Rev. Dr. Matt Richard
I am no rookie when it comes to youth conventions and youth trips. Calgary, Seattle, Orlando, Estes Park, Southern California, and on and on: these are some of the places that I’ve brought some 200 different youth over the last 15 years. I’ve slept on a lot of church floors, eaten a lot of fast food, rented charter buses, and been to about every amusement park imaginable. I have also seen it all: Christian Rock Bands, Christian Rap Music, Christianized mosh pits, crowd surfing, Praise and Worship Bands, big projector screens, amped up decibels, dynamic speakers, Christian comedians, altar calls, and don’t forget fog machines. None of this though would prepare me for Higher Things.
Since I am new to The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (i.e., I colloquized, which means that I left my former denomination to join the LCMS), I was interested in taking the youth of my church to something different than what I had experienced before. Furthermore, according to national trends in Christianity, the younger millennial generation is seeking out and returning to the traditional and historical aspects of Christianity. Therefore, from what I could glean, Higher Things was exactly what I was looking for.
So, after a lot of planning in the church and connecting with other area neighboring churches, some 40 youth and chaperones from the region set off to Seward, Nebraska for Higher Things ‘Te Deum.’
While driving, I must confess that I feared how the youth would respond to Higher Things. I thought to myself, “Would the traditional aspects of Higher Things ruffle feathers? Would they be freaked out and overwhelmed by having to attend over 14 liturgical services in three-and-a-half days? Would they be turned off by the amount of teaching that they would receive?”
To my surprise, none of these fears came true. In fact, not a single youth asked to skip a session or a service, but rather, they attended every session and were typically early to the worship services. They even expressed in my post-Higher Things survey that the worship services were the highlight of their trip, even more so than the Wild West Water Park and the Omaha Zoo that we went to before and after the convention. Why was this so? I have a couple of theories.
The intent of a conference dictates the response
From the very get-go it was communicated to the youth and chaperones that we were at Higher Things not for a vacation or for entertainment reasons, but we were there to learn from the Word as we were grafted into the church’s historical liturgy. In other words, if a conference communicates at its opening session and through its marketing that it will be hip, cool, relevant, and entertaining, then the conference attendee will naturally expect to be entertained and will expect the entertainment factor to increase with the itinerary flow of the conference. Furthermore, if a conference goes this route of trying to ‘wow’ the conference attendee, then a consumerism mentality will develop leading the attendees to only attend that which appeases the consumeristic desire. Considering this, entertainment clearly was not the motive of Higher Things in its marketing or its opening service, but rather we were all there to hear the Word of God and to be pulled into the historical worship services of the church. It wasn’t about us, but it was about something more that we were a part of.
We were grafted into something bigger than ourselves
Secondly, in attending all the worship services, we encountered something that was totally foreign to our culture and every day lives: Matins, Vespers, Evening Prayer, etc… These services were conducted with albs, the sign of the cross, crucifers, bowing, a majestic organ, and robust chanting. Because of this, these services were not something that we could dismantle and take into our own religious experiences, but rather, we were taken out of 2015 and placed into another dimension where everything was different. At first I think this was a bit uncomfortable for many, but there was something matchless about singing complicated old songs with 1,000 other people from all walks of life. Indeed, there was something that intrigued the group. Was it the tune of the songs, was it the dynamic-ness of those leading, or was it something else? I believe that it was the fact that we were grafted into something higher and more developed than ourselves. Otherwise stated, these services were not wedged into our individualistic religious experiences or adapted to our modern sensibilities-like so many churches do today-but rather, we were inserted into something bigger and much older. We were implanted into the songs, melodies, singing, and theology of the historic church from the past and present, from North America to Africa. We were the church of the present, but also the church of the past. We were attending Grandpa and Grandma’s church; we were attending Martin Luther’s church; we were attending C.F.W. Walther’s church. We were of one voice with our forefathers and with literally millions across the world.
It all makes sense. Why would a conference attendee want to miss out on something like this? If it was merely entertainment, it could be accessed later on an iPhone. If it was just another religious experience, it could be watched on Youtube later.
Considering all of this, I am beginning to see first-hand what current research is assessing among the millennial generation, as well as what I witnessed with my youth. That is to say, in our every changing world, with its speedy technology and fast access to news and media, there needs to be a haven of security. There needs to be a ‘constant’ in a world of change. With all the blowing reeds in the wind, there needs to be that which does not bend, but stands firm. That constant is the historical church with her liturgy, theology, and unchanging confession of Christ-crucified for sinners, delivered in the unchangeable Word and Sacraments. This constant is not only found in many Lutheran Churches, but is especially found in and demonstrated by Higher Things.
Rev. Dr. Matt Richard is Pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Gwinner, ND. He and his youth group attended Te Deum – Seward.