Helpful Things: A Timeless Perspective on HT Conferences

By Sandra Madden

Editor's Note: Our reason for sharing this article from August 2008 is two-fold: We want to encourage you in your effort to foster a sense of anticipation in your youth for this year's Forgiven summer conferences AND we want to give a hat-tip to Sandra Madden, who has officially retired from HT after 19 years of service, most of which were spent investing herself into conference planning. While her article is a post-Amen conference retrospective her words here are timeless and reflect her Gospel-focused heart for youth.
 
Having just coordinated three Higher Things Amen conferences this summer, I have a few post-conference reflections to share. . .

Gotta Love That Worship

Once again, conference worship (10 total services in four days, plus nightly prayer at the close of the day in small groups) was a huge highlight of the conferences. Worship at HT conferences is pretty much the same as it is in many of our home churches all across the country, using the liturgy and hymnal. Yeah, and we find some pretty amazing organists. We’re pretty sure that Chris Loemker has an extra set of secret arms. Oh, and Pastor Cwirla wore his “bling” stole for the Divine Service at Amen–Irvine. But other than that, things are pretty normal.
 
Worship at HT conferences is not like a concert where you sing along with the band that actually drowns out the audience’s singing. The congregational singing--oh, the singing!!--is just. . . breathtaking. Hundreds of teenagers, singing hymns at the top of their lungs. In harmony, even!  Kids are supposed to require strobe lights, disco balls, and big-name (or big-name-sounding) bands, dramatic illustrations with movie clips on the big screens, etc. etc. etc. in order to get  interested in anything.  Not true!  They love the liturgy, they love hymns!  Chaplains took the opportunity at all three conferences to teach about different aspects of the service that might not be familiar to everyone. The Daily Services book also contained important information that taught about the services and practices as well.

At HT conferences, only LCMS pastors preach and lead the services, only LCMS musicians (clergy and laity) play the instruments and direct the choirs. All of the services are taken straight from the LCMS hymnal. That means you can go to church on Sunday, open up the hymnal and see the very same services we used at the conferences. The hymns we sang are all in there, too. And I'll bet your pastor would be tickled rose (the liturgical version of pink) if you asked him to lead one of those services sometime, or teach your youth group about the history of the liturgy.

Investing in Knowledge and Wisdom

Catechesis at the Amen conferences was also incredible. This year, we had two of our very best teachers leading the plenary sessions.  LCMS pastors, Rev. George Borghardt and Rev. Mark Buetow taught us about salvation’s achievement and delivery and faith’s response of “Amen” in our lives and vocations.  Their dynamic and approachable teaching styles reminded us that Lutherans don’t always have to be stodgy and straight-laced (and for those of us who are stodgy and straight-laced, it’s still okay to crack a smile once in a while).  And who can forget their free-time karaoke performances?? (No one, since they’re on YouTube!)  For six 45-minute classes, these pastors kept their youth audiences in rapt attention. I heard time and time again from kids (including ones I didn’t know) about how much they learned and grew from these sessions.

Breakaway and In-Depth Sectionals were also a hit. Conference attendees have the opportunity to choose an “In-Depth” sectional which meets for three sessions, as well as numerous “Breakaway” sectionals which are one-time sessions. The Catechesis Coordinators for each conference recruited a ton of great teachers from the adults registered to the conferences. There were sessions on just about every topic under the sun, all taught by LCMS pastors and laity. In total, there were 96 separate classes offered at all the three Amen conferences this summer!

Youth get to choose the specific topic they want to learn about, but all of the sessions teach meaty theology in an accessible way. Kids don’t need watered-down, children’s message-type lessons covered with a sparkly veneer of fun. They don’t need skits or video clips (skits on a screen) to learn.  They don’t need hands-on activities touching rocks or burning pieces of paper to learn. They just need to be taught and given some meat to dig their teeth into and inwardly digest. The learning opportunities at HT conferences challenge youth in their faith, teach them substantial theology, and equip them to make use of it in their everyday lives. And they do!

Plenty of Time for Play

This year was a little different as far as the fun and entertainment of the conference went. Instead of trying to herd hundreds of teenagers to a major venue for something fun (the Amen–Irvine beach party being the one exception), we brought in some different types of entertainment and let everyone just have fun in their own way. The campuses provided a number of different activities from swimming and soccer to line-dance lessons, movies on a theater screen, dodge ball tournaments, and the ever-popular karaoke! Ultimate Frisbee, Apples to Apples, card games, and just hanging out gave youth from all over the country (even the world) to laugh and get to know each other. And if a group didn’t want to do any of those things, they could go and do their own fun thing during that time block. It really doesn’t take wads of money and glitzy production plans for everyone to have fun!

And while the entertainment portion of the conference days are. . .well. . .entertaining, having fun is not the point. Countless youth will tell you that the worship was “fun” and the catechesis was “fun”. Fun in that context simply means they were engaged and interested in what they were doing. It wasn’t just something they watched happen but piqued their interest, and made them want more. If you think about it, when “church” is just another place to go to be entertained, play in a souped-up garage. . .er. . .praise band, listen to leaders of different denominations talk to you about morality, have fun, and hear a watered-down devotional (motivational) talk, then the place that has the coolest band, the biggest plasma screens, and the most motivating morality sermons will be where they go when they become adults--if they continue going to church at all.

That’s what happens when we replace the theology of the Cross for the theology of Glory. There are tons of places in the world where we can go to learn how to live with good, upstanding morals. There are even more places to go and be entertained in all sorts of ways. There’s only one place to go to hear the Gospel: to the Church, where that Good News is proclaimed in its purity and the Sacraments are administered in accordance with it.

And It All Comes Down To. . .

We do worship, work, and play at HT conferences the way we do because we want nothing but the best for youth and want to help Lutheran pastors, parents, and congregations to provide it for them and keep them coming to church, where God’s gifts for us in Word and Sacrament are being given out. These are the formative years when teens really develop a personal understanding of their faith, why would anyone want it to be shaped by the teaching of authoritative people who teach anything less than the pure Gospel of Christ and Him crucified for us?

Over the course of the last two decades in HT, Sandra Madden served as an officer on the Higher Things Board of Directors, Internet Services Executive, Conference Coordinator, Conference Executive, Deputy Executive, and Content Executive. She is deeply missed but we are happy and thankful for the years she devoted herself to our mission.

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