our congregation, the kids see 180 people (at a church service), so for them to worship every night for a whole week with 25,000 other people and share the music and praise songs and hear a different message each night is a whole lot more (inspiring) than everything else they saw all week," Norris said.
The theme, "Live Love(d)," was based on 1 John 4:9 in the Bible. Event coordinators provided the teens with lots of love-based activities by day, including packing and distributing meals, personal-care kits and school supplies for families in need; donating blood; writing thank-you cards to members of the military; and freely sharing hugs with friends and strangers alike.
Participants collected $100,000 for a special offering to fund more than 100 local service projects and outreach efforts, including an ongoing project to rebuild in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Participants learned how sin separates them from God and how God demonstrated his love for them by saving them through Jesus' death and resurrection. They also had opportunities to attend "Interest Centers" regarding topics that youth deal with, such as bullying and knowing how to trust God.
Each evening, the youth and leaders filled the Alamodome for events that included Bible study, guest speakers and taking communion together.
It was the fourth time the local church sent youth to the event. Norris said there was a "really good mix of serious and fun."
"We took one afternoon just to see a little bit of San Antonio," he said.
The group took a boat ride, during which they learned the history of the city, and visited the Alamo and the 750-foot tall Tower of the Americas.
Logan Braun, 15, said the trip provided an "amazing experience" for him. He learned that it's easy to put things like playing video games before God and that it's important to keep his faith.
"I'm grateful for a church to come back to every week," he said.
Maddie Lewis, 14, said she was clueless about what love really is before the trip. She also admitted to having distractions from her relationship with God.
"My distraction is texting," she said. "I never realized I was so distracted from God. But now I understand, and I will stop and focus more on my faith."
Alex Nelson, 14, thought the trip was a great experience.
"It was so much fun to meet the thousands of great people," he said. "The music and the energy from everyone was one of the greatest things I have ever experienced in my life."Christina Lewis, 16, plans to attend the next Youth Gathering event, scheduled to be held July 2016 in New Orleans. Even though she will be too old to attend as a participant, she will offer to go as a volunteer.
"What is love?" Christina asked, referring to the first day's theme. "My answer is: 25,000 teens caring for each other, walking around offering free hugs, sharing with complete strangers where everyone is from and even creating a large swaying line full of hugs and singing to our amazing God."
Casey Braun, 17, agreed.
"It was an amazing display of God's love for us all," she said.The event will have a lasting impact on the teens, Norris thinks.
"Without a doubt, they all heard or saw something . . . that they will always remember," he said.
At a recent church service, the Rev. Glenn Fischer, who also chaperoned, told his congregation that he was encouraged by the event.
"Oftentimes, we look at young people today and say that our nation is going down the tubes, but I beg to differ," he said, noting that at the conference he could envision "the church of the next generation taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ out into the world and spreading that message of love so that the church does not die, does not fade away, but continues to grow and flourish."