Five hundred and ninety youth and sponsors awaited with anticipation the start of YouthCon 2019 as more than 16 million LED lights brightened the screen on stage in the Holcomb chapel.
With the house band providing background music, a video depicted traveling the mountainous road to Glorieta Adventure Camps near Santa Fe, N.M. Cheers from students echoed through the 3,000-seat chapel, which had been transformed by Chris Glanzer and his tech team into a concert-like venue. The screen went black, and Presence Worship led students in an opening song.
Strobes shone into the audience as anticipation continued to build. Emcee Sara Jo Waldron, youth pastor at Hillsboro (Kan.) MB Church, welcomed students to a week of going “all in” with Jesus. Waldron introduced the theme of “Together,” one of the values event planners hoped would be reinforced by returning to a camp setting this year.
“Something wonderful happens when hundreds of people gather together in one space to lift high the one and only name that saves,” Waldron said. “This week, our theme is ‘Together’ because we believe when people gather together in the name of Jesus Christ, things change.”
And with that, YouthCon 2019 was officially underway as the crowd cheered the emcees’ choreographed routine and the house band’s rendition of “We’re all in this together” from the movie High School Musical.
Over the next three days, general sessions followed a continuing, overarching narrative that invited students to find their place in God’s story and to evaluate necessary changes in their lives to move into a deeper relationship with Jesus.
Event co-planners Neil Bontrager and Kyle Goings handpicked speakers to provide messages that would speak to students from all walks of spiritual life and provide opportunities to make commitments to deepen their faith.
In addition to speakers, Detroit-based OneTimeBlind (OTB), a ministry that creates art to help modern-day Jesus followers think deeply and talk openly about God, performed thought-invoking drama shorts that corresponded with the theme of the messages.
After each session, students met as youth groups to discuss the session and to process their responses.
Ryan McCullough: Life is a story
During the opening session Wednesday night, speaker and OTB leader Ryan McCullough provided a big picture overview of God’s story. Referencing Ecclesiastes 3:11 and Isaiah 46:9b, McCullough invited students to lean into God’s story as following Jesus gives life purpose.
Questions of “Who am I?” or “Why am I here?” find their answers in knowing the rest of the story, McCullough said, sharing his call to ministry with OTB. Rejecting the temptation to do life on his own, McCullough accepted God’s story for his life.
“We get our bearings in the world through story,” McCullough said. “It might feel like we’ve lost our story, but we’re going to hold fast to this truth that God is in charge, and there’s a larger story.”
Kat Smith: An introduction to Jesus
OneTimeBlind member Kat Smith continued the narrative Thursday morning by introducing people to Jesus, who died so we could have life to the full, giving life joy and purpose.
Through a skit, McCullough, Smith and fellow OTB members Drew Smith and Laura McCullough portrayed Jesus as a friend who desires involvement in our daily lives instead of rigid adherence to religion. The cross is where life begins, not ends.
“Sometimes Jesus is right in the middle of our story, but we just don’t see him,” Smith said. “Or maybe it’s just that we have never been introduced to him. I love a Jesus who smiles and laughs. … A Jesus that came to bring joy to a troubled world. A Jesus who loves us uniquely and deeply.”
Reading from John 9, Smith told the story of a man born blind—he couldn’t see Jesus but still believed because Jesus was right in front of him.
“It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what it is we’re living for,” Smith said.
Bill Hogg: Trusting Jesus
Thursday night OTB illustrated choosing who to serve, laying down baggage and trusting Jesus with a series of skits involving walking the line between good and evil, carrying burdensome bags of trash and a trust fall. The skits paved the way for Bill Hogg’s message calling students to a radical trust in Jesus who declared victory over evil by the cross.
“(Jesus) came from heaven so that you can become fully alive,” said Hogg, Multiply national missiologist.
When Jesus died on the cross, not only did he forgive sins, he also dealt a blow to the forces of darkness, Hogg said, referencing the spiritual warfare in Mark 5:1-20.
According to 1 Corinthians 6, we were bought with a price and our life is no longer our own, Hogg said.
“Will you go all in with Jesus?” he asked. “Not minimal, not in the shadows, but full on, all in. Because that’s the recipe for the passionate life—the kingdom life—is to go all in with Jesus.”
At Hogg’s invitation, students filled the area in front of the stage to commit to being “all in.”
Tam Hodge: Freedom in confession
Los Angeles-based author and speaker Tam Hodge used her own journey to emphasize confession leading to forgiveness Friday night.
Sharing her personal history of abuse, alcohol and drugs, Hodge said her two abortions brought the most shame and guilt.
“Just because you make mistakes doesn’t make you a mistake,” Hodge said. “But I thought I was a mistake that wasn’t worthy of love, happiness.”
Hodge found Jesus, who encouraged her to confess her abortions to her husband, friends and children.
Hodge encouraged students to take their secrets to God, then OTB revisited the trash bag skit. Kat laid her trash at Jesus’ feet but held onto her guilt, later returning to the stage to lay down her guilt.
During a group confession time, Hodge encouraged students to speak a secret on the count of three, not to be heard but to receive power by naming it.
“Sometimes we don’t know how much courage we’re made up of until we step into that fear and we conquer it by calling it out,” she said. “Confession frees us, it equips others, and sometimes it frees others, too.”
Tam Hodge: A new identity in Jesus
Hodge addressed students again Saturday morning, focusing on students’ identity as God’s children.
“God has always been faithful,” she said. “He’s never not been there. He’s always provided, he’s always shown up, he’s always blessed, he’s always encouraged.”
Roadblocks that prevent us from embracing our identity in Christ include negative self-talk and the weight of guilt, shame and secrets. Like a ceiling fan covered with dirt only visible when the fan stops spinning, Hodge said we often ignore the baggage we carry with us.
“We need to slow down long enough to be reminded of whose we are—children of a perfectly capable God,” she said. “We are strong because (God) is strong. We are capable because he is capable. … He is a good Father, and he delights in beautiful things—us.”
At the conclusion of the session, everyone encircled the chapel’s perimeter for a time of communion led by YouthCon pastor Stephen Humber. Leaders served the bread and cup—an act reinforcing the “Together” theme and acknowledging God’s goodness and love.
Randy Friesen: Following Jesus
Randy Friesen, president of Multiply, concluded programming Saturday night by extending an invitation for students to follow Jesus. He introduced Tim Peters who shared about his call. As a high school student from Hillsboro, Kan., who attended Glorieta ’87, Peters made a decision to follow Jesus wherever God led, and that commitment led him to ministry in inner-city Los Angeles.
A OTB skit depicting ownership of a “decision-making stool” illustrated the choice believers have to surrender to Jesus or continue to do things on their own.
Referencing three types of people in Scripture, Friesen showed that God calls and uses anyone—good people like the rich young ruler in Mark 10:21, misunderstood people like Levi in Matthew 9:9, or disappointed people like Peter in John 21.
“Jesus looks us right in the eye and says, ‘Follow me.’” Friesen said. “Have you ever said yes to that invitation?”
At the conclusion of his message, Friesen invited students to make a commitment to say yes to Jesus. With youth leaders lining the balcony and extending their arms over students below, Friesen led a collective commissioning prayer.
Then, the eight-member, Wichita, Kan.-based Presence Worship Band led by Ryan and Brie Wallace and Jake Stemo led students in several songs as they had throughout the week. Students gathered at the foot of the stage, alternately dancing with enthusiasm and lifting hands in reverent praise.
The house band joined Presence Worship for the final songs. Led by James Isaac of First MB Church in Wichita, Kan., the house band played popular tunes as people entered and left the chapel and provided music during the “Things we’ve learned at YouthCon” overview of each day.
But on this closing night, the two bands played as one the popular “Marching On” by Rend Collective. Students poured onto the stage, where they jumped and danced with arms raised. It was a fitting curtain call to a spiritually-charged and life-transforming week.
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.