By Pastor David Vandercook
The mission of Higher Things is to assist parents, pastors, and congregations in cultivating a distinctly Lutheran identity among their youth and young adults. As a pastor who’s brought groups to Higher Things Conferences for the past five years, I can say with confidence that this is precisely what happens at Higher Things Conferences each summer. This summer, as we anticipate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, the theme “Here I Stand” was especially appropriate.
At Higher Things, when it’s time for worship, we worship. Each time the opening Divine Service begins for a Higher Things Conference, I’m taken aback by the sheer volume of the singing, as 300+ voices are joined together. What is sung is nothing other than the hymns and the liturgy of our church. There are hymns from throughout history that deliver to us Jesus, who lived and died for us that we might have life in His name. This continues through all the services: Matins each morning, Vespers each afternoon, Evening Prayer each evening, Compline before lights-out each night, and the closing Divine Service on Friday afternoon before everyone goes home. All of these services (taken directly from the hymnal, by the way) deliver to us the goods of the cross—the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation—through the proclamation of the Word, faithful Law-Gospel preaching, Holy Absolution, and the giving and receiving of the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Likewise, when it’s time to learn, we learn. In the first half of the Conference, our plenary sessions went through a timeline of history that stretched from the birth of Christ to today. Dr. Carl Fickenscher showed how significant the Lutheran Reformation was, even though it only consisted of 50 or so years on a timeline that stretches for over 2,000 years. It was made clear that the story of Martin Luther and the Reformation was not just all about Luther, but rather it is a story about Jesus. It is about how the gifts that Jesus won on the cross make it all the way to us here in 2017. During the second half of the Conference, Pastor Aaron Fenker took us through the four “Solas” (Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone) of the Reformation. We were reminded that Christ saved us by grace alone through faith alone in Him alone, and that all of this is revealed to us in Scripture alone.
Then there are the breakout sessions. These offered a wide variety of opportunities to learn about just about every topic under the sun. What do you want to learn about? Want to hear about God’s Word says about things like dating, marriage, homosexuality, and women’s roles in the church? Want to learn about exorcisms in the Lutheran church or more about Luther’s teaching on vocation? Want to learn about what other religious groups like Mormons, Mennonites, and the Amish believe? How about learning about the history or structure of the Lutheran liturgy or learning a bit about playing the pipe organ? Higher Things has it all covered. I think the most difficult thing that many of my kids had to do during the course of the Conference was make some tough decisions about which sectionals they would attend! While the conferences are for youth, adults would and do find themselves right at home in these, too.
Finally, when it’s time to play, we play. While the schedule each day is rigorous, there’s also time to play at Higher Things. Each evening provided something for everyone. Some participated in the Medieval Fashion Show, the chant-off, or the talent show. Others played board or card games. Still others had the opportunity to play basketball, volleyball, nine square in the air, or archery tag. We were even treated to a fireworks show in Mars Hill on Independence Day.
Higher Things is like all other youth events in that it does all the same things that any youth event does: it allows for fellowship between youth. A Higher Things Conference provides youth with the opportunity to meet new people and to have fun. The congregations that I serve are small and located in areas where there very few Lutherans around in general. It’s always good for the youth I bring to see that they are not alone in this world. Here is where the similarities end, really.
With Higher Things, there is so much more than that. Higher Things conferences do exactly what they say they do. It is unapologetically Lutheran. It doesn’t just tell kids that they are Lutherans. It teaches kids what it means to be Lutheran. And most importantly, it teaches why it matters to stay a Lutheran.
Pastor Vandercook serves Shepherd of Peace Lutheran Church in Maumelle, AR, and Trinity Lutheran Church in North Little Rock, AR.