This article has been updated to include a brief recap of the Saturday evening session. The May/June 2019 issue of Christian Leader will include full coverage of YouthCon. This issue of the magazine will arrive about two weeks later than usual so that we could include YouthCon coverage in a timely manner.
Day 4: Saturday evening
The YouthCon general sessions were designed to speak to the various places at which high school students find themselves: not yet followers of Jesus, new believers looking to grow their faith, Christians who are “stuck” at some point in their story and those who are actively looking for God’s direction — and anywhere in between.
General session speakers also talked a lot about God’s epic story and how our individual stories are part of this larger story. In the closing session Randy Friesen, president of Multiply, challenged students, wherever they were in their individual stories, to say yes to whatever it is they felt God was calling them to.
Friesen used stories from Scripture, his own life and the lives of people he’s met through his work with Multiply to encourage his audience to give God full control of their lives.
“Jesus looks us in the eyes and says, ‘Follow me,’” said Friesen. “Saying yes is the first step. Giving God our will, not just our sin—that’s a lot more challenging.”
Friesen invited the students to think about the things they had said “yes” to God about since coming to YouthCon and to offer those to God and to ask God to empower them to follow through on those commitments.
After Friesen prayed for the students, he invited the youth workers and other adults at YouthCon to go up into the balcony and to unleash a “big roar of prayer” over the students standing on the floor below them.
Friesen closed the extended prayer time with a blessing on the teens and asking God to make them a blessing in their families, in their schools and in the world and that they would live on mission
Presence Worship together with the house band closed the 2019 USMB national youth conference with a several songs as the youth and sponsors “marched out in the name of Jesus.” It was a loud and energetic final celebration of all that God had done during the week.
Day 4: Saturday morning
In her second message, Tam Hodge spoke about the man sitting by the pool of Bethesda as described in John 5. She spoke about two roadblocks that keep us from becoming well and embracing who we are in Jesus.
The first hindrance is negative self-talk. When we believe negative self-talk we become that and that is not who God created us to be. The second hindrance is the weight we carry with us. God wants us to slow down and realize he wants to carry our stuff.
Following Hodge’s message, Stephen Humber, the YouthCon pastor, led the group in communion. The students, youth workers, program participants and other guests circled the large auditorium and those who were servers brought the bread and grape juice to attendees. After explaining the connection between the events of Passover and Jesus’s Passover meal with his disciples, Humber read Scripture and prayed. The 698 YouthCon participants took communion and then sang together.
Humber reminded students of their commitments: “This is my God. These are my people. This is my mission,” said Humber.
Day 3: Friday evening
Reflecting back on a very powerful Friday evening session, the word that comes to mind is love—God’s love. At the very beginning, MC Sara Jo Waldron asked everyone to extend their hands palms up and say, “God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, I’m open to whatever you have for me.” And there was a lot of heavy stuff to process as Tam Hodge and One Time Blind teamed up for a powerful message.
One Time Blind set the stage with a skit that involved one character repeatedly kicking another character while a third person looked on. The “kicker” just kept kicking, in spite of his best intentions to stop and the efforts of the other two to help. The punchline: Don’t repeatedly put yourself in the same situation and expect things to change.
A second sketch involved Satan, identified by his sunglasses, interacting with the audience. The crowd shouted out first names, home addresses, phone numbers at Satan’s request before he moved on to asking the audience to recite nursery rhymes and candy bar commercials—which they did in unison. Things took a turn when Satan asked the crowd of more than 600 to recite one and then a second Scripture verse. The auditorium was quiet as only a handful of voices quoted the verses
“You’re at church camp,” said the actor playing Satan. “I’m surprised you don’t know this.”
The punch line: Whatever you surround yourself with becomes a part of you.”
One Time Blind members Kat and Drew returned to the stage, with Kat still dragging around the stinky bag of trash that she had refused to put down at Jesus’ feet the day before. By now the stench was much worse and Drew, joined on stage by Jesus, played by Ryan, continued to encourage Kat to give her burden to Jesus. Eventually she did and found great joy in her new freedom. Except, that she just couldn’t give up her guilt and she retrieved her guilt jar from the bag while Jesus took the rest.
Coming on stage as the One Time Blind team exited, speaker Tam Hodge began her message by reminding the crowd that we all struggle with something, even if we appear to have a perfect life. We struggle to accept God’s forgiveness because we can’t forgive ourselves, she said.
Hodges’s own struggles and her journey to embracing God’s goodness and love for her provided the groundwork for her call to confession.
“My underlying problem,” Hodge told the audience, “was that I kept a secret down in my heart. What got me past that was confession.”
To help her listeners better understand this secret, Hodge briefly shared her story of experiencing abuse as a child, being kicked out of home as a teenager, drugs, alcohol and promiscuity and marriage to a man at 19 who was 15 years older than her, only to be widowed eight days after their wedding.
But it was a decision she made three years before her marriage that served as the focus of Hodge’s message. That decision, when she was 16 years old, was to have an abortion.
“I had no idea what that one decision would do to me for the rest of my life,” Hodge said.
Her immediate response while still in the recovery room was to become so violent that it took her three hours to calm down. It was the most painful, frightening time of her life, Hodge said, and it filled her with shame. And yet it wasn’t bad enough to keep her from having a second abortion one year later.
Several years later when she recognized her need for Jesus, “I changed immediately,” Hodge said. She married again and has been married to Brent now for 28 years. While she told her husband about her past, she kept her abortions a secret.
“I became a master at hiding, at covering my feelings, at stuffing my emotions,” she said.
And then she became pregnant and the 11th and 13th weeks of pregnancy triggered something in her because those were the points at which she had her abortions.
“I believed that because I had done something so horrible, God wouldn’t let me go past 13 weeks. He was going to take that baby,” she said. When the baby was born, she didn’t want to look at, touch or love her daughter. “I knew the second I fell in love with her, God would take her as punishment.”
Hodge said, “Just because you make mistakes doesn’t make you a mistake. But I thought I was a mistake that wasn’t worthy of love or happiness. Fear pushed me there. I had built walls around me that I thought were protecting me but all they were doing was preventing me from healing…. The hardest person to forgive is ourselves because we know us like no one else besides God.”
At God’s prompting she told her husband about her abortions. “I gave him the gift of knowing me for the first time because I chose to get real,” Hodge said. “Confession freed me and I have not been the same since.”
The confession was so freeing that she told her best friends and one of those friends in turn told Hodge that she had also had an abortion, something she had never told another person. This friend’s response impacted Hodge greatly because it showed her the power of confession.
Hodge shared how difficult it was to tell her daughter and also her son when they were teenagers about the abortions. But choosing to tell her children in spite of her fears was important.
“Sometimes we don’t know how much courage we’re made up of until we step into that fear and conquer it by calling it out… Confession frees us, it equips others and sometimes it frees others too. It is worth it.”
Hodge said it again: Everyone has a secret. Take it to God. Let him navigate it with you.
Kat, with One Time Blind, returned to the stage again, still carrying her jar of guilt with her. “This is part of you I am,” Kat told Jesus. This time when Jesus again offered to take her guilt and shame, Kat let him.
“You were never meant to carry this,” Jesus said. “Kat, when I look at you I don’t see your sin; I see you. I love you. Find your identity in me.”
Hodge returned to center stage and reminded the audience of Jesus’s willingness to receive our trash. “There’s nothing you can’t take to him,” Hodge said. She also encouraged her listeners to be honest with one another and to tap into the power of confession.
“I’m a firm believer that the more you say it, the more you slay it,” she said. While we still carry the memories of what’s past, the memory of past mistakes will keep us tender and relatable.
So Hodge invited the audience to join in a confession exercise, saying once you’ve done something the first time it gets easier. She asked the audience to prepare to confess out loud “one thing that causes you to think people will disown you.”
But first she invited youth workers in the auditorium who were willing to share their confession to join her on stage. Youth workers and other YouthCon staff and program participants filled the stage. Then Hodge asked the audience to stand and to say out loud — or even whisper or mime — their confession on the count of three.
“Was that so bad,” Hodge asked when the room was again quiet. “It’s out! You are so loved and so treasured. You are never alone…. God has a plan for your story.”
Presence Worship led the YouthCon participants in celebrating God’s great love for them as they sang, “O, the overwhelming, never ending reckless Love of God.” It was a powerful and worshipful close to the evening.
Opening segments Friday evening included celebrating birthdays, “Stump the House Band,” “Things We’ve Learned at YouthCon” and a presentation by four representatives from Fresno Pacific University, the Mennonite Brethren institution in Fresno, California.
Youth groups met in their assigned locations for discussion following the session. Late night options were again available until midnight.
Day 3: Friday morning & afternoon
The Friday morning schedule offered a change of pace. Instead of a general session, the students and youth workers attended two of 25 labs—interactive workshops on a wide variety of topics.
Popular lab topics based on attendance included youth mental health issues, human trafficking, prayer, athletics and a panel discussing love, sex and dating. Other lab topics were immigration, artificial intelligence, pornography, Bible basics, sharing your faith, life after high school, worship and songs in the church, personal stories from Multiply workers, drama and storytelling, peace and conflict, finances and Christians and politics.
Presenters included missionaries and staff with Multiply, formerly MB MissionTabor College and Fresno Pacific University and seminary faculty and staff; Mennonite Central Committee staff members and members of One Time Blind and Presence Worship.
Lab coordinator Rhonda Dueck also worked with presenters and others to facilitate continued discussion Friday afternoon during free time about topics covered in the labs as well as topics students would have liked to talk about but weren’t included in the morning workshops. “No topic is off limits,” Dueck told the students when she announced the additional lab time.
While talking with Dueck earlier in the week, she noted the challenge while planning for the labs of meeting the needs and interests of a wide variety of students from different parts of the country and at different places in their spiritual journey. She also talked about the process of generating a list of topics to be discussed and recruiting experts who are knowledgeable in those areas.
One observation is that students were eager to engage with the topics as attendance at both sessions was consistent. A second observation is that presenters were creative in how they involved students in the labs. Students prayed and worshipped in new ways, watched videos, talked in large and small groups, completed personal inventories, thought about the ways in which people who are trafficked are vulnerable as evident among Disney princesses and were challenged by the gift of an Easter egg placed in open hands to think about how God can use their gifts and talents.
Friday afternoon was again filled with a variety of free time activities. While walking the short distance from the dining hall to the residence halls, one could see students spinning the wheels of drift trikes, playing miniature golf, throwing frisbees, laughing as they struggled up the trail on dirt bikes and playing volleyball. Other areas of the Glorieta campus were filled with students playing basketball, stacking milk crates, enjoying coffee shop drinks with friends, continuing lab topic discussions and just relaxing with friends.
Students could also spend time in the prayer room for an hour at the beginning and end of free time for a season of interactive prayer.
Day 2: Thursday evening
Thursday evening’s general session began with the daily list of “Things we’ve learned at YouthCon,” presented by the four MC’s, with the men dressed in kilts and riding stick horses, a nod to the Scottish heritage of that evening’s speaker.
FaithFront, a ministry for high school students sponsored by Tabor College and USMB and directed by Wendell Loewen, was highlighted. FaithFront is sponsoring a research project to determine where Mennonite Brethren youth are on their faith journey and while at YouthCon students can participate in the project by completing an online survey or participating in a focus group.
One Time Blind presented a sketch that considered how we serve Satan. The drama used a rope on the floor to illustrate the line that we walk, depending on where we are and who we’re with. Sometimes we think we can walk the line between serving God and Satan. The Satan character in the sketch said we only have two options. “If you’re not serving him (Jesus), you’re serving me.”
Presence Worship, a band comprised of friends from Wichita, Kansas, who lead worship and pastor in different churches, led the crowd in another energetic time of worship. Lead singers are Jake Stemo and Ryan and Brie Wallace.
A second sketch by One Time Blind explored what it means to trust Jesus in spite of our fears and served as an introduction to speaker Bill Hogg’s message, “Escape from the Walking Dead,” with Mark 5 as the text.
Hogg’s humorous stories regarding his Scottish heritage and his straight-forward choice of words connected quickly with the audience. “God calls us to a life of passion,” said Hogg, after telling the comical story of his emotional outburst while watching the movie “Braveheart” in a theater. “Churches in North America are filled with the walking dead,” he said. “Jesus has something radically different for us.”
Noting the passion of the hero of “Braveheart,” Hogg said, “Jesus is God’s freedom fighter. He’s come to release people from the power of sin.” Jesus came to deal with personal, cosmic and supernatural evil, said Hogg.
Moving to the story in Mark 5:1-20 of Jesus encountering a man possessed by an evil spirit called Legion, Hogg spoke of the importance of being aware of the warfare going on around us.
“We need to wake up to spiritual warfare,” said Hogg. “There’s a war. Two kingdoms are in battle—the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness.”
Hogg noted that Legion felt worthless—he didn’t have a name, but went by a number. “Have you swallowed the lie of who you are?” Hogg asked.
Hogg continued: “When Jesus comes to earth, his life of full-on obedience reverses the rebellion of Adam’s high treason. When Jesus died on the cross, not only did he forgive sins, he dealt a blow to the forces of darkness. Has Jesus shattered your darkness? Has he freed you from self-loathing?”
Legion had a “disruptive” encounter with Jesus, said Hogg and Jesus wants the same for each of us.
“Will you go all in with Jesus? Not minimal, not in the shadows but full on, all in,” asked Hogg. “Because that’s the recipe for the passionate life—the kingdoms life—is to go all in with Jesus.”
Hogg invited students who had never had an encounter with Jesus or who wanted to commit to being “all in,” to come to the front. Students responded, and the area in front of the stage filled with students and members of the YouthCon pastoral team as well as youth workers who prayed with the students.
“We want tonight to be a significant marker in your life,” said Hogg. He invited the audience to “linger in God’s presence and tell God how much we love him” as the seven-member Presence Worship band led in a final song.
“Raise a hallelujah to Jesus,” said band member Jake Stemo. “Let’s sing and shout together.”
The general session was followed by youth group breakouts, an hour-long time during which the groups processed what God had said to them during the evening.
The day concluded with late night activities scattered around the campus that included fire pits, a game room, coffee shop and retail store, dodgeball, crate stacking, drift trikes, mini golf and bag jump.
Day 2: Thursday morning & afternoon
Approximately 80 students and youth workers started the first full day of YouthCon with a 6:30 a.m. prayer time led by Stephen Humber of Multiply. Humber is leading a pastoral team at YouthCon that is praying on site and with and for youth workers and students.
Youth workers met with YouthCon planning team members during the breakfast time to get a heads-up on the day and the second general session began mid-morning.
The first half of the morning session covered a variety of topics — morning calisthenics led by the MCs, including JJ, who was the newest addition; an introduction to interactive prayer opportunities prepared by the YouthCon pastoral team; a greeting and introduction to Tabor College by Rusty Allen; a mixer during which participants were to take selfies with four or six people they didn’t know; and the story of the Mennonite Brethren shared by Wendell Loewen, FaithFront director and Tabor College Bible faculty member.
Loewen closed by inviting students to make the MB story their personal story by inviting Jesus into their lives, committing to a local body of believers and proclaiming the gospel to others. “Embrace the story. Love the story. Share the story. But most importantly, like those radicals years ago, live the story,” said Loewen.
Kate Smith, another member of One Time Blind, gave the morning message which incorporated two sketches by the four members of One Time Blind: Smith, Drew Smith, Ryan McCullough (who spoke Wednesday) and Laura McCullough.
Smith began by talking about first impressions, leading into a story of her impression of Jesus as a child, formed by a somber picture of Jesus on the cross that hung in her grandmother’s kitchen. She contrasted this picture of Jesus with a scene from the film version of the musical “Godspell,” in which various ordinary people are invited to meet Jesus and they do so with such exuberance and joy that they even fall into a water fountain.
“Sometimes Jesus is right in the middle of our story and we just don’t see him. Or maybe it’s 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,” said Smith.
Smith told the story from John 9 of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth. She focused on the end of the story and emphasized Jesus asking the man why he believed and the man’s reply that it was because Jesus was right in front of him. A sketch by One Time Blind illustrated the desire of Jesus to be part of our everyday lives and to go beyond just knowing Jesus superficially.
Smith invited the students to consider all that God has done for them so that “we can have life.” She told the students she would count to three and she invited anyone who wanted to make a commitment for the first time to follow Jesus or to renew their commitment to stand on the count of three. Many, if not most, of the audience stood.
“Know that you are deeply loved and you were created for a life of awesomeness,” said Smith, who then prayed as the Presence Worship band came on stage. The morning session closed with a song that “proclaimed and celebrated all that Jesus accomplished.” Smith’s joy and the enthusiasm of the band was contagious, and the morning ended with exuberant praise.
Thursday afternoon was the first of three afternoons devoted to free time. Glorieta Camps staff led some options, while other opportunities were self-organized. Students were everywhere on the camp grounds, hiking, playing miniature golf, disc golf, volleyball and basketball. Other guided options included drift trikes, archery tag, paintball, crate stacking, climbing, black light dodgeball and mountain biking and scooters. Students also congregated in the coffee and retail shops and common spaces.
Day 1: Wednesday
A banner proclaiming “You made it” greeted youth and sponsors from 34 USMB congregations to YouthCon 2019. Teens traveled by plane, bus and van to Glorieta Camps in New Mexico for the USMB national youth convention held April 3-6.
After registering and moving into their assigned residence, students explored the Glorieta campus and took advantage of numerous outdoor activities, including volleyball and basketball.
The first group activity was dinner. Plans to serve the meal outside were thwarted by cold weather and rain, so the 600-some YouthCon participants enjoyed their grilled burgers and sides in the Dining Hall. Meals are served family style at Glorieta and the kitchen staff runs an efficient operation.
Students met MCs Sara Jo, Scotty P and Hallie B at the opening session. They, with help from James and the YouthCon 2019 House Band, creatively introduced the theme of “Together.”
“When we gather in Jesus’ name … everything changes,” said Sara Jo. “This week we’re going to go all in — together.”
The worship time was led by Presence Worship of Wichita, Kansas.
Speaker Ryan McCullough, a member of the drama ministry One Time Blind, spoke of the importance of story, encouraging students to lean into the bigger story God is writing.
Stories are the way we think and stories shed light on our lives, he said. Sometimes life is challenging and we can’t make sense of what’s going on, similar to the feeling one has when starting to watch a movie 45 minutes into the film. That’s when we need to remember that there is a larger story that God is writing on our hearts, said McCullough, referencing Ecclesiastes 3:11, and that God is in charge, Isaiah 46:9.
“Story is how we figure things out,” said McCullough. “This is how God designed us. We get our bearings in the world through story…. 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.”
The day concluded with a Late Nite Party, also moved indoors due to the temperature. Students enjoyed music, dancing, glow sticks, fire pits and snacks.
The day concluded with a Late Nite Party, also moved indoors due to the temperature. Students enjoyed music, dancing, glow sticks, fire pits and snacks.