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Summer in San Antonio

Tens of thousands of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod youth will gather in early July 2013 in San Antonio for their national youth gathering. Above, during the 2010 national event, young people filled the Superdome in New Orleans. Photo credit: Nathan Harrmann

The Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, has seen a lot. It has hosted football games and basketball games, bull riders and marching bands, Paul McCartney and Britney Spears. But July 1-5, the Alamodome will fill up with guests again; and this time, it’s not for a sporting event or a concert, … it’s for worship.

Tens of thousands of young people will inundate not only the Alamodome for daily worship, but the entire city of San Antonio. Who are they? They are Lutherans — Lutheran teenagers, to be more specific.

Once every three years, a gathering of this magnitude takes place. While the host city may vary, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) National Youth Gathering tends to do one thing well: deluge the city with young people wearing brightly colored t-shirts, who have spirits for service and hearts for worship.

“The gathering really has an effect on the hosting city,” says Pastor Derek Broten of Woodbury Lutheran Church, Woodbury, Minnesota. Broten serves as the director of mass events on the National Youth Gathering Planning Team. Youth groups can be spotted in the city’s hotels and restaurants, exploring historical sites, and out in the community doing various service projects.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The LCMS National Youth Gathering attracts over 25,000 attendees. Every mode of transportation — besides, probably, airlifting — is used to transport people to the gathering each year.

This year, attendees represent 49 different states and 14 different countries. While the majority of them are high school youth, others include college-aged and adult chaperones, youth directors, pastors, as well as the many speakers, musicians, and event planners.

Live Love[d]

The theme of this year’s gathering is “Live Love[d].” Speakers, worship, and workshops will revolve around topics of being loved by Jesus and living out that love. “Often times, young believers feel like there are not a lot of people like them at school, or they don’t always get the sense that they have a bigger community behind them,” explains Broten. “It’s amazing for them to witness so many of their own in the same room, learning about this amazing love Jesus has for them, and learning how to carry that forward into their schools, churches, and communities.”

The conference themes will be lived out as youth go out into the community on various service project initiatives.

Each day of the event has a different subtheme (BE-Loved, Love LIVED, and Live LOVED are just a few). Theologians and authors will speak about these themes, musicians — both youth and adult — will sing about them, youth leaders will host small group discussions about them, and the themes will be lived out as youth go out into the community on various service project initiatives. And beyond all the living and loving, kids will go to dances and swim at the hotels, participate in a 5K run, tour the city, attend concerts, and play games in the convention center.

While admittedly many of these activities are tuned to teens, an aim of the event is to show young people what the community of Christ can look like. “A lot of people discuss teens and children as the ‘church of tomorrow’ or ‘the future of the church.’ However, I prefer to counter this term and recognize that teens and young adults are part of the church of today and are vital for this part of the life of the church,” says Matthew Harwell, member of the Christian education executive board and district coordinator for the Minnesota South District of the LCMS. “As more and more statistics shed light on a grim reality about the decreasing numbers of Lutheran and Christian teens who stay engaged after graduation, events like this work to counter the norms. By showing a whole new side of ‘church’ and the Christian life, teens might feel more compelled to continue attending and staying engaged.”

The National Youth Gathering aims to impact the young people the most, but the adult chaperones, pastors, and other leaders who attend will be challenged to grow as well. “The typical notions of their daily lives will be challenged, and the messages and myths of the world will be overturned and confronted for the adults, too,” says Harwell. “The adults will be stretched to deal with less sleep, yet to remain patient and loving in the midst of long days. Overall, the adults and the youth will be reminded of the love God has for them and they will be encouraged to love God and the youth [God has] entrusted to them in new, exciting, and challenging ways.”

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