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YouthCon 2019 will challenge students to go deeper

Youth spend time in worship at Named 2015 in Denver. Intentional planning for YouthCon 2019 is intended to encourage spiritual growth through sessions and speakers, participation in labs, learning in community and having fun in a camp setting, says event co-director Neil Bontrager. Photo: Vance Frick

Mennonite Brethren high school students from across the United States will gather April 3-7, 2019, at Glorieta Camps near Santa Fe, New Mexico, for YouthCon 2019, the national USMB youth convention that happens once every four years. How does a team plan programming for such a gathering?

According to Neil Bontrager, co-director with Kyle Goings, you recognize that each student comes to the event at a different place in his or her faith journey and you strive to make sure YouthCon 2019 is a time when each student is invited to take the next step.

Bontrager says programming is in place to encourage spiritual growth through sessions and speakers, participation in labs, learning in community and having fun in a camp setting.

“Knowing that (we’ve) got kids there that may be all along the spectrum of commitment to their faith, we want to provide opportunities for a student, no matter where they are, to take a step deeper,” Bontrager says.

A typical day at YouthCon will feature breakfast, personal devotional time and a general session followed by youth group breakout sessions. Afternoons will be open for recreation and free time. Evenings will include a general session and a late-night activity. Hosts for the event are Sara Jo Waldron, Scot Pierce and Hallie Bontrager. Ryan and Bri Wallace from Wichita, Kan., will serve as worship leaders. 

Speakers chosen for their expertise

Six sessions will highlight the event: one Wednesday, two Thursday, one Friday and two Saturday.

According to Bontrager, sessions will begin with a wide overview of faith and will gradually narrow in scope, covering the basics of faith, from what it means to be a follower of Jesus to being a fully-committed Christian.

The leadership team decided the focus of each session, then hand-selected individuals to speak on those topics in accordance with their areas of expertise and gifting. Having a handful of speakers will bring variety, Bontrager says, but programming will follow an overarching narrative.

“We’ve come up with this lineup of speakers that are gifted and really called, I think, … to speak on the subjects that they’re speaking about,” he says. “We’re hoping that what we’ve done here is (to) put speakers in spots where they’re giving their best talk. We feel like the bar is raised.”

Ryan McCullough and Kat Smith, both members of One-Time Blind, will be speaking at YouthCon 2019. One-Time Blind was involved in the 2015 national youth conference in Denver.

Ryan McCullough, leader of OneTimeBlind, a Detroit-based ministry that creates art to help modern-day Jesus followers think deeply and talk openly about God, will set the stage for understanding faith by giving a narrative overview of the kingdom, encouraging listeners to view their history as God’s story and themselves as active participants—actors with a few pages of the script—in that story.

Kat Smith, also with OneTimeBlind, will speak about God’s love and students’ place as God’s children and will lead an invitation to know Jesus.

Bill Hogg, national missiologist for Multiply, previously C2C Network, will call students to experience Jesus daily, showing what it looks like after a person has made a commitment to follow Jesus.

Tam Hodge, a Los Angeles-based author and speaker, will speak twice, sharing her personal testimony of growing up in an abusive home, addressing feelings of unworthiness and showing how God can use imperfect people.

Randy Friesen, president of Multiply, formerly MB Mission, will speak about ministry and mission.

“Hopefully we’re all moving toward a more committed place,” Bontrager says. “We want to reject the notion that the highest commitment to faith is a pastor, a worship leader or a missionary…. You can be extremely committed to your faith and work in a secular workplace. It’s a matter of the heart, and it’s a matter of a focus.”

Labs ranging in topic from leading worship to handling money to sharing your faith will replace the general session Friday morning. Labs will feature interactive elements for smaller groups of students, and information will be presented with a hands-on approach. Lab leaders are still to be confirmed.

“We know that five-senses learning is way more effective and certainly way more fun than lecture style,” Bontrager says. “So as we are creating these lab experiences, we’re trying to find people that will lead them that understand five senses kind of experiences.”

New features include camp setting

A variety of new features are planned for YouthCon 2019, including a return to a camp setting designed specifically for large groups of students. In recent history, YouthCon has taken place in urban centers with the intent to provide opportunities to serve the urban poor as part of the event. Reality, however, did not always match the ideal, Bontrager says.

“What we found in Denver was that we had quite a few students raking leaves for the city parks, and that was the service project,” he says. “Sitting back and looking at that, we thought, ‘We’ve missed the mark a little bit on that, so let’s retool.’”

Project:Serve, which encourages students to create local service campaigns funded by USMB Youth grants, has replaced the service project element at YouthCon; however, the topic of service will be addressed, Bontrager says.

Additionally, the schedule for YouthCon 2019 has been adjusted to allow a travel day at the conclusion of the event. Programming will start with a Wednesday night session, as opposed to starting on Thursday, and ends with a late-night event on Saturday. Youth groups will spend Saturday night on the property, but there will be no events on Sunday, allowing ample return travel time.

About Glorieta Camps

YouthCon promotional material, including a large map and poster, has been sent to USMB churches.

The 2,400-acre campus of Glorieta Camps is located 15 miles from Santa Fe, N.M., in a dry steppe climate with chilly winters and hot summers. The altitude at Glorieta Pass is 7,500 feet.

The camp can house more than 2,000 overnight guests in a variety of room accommodations. While capacities of each room vary, the average room can house between four to six students. Students can choose a roommate and request groups, Bontrager says.

The camp offers a variety of places to gather and relax. Many lodges have communal areas, and the camp also features coffee shops, hammocks, courtyards, a prayer garden, scenic overlooks, trails and waterfront areas.

Meals are included in the cost of registration, and camp kitchen staff will work to cater to dietary restrictions, Bontrager says.

Free-time afternoon recreation activities abound, with more than 35 options around the camp, including basketball courts, foam pits, gaga ball, blacklight dodgeball courts, nets, ropes and ziplines and cycling, among other things, Bontrager says.

“We have the run of the camp,” he says. “There are more activities to do than what we have people to do them.”

Teams in place

Teams dedicated to areas such as medical, registration, housing, programming, and pastoral care are in place, Bontrager says.

The following individuals, with Bontrager and Goings, comprise the event leadership team: Jeral Gross (accounting/finances), Christy Goentzel (registration/housing), Amy Doane (marketing/PR communications), Stephen Humber (pastoral), Byron Funk (programming), Tammy Ratzlaff (hospitality), Terry Ens (recreation/LateNite) and Brady Bergman (medical).

The pastoral team, led by Stephen Humber, mission mobilizer with MB Mission, has covered the event in prayer the past year and a half. The team will be on site to lead prayer groups and the morning devotional as well as provide a pastoral presence for anyone in need, ranging from students to youth leaders.

Registration for YouthCon is $395 per person and includes everything but transportation to Glorieta. To register, or for more information, visit:

Download the USMB Youth app to stay up-to-date on YouthCon news and announcements. The app will include a session guide, information for navigating YouthCon and a way to communicate and coordinate activities while in Glorieta, Bontrager says.

The leadership team has been purposeful in its planning, recognizing the responsibility of organizing a once-every-four-years event.

“This is valuable time, so to make the most of the opportunities in a spiritual sense, in a discipleship sense, is a responsibility we take very seriously, even though it’s couched in fun,” Bontrager says. “It certainly will be (fun)—that environment is certainly part of any youth ministry event that does its job well, but also we don’t want just to be light and fluffy. We want to have lots of depth. We want to have lots of impact, and I really do think that this is going to be an event that has that to it.”

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